As politicians in Washington took a step toward tightening the nation's gun laws Wednesday, first lady Michelle Obama sat down with Chicago high school students whose stories about violence brought her to tears.
Before the meeting began at Harper High School in West Englewood, Obama said she wanted to hear from each of the 22 students representing youth programs at the school and that she had as much time as they needed to take. She had come home to Chicago, she said, to do a lot of listening.
So for two hours, the first lady sat in the second-floor library media center, away from the news media, as students told story after story about the challenges of dodging bullets, avoiding gangs and — the thing they cannot take for granted — staying alive.
According to the students, Obama wanted to know how many of them had been affected by the gun violence. Every one of them told her they had, said Ta'taleisha Jones, a 16-year-old who attended the meeting.
"She said, 'Have you ever experienced a family member hurt or killed?' I told her, 'Yeah.' When she was talking about how her life was and how we changed her, she got real emotional. I was like, 'Wow, we see the first lady crying.' Tears were coming out her eyes," Ta'taleisha said.
A second student confirmed that the first lady cried during the meeting.
Before entering the private meeting, Obama talked to the students about growing up in a small apartment in Chicago's South Shore community, just a few miles from Englewood, and attending public schools. She was no different than they, working hard in school, trying not to listen to the haters and taking care of her business, she said.
"One of the reasons why I like to talk to kids, especially from my city, is to make sure all of you know that there isn't much distance between me and you. There really is not," she said.
But the students noted a difference between then and now, Ta'taleisha said.
"She said (there) wasn't really that much violence back in the day," she said, adding that the students told Obama that life had changed a lot — for the worse.
In her third visit to the city this year, Obama sent a clear message that she does not plan to sit on the sidelines and watch Chicago's children succumb to street violence. Speaking earlier in the day to a group of business, civic and religious leaders at a downtown hotel, she said the issue is personal.
"I'm here today because Chicago is my home," said Obama, her voice cracking with emotion. "When it comes to ensuring the health and development and success of young people in this city, for me, this is my passion, it is my mission. And for me, this is personal because my story would not be possible without this city."
Meanwhile, in Washington, President Barack Obama applauded Senate leaders for reaching a bipartisan agreement on requiring background checks for gun purchases, but he said the measure still faces a fight in Congress.
Increasingly, the first lady has incorporated anti-violence messages in her speeches, particularly in her visits to Chicago. As President Obama often does, she stressed the need for Congress to at least take a vote on gun-control measures.
In her appeal to business leaders at a luncheon hosted by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the first lady gave the gun issue a personal tone by recalling her attendance at the funeral of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton in February. Hadiya's parents, sitting in the audience, cried as she spoke about their daughter, who was shot to death in a park a mile away from the Obamas' Kenwood house.
Obama, her voice breaking and her hand placed near her heart, said Hadiya's story reminded her of her own.
"As I visited with the Pendleton family at Hadiya's funeral, I couldn't get over how familiar they felt to me. Because what I realized was Hadiya's family was just like my family. Hadiya Pendleton was me, and I was her," Obama said.
"But I got to grow up, and go to Princeton and Harvard Law School, and have a career and a family and the most blessed life I could ever imagine," she said. "… Hadiya's family did everything right, but she still didn't have a chance."
She wondered what might have been different for the two young men charged with her slaying.
"What if, instead of roaming around with guns, boys like them had access to a computer lab or a community center or some decent basketball courts? Maybe everything would have turned out differently."
Obama was the keynote speaker at the luncheon, set up by Emanuel to garner support for an initiative called Working Together for Safer Communities, Brighter Futures. The campaign, launched in February, calls for business leaders and others to raise $50million over the next five years to create or expand community programs for at-risk youths. Already, the group has received pledges of $33 million.
In the audience were about 800 business, government, civic and faith group leaders, including restaurateur Charlie Trotter; former Detroit Pistons point guard Isaiah Thomas; Tio Hardiman, director of CeaseFire Illinois; police Superintendent Garry McCarthy; Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan; and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.
"This is not a gap of geography, it's a gap of opportunity," Emanuel said, referring to the lack of resources available to young people in some Chicago neighborhoods.
Jim Reynolds, chairman and CEO of Loop Capital and head of the Public Safety Action Committee set up by Emanuel to lead the fundraising effort, said the first lady's appearance was like "adding a little bit of rocket fuel."
In choosing Harper High School for the visit, the White House noted that 29 current or former students there had been shot in the last year, eight of them fatally.
Outside Harper, students lingered in the neighborhood hoping to get a glimpse of the first lady's motorcade. Some expressed disappointment that she did not address the entire student body.
But those who got to meet her said they left with the feeling that someone really cares about them.
"I shared with her that I would stay inside, in 85-degree sunny weather, because I'm scared walking down the street. I fear for my life. I feel today could be my last day," said Ronald Ligon, 16.
"She said she would do everything in her power to stop the violence that goes on. I know that she really does care. Now I feel this is a new beginning for me."