The White House
Office of the First Lady
Remarks by the First Lady at Grammy Museum's Jane Ortner Education Award Luncheon
Los Angeles, California
12:32 P.M. PDT
MRS. OBAMA: Thank you so much. (Applause.) Well, hello, everyone! How are you guys doing?
MRS. OBAMA: It’s really exciting, huh?
MRS. OBAMA: Well, it is a pleasure for me to be here for the inaugural Jane Ortner Education Award Luncheon. I want to start by thanking Bob for that very kind introduction and for his visionary leadership of the Grammy Museum, and for sharing that story. And in response, yes, we did hear. (Laughter.) We heard everything. We can hear everything that goes on on the State floor upstairs. But as Bob noted, it was a beautiful sound. It was the sound of growth and victory and happiness, and it filled the White House just as Barack and I had imagined. So we were grateful for that night and so many, many wonderful nights shared with this organization.
I want to thank Chuck Ortner and his family for their tremendous generosity in making this luncheon possible. Yes. (Applause.) And I want to give a special thank-you to your fabulous mayor, Mayor Garcetti. We’re just thrilled that he could join us today, and we are grateful for his leadership. (Applause.)
And I’d like to thank and congratulate today’s honorees -- my dear, dear friend, Janelle Monae, as well as Sunshine Cavalluzzi, who I will get to meet. (Applause.) Sunshine -- I’m going to see Sunshine soon. We are so inspired by the both of you and so grateful for everything you do for our children.
And of course, I want to thank everyone here today for your support to bring arts education to young people across this country. Your work has been at the heart of our vision for the White House right from the very beginning, as Bob shared.
Now, traditionally, when it comes to hosting cultural events, the White House has always brought in the most renowned performers in the world. And in the past, the audiences for these performances were usually a lot of pretty fancy people -- politicians, business leaders, celebrities -- the kind of folks who get invited to the White House all the time.
But when Barack and I first came to Washington, we decided that it was time to shake things up a little bit. We wanted to do everything we could to make the White House the “People’s House.” We wanted to open it up to as many people in this country as possible, especially our young people. So when we started inviting performers to the White House, as Bob mentioned, we told everyone that we also expected them to spend some time with young people, doing workshops and these wonderful mentoring sessions.
And that’s where all of you came in. Thanks to your generosity, the Grammy Museum has flown nearly 1,000 students to Washington to visit the White House and take part in these programs, and thousands more have participated by video. These young people have had so many once-in-a-lifetime experiences. They’ve explored soul music with Janelle Monae, Melissa Etheridge, Patti LaBelle -- that was good. (Laughter.) They’ve learned about country music with Lyle Lovett, Darius Rucker, Kris Kristofferson. As you heard, they talked about Motown with Smokey Robinson and John Legend. I could go on and on. These sessions are amazing.
And I have to tell you, these are some of my favorite events at the White House. They’re these truly intimate moments when the artists and the kids are sitting around in the State Dining Room. Very special. I make sure they know they’re sitting where we host kings and queens and leaders from all over the world. And in that room, they’re pouring their hearts out to each other. They get really close. They’re not just talking about music -- they’re talking about their hopes and dreams and their fears. They’re talking about the value of hard work, things like staying true to yourself, picking yourself up when you fall. That’s one thing I always say to the students -- failure is your only guarantee in life. So you got to figure that out.
And let me tell you, so many of the young people who’ve had these experiences, they walk away transformed -- how can you help but not be transformed -- with a new sense of purpose and hope.
Just take the example of a young woman named Trina Vargas who attended a workshop -- she attended that first workshop on the music of the civil rights, back in 2010, that Bob talked about. Now, Trina was raised by a single mother, much like many of the artists who perform and we have known and love. She’s from Guatemala. Her mother never had a chance to go to college herself. And while Trina worked hard in school, she wasn’t always sure that hard work would really pay off.
But her trip to the White House opened her eyes, and as she put it -- and these are just a few of her words -- she said, “I saw for the first time how education and hard work could open doors I never dreamed possible.” And she said, even though it isn’t easy to -- and “it’s easy to feel discouraged at times,” she said, “I won’t stop chasing my dreams.”
Well today, four years later, Trina has graduated Summa Cum Laude from SUNY Albany, and she’s now working her way towards law school. (Applause.) And I’m sure I could share hundreds of stories just like that.
