Remarks by Michelle Obama at the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Awards
November 15, 2016
Mrs. Obama: Thank you all. (Applause.) Stop that! (Applause.) Oh, my goodness. All right, that’s enough, that’s enough. You guys, please. (Applause.) Thank you for that. (Laughter.) Oh, my goodness. Now I’m embarrassed. (Laughter.)
Audience Member: We love you! Why are you up there?
Mrs. Obama: I don’t know. (Laughter.) It’s just the lights, the cameras, you guys. (Laughter.)
Well, hello, everyone. Welcome to the White House for the 2016 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program awards. (Applause.) Are you guys excited?
Mrs. Obama: I am too. (Laughter.) So I hope everybody has been treating you all well. You’re satisfied? No complaints? Because I can still fire people. (Laughter.) Would never do that. (Laughter.)
Welcome. Let me start by thanking from the bottom of my heart, oh, gosh, so many people. But I want to start with George Stevens, oh, who has just been an amazing friend and partner. (Applause.) And sitting beside him, Margo Lion. Oh, my god, Margo. (Applause.) It’s been a really neat journey, hasn’t it? Yeah, it has been.
I want to recognize Mary Schmidt Campbell, who could not be here today. But she has been just a tremendous support. (Applause.) And Megan Beyer, who stepped in – (applause) – and has just been an amazing addition to the team. Megan, thank you. Thank you for your passion and your focus. I love you, I love you.
And to the entire President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities – this is my team. These are my people here. I was just talking to them earlier – I mean, we have done some amazing things together. It’s been a tremendous ride. And, oh, I can’t tell you how much fun it’s been to just do great things for kids all over this country. And I couldn’t have done it without you. Thank you, not just for the work that you’ve done on this event, but for everything that you’ve done for the past eight years.
From the day we started, all of us, we’ve made it a priority to open up this house to as many young people from as many backgrounds as possible, because we wanted them to understand that this is their house, too. (Applause.) And that’s not always the case. There are kids all over this country, all over the world who think that places like this are not for them. So they’re intimidated by it, and it defines the limits of who they can be.
Well, we want to change that. We’ve worked to change that. We want them to know that they should always feel home within these walls and so many important institutions all over the world. At the same time, we also wanted to bring exciting arts programming to students across the country, and to get more kids engaged in the arts at their schools and also in their communities.
And the PCAH has been at the heart of both of these efforts. We’ve done just some really cool things. The Turnaround Arts Talent Show, which is one of my favorite things – just having kids doing their thing up here in front of George and Martha. (Laughter.) The National Student Poet program, which highlights just some of the most amazingly gifted young people you ever want to see, to the Creative Youth Development Partnership, to the awards that we’re giving out today. (Applause.)
For these awards in the – for the past eight years, 3,000 programs have applied for just these awards. And we’ve honored more than 100 programs from 33 cities – 33 states, D.C., and nine countries. And we couldn’t have done any of this without the PCAH – for everything. Their energy, their focus, their commitment – you guys have just gone above and beyond every step of the way. And that’s not always the case for committees. Some people just like to see their name on some stationery, but not this team. So I want to thank you for making this all possible. I hope that you’re proud of what you’ve accomplished, because I’m so proud of you. And it’s been just a great ride.
I also want to acknowledge the other folks who are here who have been sponsors, who have been tremendous resources and partners – folks from the NEA, from the NEH, the folks from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. We’ve done some great things together. Ambassador Cabañas, who is here, from – representing his country. They’re getting a wonderful award. Thank you all for helping us recognize outstanding afterschool programs across the country.
And finally, I want to thank all of the teachers and administrators, all the volunteers who make these programs possible. Some of you are here today with us in this room, and many of you are watching and cheering from back home. And as someone who used to be an executive director of a nonprofit organization, I know that you all are the unsung heroes of these programs, doing the unrecognized and sometimes unpaid work of making these programs work – filling out countless forms, applying for funding, attending endless meetings, going over spreadsheets and budgets in the middle of the night.
This kind of work is hard. Too often it’s thankless. But you all do it because you see firsthand the transformative impact that the arts can have on our young people. And we’re grateful to you all for doing this kind of work.
Through your programs, students have become poets and dancers. They’ve become filmmakers and photographers. And more importantly, they become leaders in their schools and in their communities. They’ve written scripts and short stories. They’ve organized performances and exhibitions. And together, they’ve learned the power of discipline, of hard work, right? And teamwork, right?
These are the exact skills that are critical to success not just in the arts, but in everything – every academic subject that you are going to touch and in any career that you guys are going to pursue. So you don’t know how much you’re getting, but we do because we’re old. We know. (Laughter.) That’s why kids who have gotten involved in the arts have better grades. They are more likely to graduate from high school. They are more likely to then go on to college.
