When second-year Edward James met Michelle Obama, he was struck by how tall she was. They took a photo together at a campaign event in his hometown of Sarasota, FL, in 2008, and "she towered over me." Last Wednesday, James got the chance to record a personal video to the First Lady, inviting her back to Hyde Park, her former home. "I told her that I’ve grown since that time," he said, "and it would be really nice to stand next to her again." James is just one of several dozen students who issued Michelle Obama a personal invitation to speak on campus as part of a video-letter campaign they dubbed "Ask Michelle Obama out to Homecoming!" The Organization of Black Students (OBS) and Student Government (SG) sponsored the event, held Oct. 29 in the Reynolds Club. OBS hopes the video messages will convince Mrs. Obama to deliver the 2010 George E. Kent Lecture. The Kent Lecture is named for the late George E. Kent, a professor of English Language and Literature. The annual lecture has featured many African-American luminaries, including Gwendolyn Brooks, Angela Davis, Cornel West, and, most recently, sociologist William Julius Wilson. According to James, the OBS political chair, Susan Sher, the First Lady’s chief of staff, told the organizers that it would take an invitation of epic proportions for Mrs. Obama to visit. OBS began its efforts last spring, when organizers sent Mrs. Obama a letter. Sher, a former administrator at the University of Chicago Medical Center, responded, suggesting that the group share more of "what students have to say." "It became clear that sending a letter was not enough," said fourth-year Chris Williams, the SG vice president for student affairs. "We needed a unique and loud message from the University community." Williams cited the 1,000 Valentine's Day letters that University of California, Merced students wrote to invite the First Lady to speak at their commencement last year as evidence that the campaign would work. Michelle Obama was a natural choice to deliver the lecture, according to James. James said OBS is inspired by her work to connect the University to the South Side community as founding director of the University Community Service Center. "Michelle Obama is big on community service, big on giving back, whether that’s going to public schools in D.C. and reading to children, or planting an organic garden in the White House," he said. "Now it’s not uncommon to see [college] kids mentoring in the Kenwood, Bronzeville, and Woodlawn areas. These are neighborhoods that have in the past had an antagonistic relationship with the University, but through her help and her great work we are becoming better stewards of our community…[Mrs. Obama] is a beacon of hope for a lot of people, including this community." Though the Kent Lectures are facilitated by University students, James added that the event is always open to the public, and usually packs Rockefeller Chapel with students and people from all over Chicago. Besides exposing the student body to influential public figures, the Kent Lecture series has often brought together the University and its South Side community—a goal Michelle Obama pursued during her time in Hyde Park, James is quick to point out. He said one video message to Mrs. Obama stood out in particular because it was made by a student who grew up on the South Side. "She said Mrs. Obama had been a role model to her. I think that’s great, to have somebody [like Michelle Obama] whom you can relate to, somebody who can see the world from your vantage point."
Posted on: Monday, November 2, 2009 - 6:00am