For International Women's Day, Michelle Obama and the Obama Foundation teamed up with Refinery29 to shine a light on the importance and urgency of empowering girls around the world — to ensure they can reach their full potential through education and, in turn, support their families, communities, and countries. The result is a Q&A between Mrs. Obama and four young women from Nepal, Ghana, Guatemala, and Chicago, a critical dialogue she hopes will remind us that this is our issue to face, as much as anyone else’s.
Meet 19-year-old Eva Lewis from Chicago, Illinois. Eva is an activist and artist who grew up on the South Side of Chicago. She’s now the founder of The I Project, a nonprofit focusing on intersectionality that promotes activism through art, and is studying at the University of Pennsylvania.
MICHELLE OBAMA: Eva! What barriers in your life have you had to overcome in order to achieve an education? What made you decide you would do whatever it took to overcome those obstacles?
EL: “Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, I had to travel over an hour every day to school and back to access better options for my education. When I did switch to the north side to go to the number one public high school in the country, I found that myself and other brown students were behind in many subjects. That often made me feel as though education was not meant for me. But I stayed motivated, keeping in mind that so many people don’t even have access to education at all.”
MO: Why is an education so important to you and to other girls in Chicago?
EL: “My mother’s parents, who migrated from Mississippi and Alabama to Chicago during the second Great Migration, raised her to know their history and reap the benefits of education so that she could emancipate herself. She instilled those same values in me. Education gives us the tools to advocate for ourselves — and write narratives counter to the ones that have been written for us.
“Education also grants us a fighting chance. We are constantly being beaten down by the multiple layers of systems that oppress us. We live in a world that sexualizes us for being women and ostracizes us for being Black. So education is a Black girl’s weapon. Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, and Kimberlé Crenshaw couldn’t create terms like Black feminism, womanism, and intersectionality to spread the word about our struggle without that knowledge.”
MO: What do you plan to do — or have you done — with your education? How will you champion and support others who are working to achieve an education?
EL: “I’m currently a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania with a full ride scholarship. I’ve made it my duty to apply my studies towards a plan that helps those who are still in my community of the South Side in Chicago. For my high school senior project, I partnered with students, faculty, and administration at a predominantly Black low-income elementary school to raise $25,000 so that each child could receive an in-school laptop. And although I’m now in college, I’m still prioritizing that initiative and applying what I’m learning to make education more equitable.”
MO: What advice do you have for girls who face challenges similar to you in reaching their full potential through an education?
EL: “Know your worth. If we don’t know what we deserve — and advocate for it — no one will give it to us. A friend of mine once told me that I have to be the rupture. There won’t always be someone who looks like you in the classroom. There won’t always be someone who looks like you going for the scholarship or the grant or proposing an innovation. That does not mean you shouldn’t be in that space. You deserve to be in that space.”
EVA: Similar to me, Mrs. Obama, you grew up on the South Side, attended a selective-enrollment high school outside of your community, and went on to an Ivy League institution. What did that academic journey teach you?
MO: “Yes, I'm a product of the Chicago public school system. I went to the neighborhood elementary school around the corner from my house, and my parents were very clear from the time my brother and I were little that school was our number one priority. So I always put 120% into it. I always wanted to be the top student; I wanted to talk, and I wanted to raise my hand.
“And then I got the chance to go to a magnet high school called Whitney Young, which was a new college prep school that you had to test into. I absolutely knew it was the place for me. I wanted so desperately to be at a school where you weren't treated like you were strange because you liked to read, study, and strive to succeed.
“So much like you, I would wake up before dawn every day, get on a bus, and ride for an hour and a half to get to school and then ride for another hour and a half to get home at the end of the day. I spent three hours a day commuting because I was determined that this high school was going to be my stepping stone to college. I learned a lot about discipline, perseverance, and time management, and it was absolutely worth it. Because of the education I got at Whitney Young, I was able to attend Princeton and Harvard Law School and pursue the career of my dreams.”
EL: In what ways would you consider education liberating?
MO: “I always tell students that if you focus on school right now, you will have all kinds of freedom later on in your life. You’ll have the freedom to choose a career you enjoy and to earn a living that supports your family. That is truly liberating. And that’s not just true here in America. Right now, millions of adolescent girls around the world actually don’t have the chance to go to school. Imagine if, at the age of 10 or 11 or 12, someone came to you and said, ‘Sorry, you’re a girl, you’re finished with your education. Forget about all your dreams. Instead you’ll marry a man twice your age and start having babies.’
“When we give girls an education, it can help liberate them from that kind of life. Educated girls marry later, have lower rates of infant and maternal mortality, and are more likely to immunize their children and less likely to contract malaria and HIV. Studies also show that girls who are educated earn higher salaries, and sending more girls to school and into the workforce can boost an entire country's GDP. So education can liberate individuals, families, and even nations.”
Want to learn more about how you can help educate girls around the world? Visit go.obama.org/iwd and follow @obamafoundation on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to get updates on the work the Foundation will be doing in the weeks and months to come.