Michelle Obama's "Soldiers" In The Global Fight To Let Girls Learn

Photo: Molly Riley/AP Photo.
First Lady Michelle Obama spent the International Day of the Girl talking about the importance of educating girls around the world.
Around the world, 62 million girls are missing from a place they have every right to be: the classroom.

"We cannot tolerate millions and millions of girls being denied the access to improve themselves and the lives of their families by being essentially locked out of the education process," First Lady Michelle Obama told women and girls gathered at an International Day of the Girl celebration hosted by Glamour on Tuesday.

Through her Let Girls Learn initiative, Obama has both raised awareness and gotten various government agencies to pledge $1 billion for new and ongoing work in more than 50 countries. She traveled to Morocco and Liberia this past summer to speak with girls about the challenges they face firsthand. Their stories will be shared in her new CNN documentary, We Will Rise, set to air at 9 p.m. tonight.

"I know this is something that I am going to spend the rest of my life working on, and I am going to need a lot of soldiers out there," Obama said.

One of those soldiers is the first lady's chief of staff, Tina Tchen. As the executive director for the White House Council on Women and Girls, Tchen has been instrumental in championing Let Girls Learn.

Now, with just 100 days left in the White House, Obama and Tchen are working hard to make sure their commitment to girls' education doesn't end when they leave 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Tchen sat down with Refinery29 to talk about the impact they've had, and the work yet to be done to support girls around the world.

You have to know the moment will come when no one will have the answer except for you. Step up. Seize that moment.

Tina Tchen, chief of staff to the first lady
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Why is educating women and girls such a passion for both you and the first lady?
"I personally have been working on women and girls issues for my entire adult life. But as we started to learn more about what’s happening to girls outside the United States — how many of them are out of school, and what struggles girls every day go through just to get to school — it just became incredibly powerful to me personally to try to effect change.

"When you really dig into this issue, you learn not only what a struggle it is for these girls — and we want them to have an education because it is the right thing to do — but then you put it together with all of the research from the World Bank and elsewhere that shows that educating a girl is about the closest thing we have to a golden key to unlocking solutions to world poverty, global health, peace and security and economic prosperity. It’s remarkable. There’s nothing else, no other singular issue, that cuts across all of those.

"The evidence is just overwhelming that, as the first lady says, when you educate a girl, you really lift up the entire nation. And as a result, we can lift up the entire globe. You couple both the individual passion you feel when you see these girls, with what the global implications are for effecting change in this space, and it has become a real powerful motivator for myself and for the first lady."
Photo: Courtesy of The White House.
The first lady's chief of staff, Tina Tchen, greets girls who shared their stories in the "We Will Rise" documentary during their visit to Washington.
You’ve brought together more than $1 billion for this project, but you didn’t have any budget of your own. How did you do it?
"A couple of great things. One, this was truly a whole-of-government effort. We were able to marshal the resources from across six different federal agencies, and under the leadership of our National Security Council.

"We leveraged resources, not just education resources from USAID, but water development resources, health resources from PEPFAR, economic development from the Millennium Challenge Corporation, and the amazing work of the Peace Corps volunteers on the ground. They’re now in 44 countries, as of today, where they’re going to be doing legwork on the Let Girls Learn projects, which is amazing. So that was one piece of it.

"The other piece is this platform — that the first lady has used so well — which is to encourage other people, private sector folks, not-for-profit organizations, asking people who are already doing things, to step up. And our diplomatic efforts...to really engage those world leaders to join with us. I think it has been both putting all of those pieces together, and the world seeing the power and the promise of girls’ education. We are at a global moment when all of these things are coming together."

I will be jobless come January 21, but like the first lady, I’m now a true believer on this issue.

Tina Tchen, chief of staff to the first lady
The first lady has made it clear that this will be her next job. What about you?
"I have no idea. I will be jobless come January 21, but like the first lady, I’m now a true believer on this issue. Both because of the promise it provides for how we can change the world, and because of the incredible partners we already have at the table to work with and who are a joy to work with. Folks like CNN, Girl Rising, and Girl Up, and the amazing companies that have come together. And because there is just tremendous joy in these events when you meet these girls…You can’t help feeling that you want to be recommitted to these girls every time you meet them."
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Photo: Paul Morigi/Getty Images.
Glamour editor-in-chief Cindi Leive, First Lady of the United States Michelle Obama, and actress and activist Yara Shahidi participate in a panel discussion about girls' education on Tuesday in Washington.
I know this is a project that you want to see the next administration continue. After the recent comments about women that have been brought up during this campaign, are you worried about follow through by the next administration, or with one potential administration versus another?
"I’m not going to address one administration versus another — that’s not our job here in the government. One of the things we did today was to issue a fact sheet from the National Security Council that really summarizes not just what we have accomplished over the last year and half with Let Girls Learn, but laid out our strategy. Our strategy that combines this whole-government effort led by the White House, the diplomatic efforts, the awareness-raising efforts, and the public-private partnerships.

