First Lady Michelle Obama returned to Chicago on Wednesday to join Mayor Rahm Emmanuel and prominent business leaders in hopes of raising awareness and money for programs aimed at reducing deeply entrenched violent crime throughout the city.
Making a powerful appeal to about 700 community, corporate and philanthropic leaders at a luncheon at the Hilton in downtown Chicago, the usually poised first lady turned emotional, her voice cracking on several occasions as she expressed the urgency of putting resources behind efforts to address the embattled city’s youth violence crisis.
Suggesting that she could have easily fallen victim to violence while growing up on the South Side of Chicago, the first lady choked up while reflecting on the shooting death of Hadiya Pendleton, the teen who was shot in January a mere 8 days after attending festivities surrounding President Obama’s Inauguration. Michelle Obama attended the funeral in February.
“As I visited the Pendleton family at Hadiya’s funeral, I couldn’t get over how familiar they felt to me,” she said. “What I realized was Haydia’s family was just like my family. Hadiya Pendleton was me, and I was her. But I got to grow up and go to Princeton and Harvard Law School and have a career and a family. And Hadiya? Oh, we know that story. Just a week after she performed at my husband’s inauguration, she went to a park with some friends and got shot in the back because some kid thought she was in a gang.”
The usually politically cautious first lady even seized the moment to put her stamp on a measure to curb gun violence that will make its way to the Senate on Thursday.
“Right now my husband is fighting as hard as he can and engaging as many people as he can to pass common sense reforms to protect our children from gun violence,” she said to applause. “And these reforms deserve a vote in Congress. As he said, ‘We can’t stop all the violence in the world, but if there is even one thing we can do, even one step we can take to save another child or another parent from the grief that’s visited families like Hadiya’s and so many others here today then don’t we have an obligation to try?’ ”
See the First Lady’s speech below:
The first lady said that she was only able to escape violence and survive because she was surrounded by a community that supported her, which is why raising money to support grassroots programs is important. She was at the luncheon to support Mayor Rahm Emmanuel who is part of a coalition spearheaded by Allstate Chief Executive Officer Tom Wilson and Loop Capital Chief Executive Officer Jim Reynolds, who have called on Chicago’s business sector to raise $50 million to support proven programs that serve at risk youth across the city.
Specifically, the business community challenge will support mentoring, intervention and conflict resolution programs, provide seed funding for new programs, and work to rebuild community supports in neighborhoods most impacted by violence, according to a news release from Mayor Emanuel’s office.
“The fund is so important,” Obama said. “It will help create those ladders of opportunities for all of our kids. It will give our children mentors who push them and nurture them. It will teach them the life skills they need to succeed. It will give them alternatives to gangs and drugs and safe places where they can learn something and stay out of trouble.”
Reynolds, who is friends with the president and who grew up on the South Side, stressed the importance of the fund, saying that it’s a great way to help youth regain hope.
“Let’s put an end to the hopelessness and the sense that no one cares about these kids from these struggling communities,” he told the group before Obama spoke. “Fixing this problem overnight is totally unrealistic. It has to do with so many social and economic factors that have been built up over many years—no decades. What we need to do now is recognize how we can get involved.”
After her speech, Obama was scheduled to visit Harper High School where, according to reports, 29 present or former students were shot in the last year, leaving eight dead.