And to anyone who still somehow doubts the power of the arts to transform students’ lives, to anyone who still isn’t completely convinced, I just urge you to find one of these students and talk to them. They’re here today, but they’re not just here, but they’re all over the country. They’re in communities everywhere.
But we’ve got a couple. We’ve got Noemi Negron, who is here. As recently as this spring, Noemi was a promising young woman growing up in Boston who wanted to serve others but didn’t know where to start. But then she got involved with the IBA Youth Development Program, and she helped make a video project about women’s rights. And today, she is a passionate advocate for social justice in her community. That’s where you can go with programs like these.
We have a young man, Rafael Bitanga, who is here all the way from Kodiak, Alaska. How was that trip? (Laughter.) A few years ago, Rafael and his family came to the United States from the Philippines. And like so many young people who’ve immigrated to this country, Rafael worked hard in school and quickly established himself as a leader and a role model. And through the Baranov Museum and Film Intensive, he became both a filmmaker and a photographer, and he even started his own photography business to help support his family.
So Noemi and Rafael, and – I could you about every single student or young person who is here today, but those are some of the stories that you’ll hear from them. And I want them all to know how proud I am of them. I’m proud of you guys, always proud of you guys. You make this job worth doing, just having the honor of getting to meet so many amazing young people.
These kids represent the very best of America, and they remind us all of who we really are. (Applause.) That’s for you. You can’t even believe it, right? (Laughter.) It’s all for you.
But we’re a country that believes in our young people – all of them. We believe that every single child has boundless promise, no matter who they are, where they come from, or how much money their parents have. We’ve got to remember that. We believe that each of these young people is a vital part of the great American story. I can’t say that enough. (Applause.)
And it is important to our continued greatness to see these kids as ours – not as “them,” not as “other,” but as ours. Because we want them to know that if they’re willing to work for it – and so many are – that they can be anything they want. That’s what this country is about. And we can never forget that. Anywhere in the country, these kids are ours. And that’s really the power of programs like these. That’s the message that they send to our young people every single day.
So I want to end by once again thanking all of you – all the adults here too – (laughter) – for making these programs possible. And I want to thank all of the young people for working so hard. And don’t ever lose hope. Don’t ever feel fear. You belong here, you got that? (Applause.) Those people are clapping for you. So don’t forget that – for all of you. Remember that. Remember that part of this day. And keep working hard, because it’s going to be so important now to be educated and focused. Because no one can ever take your education from you. You got that? Spread the word, you got it? I’m looking at all of you all. (Laughter.)
So, it’s time to get this show on the road. So it is my pleasure to welcome to the stage someone who’s been an outstanding partner in the work that we’ve done – the co-chair of the PCAH, my dear friend, George Stevens. (Applause.)
(The program continues.)
Mrs. Obama: Oh, wow. All right, drop the mic. (Laughter.) You could tell they were serious, right? They came up, they took their time, they tuned their instruments. You were playing with the bottom of your thing, and – wow. (Laughter.)
You know, see, this is why we do what we do. Because if anybody were to walk past these kids on the street, they would make assumptions about what they could do and who they could be. And we do that all the time to each other and to our kids. We put them in boxes and in baskets and we place lids on them, and we don’t let them out because of our issues.
All of these young people have some kind of potential in them. And if we don’t invest in them as a nation, regardless of where they come from or what color they are, if we don’t invest in them, we lose. Imagine this talent bottled up in these kids unexplored, uninvested. There are millions of kids like this in this country who do not have the resources to become everything that they could be. And shame on us if we can’t do this better.
But fortunately, these programs are doing the job that sometimes the bigger society fails to do. And so we capture this magic in a bottle. You guys are phenomenal. And you’re very cute too. (Laughter and applause.)
So that was amazing – amazing. There is nothing that any of you can’t do. This is what you have to do. You have to stay in school. You have to. You have to go to college. You have to get your degree. Because that’s the one thing people can’t take away from you, is your education. And it is worth the investment.
So stay focused. School and music and the arts is the only thing that matters – not what kind of clothes you wear, what kind of swag you’ve got – even though these guys have a lot of swag. (Laughter.) I will say that. So you got your shows. You can be smart and talented and have a whole lot of swag to go along with it.
Thank you all. This was a wonderful last – so many lasts that we’re having, but this was one of the best. And again, I want to thank you all for the work that you do, for the love that you show our kids, for the faith that you have in our nation. And I invite you all to stay for a reception – is that right? We’re having a reception? I don’t want to invite you to something that we’re not having. (Laughter.) I never know what’s going on in this house, but there is a reception. (Laughter.)
So feel free to stay. You guys get to eat, okay? There’s food right? (Laughter.) You can eat. Stay and enjoy yourselves.
Thank you guys. To all our young people, way to go! (Applause.) This has been a blast. We’re going to find ways to keep doing this long after we leave the White House.
You all, thank you so much. Have a great day. (Applause.)