"It lays that out in a pretty simple road map that we hope will be followed by anybody, and can be followed by anybody…The other thing that we were able to do — and were very deliberate about — was to build in multiyear funding from government agencies. So USAID has embarked on its Challenge Fund, which is a multiyear project, the Peace Corps Let Girls Learn Fund has enough money in there to last them for a couple of more years, and we are continuing to get resources in there…The World Bank is going to spend $2.5 billion, and they have committed to that over the next several years to girls’ education.

"So we are very excited that there is a multiyear commitment from a whole variety of actors that we’re confident we will continue this. We’re also confident that the benefits of this investment are obvious. It will be obvious — regardless of party or which administration comes in — that this is good for the national security of the United States, and it’s significantly important for the future of the world."

It will be obvious — regardless of party or which administration comes in — that this is good for the national security of the United States, and it’s significantly important for the future of the world.

Tina Tchen, chief of staff to the first lady
But do you want that next president to have that buy-in and that commitment to making this a priority, as well?
"We hope that either president will do that. Our job here has been to lay out the strategy that we have come up with from this administration. We think that in a year and a half, it has shown that it can work, and it can work pretty quickly and with great results. So we hope that’s a strategy that people can follow."

This was a huge, dream-big sort of undertaking. The first lady’s advice to the girls in the room this morning was, ‘Don’t be afraid to fail.’ In your own career, have you ever had a personal failure that you turned around and made into a success?
"That’s an interesting question. You tend to sort of forget your failures [laughs]. I’m scrolling back and scrolling back in my memory banks for that. As you know, I was a lawyer beforehand, so I’ve had plenty of setbacks. Anyone who has practiced law as long as I did, for over 20 years, has had lots of ups and downs in your practice. Whether it’s motions that got lost, or oral arguments where the judge kind of looked at you over the bench and said, ‘Really?’

"I think one of the things you learn — and one of the things I brought to this job coming from that background — is that there are a lot of things that happen, and a lot of things that are out of your control. When you are trying to represent a client in a complicated situation, or trying to effect an issue on a global basis with a lot of different actors, lots of things can happen out of your control, and you have to be ready for them. You have to be resilient. If you are, and you believe in what you already understand about an issue, and how you’re trying to pursue that issue and you persevere, and you learn along the way from the people who are perhaps naysayers, then that just makes you stronger. You can just continue to succeed."
Photo: Larry French/Getty Images.
Chief of staff to First Lady Michelle Obama, Tina Tchen, has been instrumental in the Let Girls Learn initiative.
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Someone new will be in your office on January 21. Having been a witness to history here for so many years, what’s your advice to the person who steps through this particular door?
"The interesting thing about this particular door is — unlike the West Wing, where there are issues of the day, where there’s news of the day and there’s a particular agenda the president has set that the West Wing needs to be responding to and follow — whoever is in the East Wing, there’s no mandate.

"There’s no salary [laughs] that goes with being the first spouse. There’s no mandate, so each person can really make of it what they want…It’s become a particularly unique platform for the first lady of the United States. One of the things I’ve learned over the years is that not all first spouses of other countries have the same visibility that we in the United States have given to our first ladies. So, that’s a great opportunity to define it.

"One of the things that Mrs. Obama has been so successful at is taking what is otherwise a completely undefined role and platform and being very thoughtful about how to use that platform for things she genuinely cares about, things that are authentic to her own experience. Whether it’s education, or childhood obesity, or the work we have done with veterans and military families, it all comes from a personal commitment and belief borne out of her own experience, which makes it very genuine. I think that’s what people see when they communicate with her. I think that’s why there are partners who want to step up because they see that passion and personal commitment that she has to it.

"It also then means it’s something that you have fun doing, because that’s the other thing you have to do with this. As high-pressure as this is, you’ve got to enjoy it. You have to realize what a unique opportunity it is, what a unique place in history and time anybody in this building, at any point in time, has the great fortune to work in. Enjoy it — really, totally, have fun with it."

There’s no salary that goes with being the first spouse. There’s no mandate, so each person can really make of it what they want.

Tina Tchen, chief of staff to the first lady
What is your advice for young women?
"Probably my biggest piece of advice is to have confidence in yourself no matter what situation you find yourself in. Don’t kid yourself to think that once you become a college graduate, it’s not going to happen anymore — it still does. Or if you become a lawyer that it won’t happen anymore — it still does. Or if you become a partner at a really big law firm that it won’t happen anymore — it is still does. Meaning, those situations where you walk in the room and you’re the only woman and nobody is quite sure what you’re doing there.

"Sometimes it’s very subtle, like not looking at you when they’re talking but looking to the other men in the room, even though you’re the reason that the meeting is being held and you’re the one with the answers…You just have to have the confidence in yourself to get over the first 15 minutes of that meeting. The first 15 minutes when no one is really paying attention to you and they’re laying out their problem and telling the other guys in the room what it is.

"You have to know the moment will come when no one will have the answer except for you. Step up. Seize that moment. Be confident in what you’re saying and doing. If you convey that, and you trust yourself to do that, and you do have that ability, you will.

"Young women have resilience because we have been through all of these experiences. All our lives, we've had to try harder. So young women should just know that when you come to that situation, you’re there for a reason. And you know your stuff. Just step up and seize your moment."

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Watch the trailer for the first lady's film, We Will Rise featuring Meryl Streep, Freida Pinto, and journalist Isha Sesay, below.