INDIANAPOLIS— A sold-out audience of more than 12,000 people filled Bankers Life Fieldhouse Tuesday evening where former first lady Michelle Obama encouraged women, girls and a scatter of men to be "kind and open and generous and compassionate, [and to show] empathy for others."
The event, presented by Women’s Fund of Central Indiana, was moderated by Alecia DeCoudreaux, a founding board member of Women’s Fund.
Starting the conversation, Obama told the thousands of women and girls in the audience that positive role models — aside from celebrities — are crucial for young people.
"You don't get anywhere in life without people holding you up, and I'm no exception," Obama said. "The truth is, the most important role models are right in front of you."
Obama, who grew up on the south side of Chicago, said being raised with a close-knit family with relatives nearby helped her learn to be more confident and use her voice later on in life. As she continues to write her memoir, Obama added that the experiences she had as a girl are more profound now than when she was younger.
For women and girls, especially those of color, Obama acknowledged that many grow up with "doubts in their heads."
"There are people who decide or are told growing up not to like you," she said. "What you have to do is practice pushing through it. You have to practice achieving through other people's low expectations of you."
Speaking directly to young women in the audience — of which more than 300 were Indianapolis Public Schools students who received free tickets to the event — Obama said "you're just as capable, if not more capable" than those who doubt you.
"The vast majority of kids of color are not in gangs, not doing drugs, they're not robbing or stealing," she said. "They're me. I am the kid you're afraid of."
"My advice to young people is put your work in and try. There are very mediocre people out there who run stuff, but nobody told them they can't. You're just as capable, but you can't be at the table if you're not prepared."
During her eight years in the White House, Obama said one of her missions was to bring more young people from across the country to Washington, D.C. By bringing students to meet artists, musicians and to attend dinners and performances, Obama said the goal was to "encourage and inspire" the young visitors.
"We couldn't get far when we lived in the bubble of the White House, but sometimes we could get out on the Truman Balcony and I would spend time thinking about the people outside at the gates, kids, looking in and thinking, 'Will I ever be here?'" Obama said. "For someone like me, and for those kids outside, the answer was no — heck no. So we opened up the White House to those kids. It's life-changing, and it means more to the kids than anyone else."
Although Obama steered away from politics for most of the evening, she called on the audience to participate in public service, and most importantly, to vote.
"An active, engaged and informed electorate helps us all," she said. "That's what you can do right now. Today. Don't just vote every four years. Every office matters — vote for whatever you can vote for."
To end her visit, Obama encouraged the audience to be authentic, while also speaking up and advocating for themselves and others.
"What's most important are our own individual actions each and every day and being a decent person," she said. "Just try to understand what it's like to be in someone else's shoes, and remember that we're all trying to get by. Assume the best in your neighbors, not the worst. If we act on decency and generosity, with some compassion and with an open heart, nobody can take that away from you."
Jennifer Pope Baker, executive director of Women’s Fund said ticket sales from the evening's event helped the organization raise $1 million for women and girls in the Indianapolis community. The next Women's Fund event will be held in October at The Indiana Roof Ballroom and feature keynote speaker Liz Murray.