‘When I first became a teacher, I didn’t think at some point I’d be interviewing the former First Lady of the United States. No, that wasn’t in my game plan,’ headteacher Jo Dibb tells me, in jest, down the line. In 2018, she welcomed Michelle Obama to her workplace, the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson school in North London, for a Penguin Talk, and one of a handful of UK events on Obama’s book tour for Becoming, her memoir.
That tour, which visited 36 cities in the US and the O2 Academy, Southbank Centre and EGA, as it’s known to its pupils, is now the subject of a Netflix documentary, Becoming. In it, we see Obama after the White House, with her family and on the road and – crucially – connecting with young women to share her story of how she became America’s first black First Lady after growing up in a working-class household in Chicago’s South Side.
It was for poignant reasons that Obama returned to EGA. During her first overseas solo visit as First Lady, in 2009, she visited the school. It was that visit, Dibb says, that ‘helped to shape her way of thinking about what she was going to do as First Lady. Her focus became very clear after that: it was about education for girls and inspiring other young women, from not the most advantaged backgrounds, into really thinking about their own aspirations.’
Six years later, she returned – this time to Mulberry School for Girls, a comprehensive in East London. There, she met pupils including Nusrath Hassan, who, at 22, is now a governor for the school – one of the youngest in the country – and a passionate activist for girls’ education. Along with Dibb, Hassan joined Obama on stage during her Becoming tour.
‘It was beyond exciting,’ Hassan remembers. ‘When you’re told Michelle Obama is going to come into the room, that’s one thing. But when you’re told she’s going to be on stage with you, that’s another feeling.’
Watch recordings back of that event now (the talk is available to view in full on Penguin’s YouTube channel) and you can hear the uproarious screams of excitement as Obama takes to the stage. ‘It was such a rapturous welcome,’ Dibb tells me. ‘She has that iconic status that is normally afforded to pop stars.’
But once Obama started speaking, there is a noticeable hush. ‘Our young women hung on every word,’ Dibb said. For Hassan, who recently graduated in law from SOAS and was part of the first generation in her family to go to university, Obama’s words were deeply galvanising. ‘She definitely helped legitimise my voice and the power of my voice,’ she says, recalling advice that Obama gave her and fellow students in 2015: ‘Never stop rising above all the noise to fulfil every one of your dreams.’
‘It was such a significant moment for many of us,’ Hassan continues, ‘her stories are so relatable, how she’s persevered, how she’s become the woman she is. They were something so many girls in my community could relate to.’
Both EJA and Mulberry are extraordinary schools. As Dibb puts it: ‘many of our young women face many challenges in their lives, many from disadvantaged backgrounds, and yet they achieve very highly.’ And while Dibb maintains that some of her pupils would have achieved impressive things regardless of Obama’s visit, her impact proved the importance of role models for young women of colour.
Hassan, who is also a trustee of the Women Of The World Foundation, holds Obama’s visit to Mulberry and subsequent support (Hassan’s achievements were championed by Obama through her Instagram account last year) responsible for much of her success, including deciding to study law and go into girls’ education.
The greatest impact Obama’s visit had, Hassan says, is opening doors that students like her wouldn’t otherwise have access to: ‘We always say that ambition is never low, everyone is always ambitious. But the issue is access to opportunities. So many doors and opportunities open to us now because of her visit, they were limited, but now we’re able to reach those more.’ A case in point: when Obama invited a group of pupils from both schools to visit the White House, it was the first time many of them had left the country.
What both told me, though, was how strangely normal it was to join Obama on stage – and in front of her documentary crew, no less. ‘She has the capacity to put people at ease,’ explains Dibb. ‘So she can connect with whoever you are, whatever your status or lack of status, she has the ability to connect and make people feel better about themselves.’
‘She didn’t make me feel like I didn’t have the credit to be there,’ says Hassan. ‘She made me feel like an equal partner on stage. She made us feel that all of our voices equally mattered.’
Penguin Talks are now virtual. Watch Michelle Obama's here.