Michelle Obama talks public service, need for diversity while in Orlando

Former First Lady's first public appearance since leaving White House

By Emilee Speck - Digital journalist
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Former First Lady Michelle Obama smiles during the AIA Conference on Architecture 2017 on April 27, 2017 in Orlando, Florida. Michelle Obama is making one of her first public speeches at the Orlando Conference since leaving the White House.

ORLANDO, Fla. - Former First Lady Michelle Obama made her first public appearance after leaving the White House, in Orlando Thursday, talking about women's rights and the need for inspiring young minds.

She spoke at the American Institutes of Architects Conference being held at the Orange County Convention Center this week.

Asked why she chose an architectural conference as her first speaking appearance, Obama said it was actually a fitting choice that brought her full circle to her past working in Chicago.

“In my other life before I was first lady, I worked in the city, I worked in economic development and planning, I served on the historic preservation board for the city of Chicago,” Obama said. “I got to know how important a role that architects play in a lifeblood of a city.”

The Obamas are currently in the middle of designing the Obama Presidential Center in Chicago.

It's also now no longer a secret, but a popular topic in the architectural community, that President Obama once thought about becoming an architect.

Obama said her husband has a creative side, not visible in the political arena, but secretly, "deep down inside, he's an artist."

During the course of the talk with AIA president Thomas Vonier, Obama touched on many of the issues she is passionate about and started programs for during her time serving as first lady.

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Michelle Obama (C), Robert A. Ivy (L), Executive VP and CEO of the American Institute of Architects and AIA President Thomas Vonier pose at the conference on Architecture on April 27, 2017 in Orlando.

Before the former first lady took stage, the largest architect organization in the U.S. honored Paul Revere Williams, the first African American architect, known for designing the Los Angeles Airport and St. Jude's Research Hospital.

Williams died in 1980 and his granddaughter Karen Hudson accepted the AIA's honest honor, the golden medal, in his name.

Hudson didn’t mince her words when she accepted the medal on stage and looked out into the audience. She said it was unfortunate to see a low number of people of color in the crowd.

Vonier acknowledge that the industry has far to go in terms of diversity and asked Obama how they can continue to increase the number of women and minorities entering the field.

“We have work to do, our ranks do not resemble the American population,” Vonier said.

Obama said the problem isn’t just with the architectural industry, but with science, technology and math too. She advised everyone in the audience to mentor young people to help grow the crop of upcoming talent.

“So many kids don’t even know what an architect is,” she said. “You can’t be an architect if you don’t know that architects exist.”

Obama talked about her time working for the city of Chicago and the balance between being a full-time mom and a full-time professional working in public service.

The Harvard Law School graduate said she wished she had known all her options as a young woman and that's why education is so important for young girls.

“Education, to my mind, is at the key to giving women the voice, the structure, the strategy, the tools to improve their conditions, because if you change the life of a woman you change the life of a family, a community, a nation,” Obama said.

Obama launched Let Girls Learn in 2015, a program to help young women get better access to education.

Vonier pressed Obama about a possible run for elected office of her own, but she responded that she felt she didn't need to be a politician to help her community.

Obama said that she hopes removing politics from the equation might help people who didn't like her before to be able to hear her out now on important issues, like childhood obesity and women's health.

"Maybe, just maybe, if we walk away from this mud fight, they'll be able to hear some of the good things that I have that can help everyone and we can do more for more people," Obama said.

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