Friday, September 2, 2011

Famous Speech Friday: First Lady Michelle Obama's speech to young African women leaders

Michelle Obama's keynote addressing 76 young African women leaders earlier this year had to overcome an outsized set of factors. The soaring setting in the historic Regina Mundi Church in Soweto, South Africa, was famous as a refuge for anti-apartheid protesters. The group, the Young African Women Leaders Forum, was made up of hand-picked representatives of countries throughout the African continent. Additional attendees brought the audience to 2,000 people. And it was the first major address by the first African-American First Lady of the 
United States in South Africa. 

The speech, intended to inspire the young women leaders, included several calls to action, like this series:
You can be the generation that holds your leaders accountable for open, honest government at every level, government that stamps out corruption and protects the rights of every citizen to speak freely, to worship openly, to love whomever they choose. You can be the generation to ensure that women are no longer second-class citizens, that girls take their rightful places in our schools.You can be the generation that stands up and says that violence against women in any form, in any place -- including the home – especially the home – that isn’t just a women’s rights violation. It’s a human rights violation.  And it has no place in any society.You see, that is the history that your generation can make.
Even with that soaring rhetoric, Michelle Obama's speech worked because it made an intimate experience out of a big crowd, an historic space and an event full of significance. Here's how:

  • She pokes fun at the outsized situation to put the young women at ease:  "Now, I have to be honest. Your efforts might not always draw the world’s attention, except for today," said the First Lady, a line that got a laugh--and let her go on to discuss how small actions can make a difference. That kind of keeping-it-real remark helps her to connect with her young audience effectively.
  • She spends significant time recognizing individuals: From her opening acknowledgments of dignitaries to her examples of young women leaders in the audience and their accomplishments, Obama brings the audience into focus, making it a collection of individuals rather than a massive group--something that's true whether you watched this speech from afar, or right in the room.
  • She relates the big, historic events to her audience of today:  Recalling events in Soweto 35 years ago, Obama notes "Many of the students who led the uprising were younger than all of you." In so doing, she adds perspective, and right-sizes what seems outsized.
The video below includes an introduction and then the full address. What do you think of this famous speech?

(Official White House Photo by Samantha Appleton)

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