Student Well-Being Opinion

The Legacy of Michelle Obama and the Let Girls Learn Initiative

By Heather Singmaster — January 12, 2017 6 min read
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“That’s my final message to young people as first lady. Lead by example with hope, never fear. And know that I will be with you, rooting for you and working to support you for the rest of my life.”

With those words, Michelle Obama ended her final speech as First Lady of the United States. Throughout her tenure as First Lady, Mrs. Obama demonstrated a clear commitment to education, wellbeing, and inclusion for all. With her, as with many, her actions speak louder than words—although she’ll certainly be remembered for her eloquence. I thought it appropriate to reflect on one of her major global education accomplishments in tribute: the Let Girls Learn campaign.

Let Girls Learn

The Let Girls Learn campaign supports educating girls—one of Mrs. Obama’s top priorities—and is one of the signature programs launched by the Obamas. Sixty-two million girls around the world are not in school, even though education leads to girls marrying later, earning higher salaries, and having healthier families. And according to the Global Partnership for Education, a one-percent increase in female education in a country “raises the average gross domestic product (GDP) by 0.3-percentage points and raises annual GDP growth rates by 0.2-percentage points.” Educating girls leads to economic and social development resulting in more stability in countries around the world. Mrs. Obama called on countries around the world to increase access to education for girls and work to empower them to become leaders, while doing the same in the United States.

Mulberry School for Girls
“Civilizations are built in schools,” agrees Vanessa Ogden, head teacher of Mulberry School for Girls, where Mrs. Obama chose to launch the UK Let Girls Learn initiative. This joint British-American partnership includes $200 million to support girls’ education globally, including in countries affected by conflict and crisis.

I visited the school last fall as part of a visit by the Global Cities Education Network. The school is in the Tower Hamlets district of East London, which contains many of the city’s immigrant communities. A non-selective school, students come from the surrounding community—94 percent of the girls are of Bangladeshi heritage and 98 percent are practicing Muslims. This part of London contains more child poverty than anywhere else in England—75 percent of secondary students receive the pupil premium (what we call free and reduced lunch in the United States). A core tenet of the school is “women as leaders"—this focus helped turn the school around and make it one of the leading schools for girls in the country.

Developing female leaders is embedded into the three educational aims of the school:

  1. Engender high levels of academic ambition and develop academic and technical skills.
  2. Personal development of the students through character education.
  3. Enable high aspirations and self-determination in the students.

Beyond the rigorous curriculum that sets a high standard for all students and incorporates 21st century skills, students are all encouraged to (and the overwhelming majority do) participate in afterschool activities. More than 50 clubs exist—most started by the students themselves. There is also an annual student-run Youth Conference (organized by the sixth year students), a partnership with the London Stock Exchange, and opportunities for students to attend conferences and events throughout the city.

Inspiring a Study of Civil Rights
Mrs. Obama was so impressed with the school that she invited a delegation of the girls to Washington, DC, to get their input on the formation of the Let Girls Learn campaign. Instead of going only to DC, they established a civil rights club at the school and extended the visit to a weeklong tour of the southern United States to learn about the American civil rights movement.

Hand-in-hand with the focus on women’s leadership, Mulberry places an emphasis on feminism, human rights, and promoting students as agents of change. Students have many opportunities to take on roles as leaders and ambassadors and educate their peers. Given this incredible opportunity from the White House, a rigorous application process was established to decide who would attend the trip—a process that simultaneously facilitated their education and engagement in civil rights. Potential applicants had to attend a series of workshops to learn about civil rights, write an application, give a speech to a panel of teachers, and complete an interview with senior staff.

The twenty girls who made it through the application process traveled first to Washington, DC, where they met Mrs. Obama (again!), and then to Memphis, TN, and Birmingham, AL, where they investigated the development of civil rights from the Civil War to the present day. One of the students describes the overall experience, “Our visit to the United States showed us that there are people out there, like Michelle Obama, who are working to change and improve the world. It also showed us that we, too, are part of that effort. It is our work to change the world for the better. It is a team effort. We are all part of that team.” Another student reflected, “Michelle Obama said to us that the Civil Rights movement is still ‘flowing and growing’. Its work is not finished. An important thing that I learned from that trip is that we can continue the work of the activists that came before us. We can defeat bad and work for good, so long as we are all united.”

Continuing to Inspire
Last year, another group of students entered—and won—a competition to travel to Florida to participate in the 2016 U.S. presidential election as campaign interns—which included going door to door to help get out the vote. Part of the competition involved formulating their own campaign that they would carry out upon their return from Florida. They call it “Beyond the Head Scarf,” and it was inspired by none other than Michelle Obama, who stated when she visited the school her hope that one day people will value Muslim women and “look beyond the headscarf.” The campaign will include qualitative research and focus groups with peers and result in workshops on tackling Islamophobia.

And it continues, another direct inspiration from Mrs. Obama’s visit is an idea formulated by the girls: they will design and host the Girl Leading leadership camp in April. The two-day event will enable secondary school girls from across the city, many from disadvantaged backgrounds, to develop self-confidence and leadership skills. These skills will then be put to use in supporting the Let Girls Learn Initiative.

Worldwide Impact
This example just shows the impact the Let Girls Learn initiative has had on one school. Worldwide, the campaign has invested more than $1 billion in over 50 countries. Eleven other countries—including the UK—have invested separately. Private sector investments include over $5 million in addition to the supplies and expertise that companies have been providing.

The impact of the Let Girls Learn campaign will continue to be felt in the years to come, and what began with Mrs. Obama has become something far greater and will continue to empower millions of girls around the world. In Mrs. Obama’s words, “There are still many causes worth sacrificing for, so much history yet to be made.” And that history will be made, in part, by women empowered through the Let Girls Learn campaign.

Connect with Heather and the Center for Global Education on Twitter.

Photos from whitehouse.gov.

The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.