SAN JOSE, Calif. (BCN) - Michelle Obama had an intimate discussion with about 30 youth leaders in South San Jose this afternoon, returning to the organization where she got her start in the nonprofit world 25 years ago.
Obama was selected in 1993 to be the first executive director for Public Allies Chicago, an organization that has since grown to 25 chapters and over 8,000 alumni. The nonprofit provides internships and work experience for young people interested in community leadership.
"Working at Public Allies was one of the best jobs I ever had," Obama said today, kicking off the conversation in the teen center at the Seven Trees Community Center & Branch Library.
Public Allies hosts weekly Friday meetings in locations throughout the Bay Area, giving youth the opportunity to reflect on the week's successes and shortcomings.
When a facilitator posed a question about facing obstacles to growth as a person of color, Obama flipped the question, choosing instead to focus on the importance of failure.
"Part of continuous learning is failure, regardless of your race," Obama said, inviting those seated around her to share their thoughts about a time they had failed. The group burst into laughter, with one ally saying, "Too many times!"
The discussion was Obama's first visit with Public Allies since she began the first stretch of her "Becoming" book tour in November, according to the nonprofit.
"We're all about creating this generation's Michelle Obama," said CEO Jaime Uzeta, describing Obama as the embodiment of the nonprofit's values.
Hilary Armstrong, a current ally, said Obama's influence in Public Allies taught her to turn inaction into action and serve her community in Oakland, while also recognizing her privilege.
"As I white person, I feel I am given training to not be a colonizer," Armstrong said. "Part of Public Allies' idea, as Michelle Obama says...it's actually connecting with communities, it's not tokenizing communities."
In "Becoming," Obama says working at Public Allies was meaningful because of the organization's insistence on cultivating leaders inside each neighborhood, instead of "parachuting Ivy Leaguers into urban communities."
"To know that I played some small part in that, helping to create something that's endured, is one of the most gratifying feelings I've had in my professional life," she writes.
For most of the allies and alumni gathered at the event, meeting Michelle Obama was a special, deeply important affirmation of the organization's work.
"I guess I'm doing what she did!" Armstrong said.
The visit will be followed a speaking arrangement at SAP Center, after which Obama will jet off to New York for the last stop on the tour this year. Obama's organization, Reach Higher, provided 90 students from the San Jose Unified School District with tickets to the event at SAP Center.
Reach Higher said in a statement the donation will make the tour more accessible, "particularly to young people who will see a part of themselves in her story...to imagine who they might become in the years