The worst piece of advice those of us in our 40s or older can tell teenagers is this: “If I did it, you can do it.” Who knows? In the past 23 years of teaching in the Chicago Public Schools, maybe I said it to my students. But success requires more than ambition and hard work.
Here’s the problem with that advice: success is complex. Success is a combination of ambition, hard work, opportunity, context, and timing. Sometimes, people who lack the first few components luck out by being at the right place at the right time.
In her best-selling book Becoming, Michelle Obama’s message is optimism. And our young people need this. She said during a Tonight Show appearance in December, “If you live like I did, a little working-class kid who made it to becoming the first lady of the United States, being a best-selling author, traveling the world, there is reason for hope.”
But we have to be realistic with our young people.
Michelle Obama’s path to and through college and law school worked out ideally because in many ways, she experienced an ideal path.
I’m not negating her struggles.
But when we give young people these stories of hope, especially those where every piece falls into place because of effort and result and luck, we must raise a consciousness of the systemic elements that contribute to success stories like Michelle Robinson’s and her brother’s.
These are just a few:
Families need a secure income that provides a living wage—and then some.
Michelle Obama’s father worked at the city’s water plant and is said to have been a Democratic precinct captain. In Chicago’s 1960s, these neighborhood political positions helped people gain access to secure employment with good wages. Even with a debilitating disease, Michelle Obama’s father provided for his family. Obama never writes about concerns about lacking money to pay the rent or light bill. She never mentions concerns about bankruptcy because of medical bills.
Too many families, including mine when I was a teenager, face the devastation of financial ruin because of medical bills.
In today’s world, jobs like the one Michelle Obama’s father had don’t come easily or at all. Today, minimum wage jobs without high-quality health insurance and long-term sustainability threaten a young person’s ability to secure life-transforming opportunities.
Families need secure housing in a safe neighborhood connected to a network of resources.
Obama’s family rented a small apartment above a family member’s home. She and her family never, according to the book, worried about being evicted. This home sat in the South Shore neighborhood with a park where her brother safely played basketball and where people of mixed incomes and races thrived.
What if Craig Robinson faced today’s reality as a young man of color in Chicago? What if the park provided more danger than basketball games? What if he faced harassment by cops?
In her neighborhood, Obama received piano lessons that took her downtown for a recital. She could reach out to her assistant principal who lived a few blocks away for a letter of recommendation to Princeton.
Years later, her parents inherited the property after her aunt an uncle died.
Today, there is lots of talk about opportunity maps. According to the Open Communities Alliance, these maps reveal conditions associated with success in life. Specifically, educational, economic, and neighborhood/housing quality play roles in young people’s path to success.
In Chicago’s South Shore community during the 60s and 70s, Michelle Obama’s surroundings could be rated high in all three.
Much of the research about today’s urban crisis stresses two solutions: a living wage based on the cost of living and affordable housing.
Michelle Robinson’s family had both of these secured.
Families need knowledge and access to the systems that can change young people’s lives.
Michelle Obama’s mother challenged the school when her daughter was placed in a dysfunctional classroom. Her parents chose to send their son to a private high school. They had the resources. Michelle went to a magnet high school. The opportunity to go then wasn’t as competitive as it is today. Both parents played active roles in deciding which college their children would attend. They had the means to pay a Princeton tuition.
Not once does Michelle Obama mention that she or her brother needed to work. She regularly mentions experiences where her parents or another adult advocated for her, mentored her.
So Michelle Robinson, the Southside girl, became a college graduate, then a law school graduate because of her ambition, hard work, opportunity, context, and timing.
She’s right: we need to instill in our young people a sense of optimism and hope. But we need to recognize the systemic factors —and the luck— that also lead to a first-generation college student’s success.
And that’s my disappointment with Michelle Obama’s autobiography. The path she documents cannot be followed in today’s world.
Young people can and should find inspiration in her story. I recommended the book to one of my aspiring students. She said she’d read it over winter break.
But the truth is the world that created Michelle Obama does not exist today.
So having young people believe that they, too, can become Michelle Obama creates blind spots and idealized expectations.
On her book tour, what Michelle Obama needs to clearly tell today’s young people from working-class or low-income families is this: “If I did it, you can do it. But you’ll have to do it a different way.”