To say the air was electric before Michelle Obama took the stage at the American Institute of Architects 2017 conference would be an understatement. Thousands lined up more than an hour early at the doors of the auditorium in Orlando’s Orange County Convention Center. Some sported “When they go low, we go high,” t-shirts. Even AIA president, Thomas Vonier, was giddy. “This is really happening,” he told a packed house of more than 10,000 architects.
The former first lady of the United States, in her first public appearance since leaving the White House in January, was more pragmatic. She told Vonier, “It’s good to get out of the house.”
Newfound freedom aside, she explained why she chose to speak at a conference catered to architects: “In my other life before I was the first lady, I worked in economic development and in planning ... so I got to learn how important of a role architects play in the lifeblood of a city. [This conference] is a little full-circle for me.”
Obama has spent considerable time lately looking at drawings and architectural models as she and her husband, alongside architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, plan the Barack Obama Presidential Center on the South Side of Chicago. “This project means the world to me,” said Obama. “We have been blessed to have architects that are thinking about what buildings mean in the lifeblood of a community.”
The architectural community, in particular, was a pivotal focus of her conversation with Vonier, who was candid about the profession’s struggle to recruit and retain women and African-American architects.
Though the AIA honored late architect Paul Revere Williams with its prestigious Gold Medal just moments before Obama’s talk, marking the first time an African-American architect has received the award since its establishment in 1947, less than two percent of members are black—a percentage Vonier said he was “ashamed” to name.
“Can you give us any advice about things we can do better?” he asked Obama.
Obama was frank. “You can’t be an architect if you don’t know architects exist,” she said, calling on the audience to mentor children as a means to raise the next, more diverse generation of architects and designers in a profession where young people of color lack role models. The same applies for empowering women in the workplace, according to Obama. “You need more women who are going to push if they have the leverage,” said the former FLOTUS. “Not everyone has the leverage, so you have to push for the women who don’t.”
Obama and Vonier’s conversation also covered how the former first family has been adjusting to life outside the White House. “[Our dogs] Bo and Sunny had never heard a doorbell in their life,” she joked, going on to note the difficulties of ensuring that her two daughters would have a “normal” childhood. Obama described her family’s newfound civilian life as a relief; “It’s good not to have the weight of your world on your shoulders,” she said.
Obama also dispelled rumors (and hopes) of a potential bid for public office. “It’s all well and good until you start running—then the knives come out,” she said. “As I’ve said, I wouldn’t ask my children to do this again, because when you run for high office, it’s not just you. It’s your whole family.”
Instead, she is trying to make the most of her causes—ranging from girls’ education to childhood obesity—without the “mud fight” that is politics. Obama challenged the audience to do the same—to demonstrate their dedication to their communities through their work.
“You don’t have to be first lady to influence,” she said.