So make no mistake about it, programs like this aren’t just about taking a fun field trip to Washington, and they shouldn’t just be luxuries for kids who can afford it. Because we know that engagement in the arts can unlock a world of possibilities for our young people, especially when it comes to their education.
Studies show that kids who are involved in the arts have higher grades, higher graduation rates, higher college enrollment rates. And when you think about it, that’s not really surprising. Because for many young people, arts education is the only reason they get out of bed in the morning. Just like Janelle, they go to school each day because there’s an instrument they want to play, a musical they want to perform in, a painting they are dying to finish. See, and then once they arrive in those classrooms, that’s when we can teach them something else, like math and writing and science. That is the power of the arts for so many of our young people.
But today, as we honor your work to promote arts education and we recognize leaders like Sunshine and Janelle, we also need to be thinking about all the young people who will never have these opportunities in this country. We need to be thinking about the six million children in this country who don’t have a single art or music class in their schools. (Applause.)
So for every Janelle Monae, there are so many young people with so much promise [that] they never have the chance to develop. And think about how that must feel for a kid to have so much talent, so much that they want to express, but it’s all bottled up inside because no one ever puts a paintbrush or an instrument or a script into their hand.
Think about what that means for our communities, that frustration bottled up. Think about the neighborhoods where so many of our kids live -- neighborhoods torn apart by poverty and violence. Those kids have no good outlets or opportunities, so for them everything that’s bottled up -- all that despair and anger and fear -- it comes out in all the wrong places. It comes out through guns and gangs and drugs, and the cycle just continues.
But the arts are a way to channel that pain and frustration into something meaningful and productive and beautiful. And every human being needs that, particularly our kids. And when they don’t have that outlet, that is such a tremendous loss, not just for our kids, but for our nation. And that’s why the work you all are doing is so important.
But we can’t stop here. Yes, you all have an abundance of riches here in Los Angeles. And yes, we do have a pretty big platform at the White House; people do tend to accept our invitations to perform and interact with young people. We’ve got a little leverage. But let’s not forget that there are theaters and symphonies and museums in cities and towns all across this country. And with every exhibit and performance they put on, these folks should be asking themselves, “How can we get some kids in here? How can we get these artists and performers to connect with young people in those communities?”
In other words, every arts organization in this country should be embracing the mission of the Grammy Museum. Because we cannot be satisfied until every child in America has some kind of exposure to the arts -- every child. Every child. (Applause.)
And to all the young people here today, I just want to urge you all to take the fullest advantage of these opportunities when you get them. Try as many new art forms as you can, and take some risks. Don’t be afraid to express yourself. And most importantly, take the lessons you learn through arts and apply them at school, and bring that same passion and dedication to getting the education you need to fulfill your dreams. And so many of you are already doing that, and I am incredibly proud of you all.
But today, I want to urge you to dream even bigger, work even harder, and don’t ever give up, no matter what challenges you face. Because if you do that, there is no limit to what you can achieve. And remember, there are so many people who believe in you. I believe in you. Your President believes in you. And all of these people here today believe in you.
So go out there and make us proud. And more importantly, make yourselves proud. Yes. (Applause.)
And to all of you here today who are doing so much to support these amazing young people, I want to end as I started by once again saying thank you. Thank you for your commitment to their future, to our country’s future. And I do look forward to continuing our work together in the months and years ahead.
Thank you all so much. (Applause.) Thank you.
I have one more wonderful task here today. You know that little fireplug of a woman that just stood here today? Well, I’m going to introduce her, because she’s going to come out here and do her thing.
But let me just say something about this young, beautiful, talented woman. First of all, I am honored to be the first Electric Lady. (Laughter.) I got my letter in the mail -- I framed it; it’s up. But when you listen to Janelle, when you hear her speak -- I love to hear her perform. And yes, she was on a table in the White House. And that’s our little secret. (Laughter.) But I love to hear her perform, but I love to hear her talk. I love Janelle’s message.
I love that she is one of the young artists here who is making music that means something. She has a message. She has a voice. She has a power in her. And she understands the responsibility she has within her grasp to take these opportunities and just take off with them. She serves as a role model and an inspiration to so many young people. And I am happy to call her my friend. I am so proud of her.
It is my pleasure to introduce the one, the only -- Janelle Monae. (Applause.)
12:46 P.M. PDT