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First Lady Michelle Obama: "Hadiya Pendleton Was Me"

Michelle Obama speaking in Chicago

First Lady Michelle Obama returned to her Chicago hometown on last week to address a crowded room of business leaders and executives to confront the gun violence, which has plagued the Midwest city. In an emotional, tearful speech, the First Lady urged her audience to become active in curbing the violence that has riddled many of the city’s 77 neighborhoods, often referring to the death of 15-year-old Chicago honor student, Hadiya Pendleton, who was gunned down in February while at a park with friends after school.

“For me, this is personal, because my story would not be possible without this city,” said the First Lady.

Drawing on comparisons between Pendleton’s upbringing and that of her own, she continued, “Hadiya Pendleton was me and I was her—but I got to grow up.”

Pendleton is one of dozens of children who have been gunned down in Chicago. In fact, according to the University of Chicago Crime Lab, 530 children under the age of 21 have succumbed to gunshot wounds since 2008. Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, who has created several initiatives in attempt to address issues of violence, also addressed the crowd to discuss how he plans to take back the city’s streets.

“For our kids to live up to their potential, we have to live up to our obligations, he says. “That means providing them the opportunity for them to excel academically, athletically or artistically.”

The city of Chicago spends approximately 2.5 billion dollars annually on gun violence. And of the city’s 77 neighborhoods, there are a concentrated number of them—10 to be exact—which account for 43 percent of the city’s murders. The South and West sides host the vast majority of Chicago's gang and drug activities. Playgrounds and neighborhood centers have turned into dangerous gang and clique territories, preventing young children from playing and traveling safely.

The First Lady echoes and supports Mayor Emmanuel’s newest initiative, the Public Safety Action Committee (PSAC), whose mission is to create prevention and intervention programs, build communities’ capacities, and raise funds for new programs. Thomas Wilson, Chairman, President and CEO of the Allstate Corporation and James Reynolds, Jr., Chairman and CEO of Loop Capital, lead the PSAC, whose goal is to privately raise $50-million over a five-year period. At press time, the committee had already raised a total of $33 million. 

Almost half of the city’s violent crimes involve school-age youth and thousands of young people are in and out of the juvenile justice system each year. Programs and initiatives developed from the PSAC will directly affect this demographic.

“That is why this fund that you have created here in Chicago is so important,” says First Lady Obama, “It will help to create that ladder of opportunity for all of our kids.”

She says the fund will provide children with mentors to push and nurture them and teach them the life skills necessary to succeed. The PSAC is also to give children an alternative to gangs and drugs and safe places where they can learn something and most importantly stay out of trouble.

First Lady Obama was very matter-of-fact with her request to the packed room: “So let’s be clear. This is going to take a serious and sustaining investment over a very long period of time—this is forever, she says. “And I am here today to join take up this challenge with fervor and I hope that communities across America will follow Chicago’s lead to get our young people off the street and back on track to successful lives.”

Piggy-backing on President Obama's sentiments about legislative reforms to fight gun violence, she posed a rhetorical question quite similar to one that her husband asked while addressing the people of Newtown, Connecticut shortly after the devastating Sandy Hook massacre: 

“Are we truly meeting our obligation to our children?”

And with as much grace and class as she is often known to have, she closed her speech with an enthusiastic, positive sentiment toward Chicago, the place she calls home, “I look forward to this city being the model of what communities can do to wrap their arms around our kids and make them the best they can be.”

Jorian L. Seay is a staff writer for EBONY.