Michelle Obama Chief Of Staff Tina Tchen Calls To Unite On The State Of Women

NASA/Aubrey Gemignani
Tchen sees a bright future for girls and women in the U.S. — and helps fuel a powerhouse roster of amazing women working to realize it.

When it comes to the status of women, girls, and nonbinary people in the world, I must confess that I’m not always filled with an unbridled optimism. Staring down a world where women make up just 12% of governors, 18% of mayors, 19% of Congress, and 5% of Fortune 1000 CEOs — to say nothing of the unique challenges faced by women of color and the rampant violence and homelessness affecting the trans community — often leaves me feeling an overwhelming sense of apathy.

Yes, of course we’ve made strides, but sprinkle in the stat that our progress is plodding along at a pace that won’t allow us to see gender parity for another 100 years, and my ennui becomes so full-blown that I feel I have no choice but to sidle up with a spoon and some Ben & Jerry’s.

Indeed, it’s not challenging to throw one’s hands up, look to the heavens, and ask “What’s the point?” Cynicism is easy; it demands literally nothing of us. And its seductiveness only grows when it enables the use of snark, arguably the new language of our Internet age.

But wrapped up in our cocoons of sarcasm and skepticism, we’re contributing to the complacency that holds up the abysmal status quo. I love a sardonic joke targeting the latest misogynistic Trump quote, but no amount of jabs — no matter how cutting — will combat, say, the issue of pay inequality. Sometimes, though, even reiterating this reality to myself — even while staring steely-eyed at my own reflection in the mirror — isn’t enough to compel me to cast aside my pint of Chunky Monkey.

Tina Tchen, however, as I learned on Wednesday, can. Hailing from the land of high-powered, Chicago-based lawyer-dom, she’s currently assistant to the president, chief of staff to First Lady Michelle Obama, and the executive director of the White House Council on Women and Girls. Our paths crossed at the Makers Conference in Rancho Palos Verdes in California where she spoke on a panel discussing “The Next Generation.” In what Tchen referred to as the “culmination of the last seven years,” she spoke on the White House’s just-announced, United State of Women summit. Slated for May 23, the summit will be the first-ever dedicated to women and girls.

Wrapped up in our cocoons of sarcasm and skepticism, we’re contributing to the complacency that holds up the abysmal status quo.

Because, as Tchen asserted on stage, “women’s lives don’t exist in silos,” the summit will bring together a diverse range of attendees — hailing from NGOs, academia, activist groups, and the corporate world. These representatives will tackle issues as multifaceted as their backgrounds, discussing, among other topics, educational opportunity, health and wellness, and violence against women.

And yes, the First Couple will be in attendance.

“We want to talk about solutions that work,” Tchen said frankly, adding that this was not a summit for heads of state, but for the people doing the work on the ground. “We want a lot of young women involved.”

Pattie Sellers, executive director of Fortune MPW live content and the panel’s moderator, cited the importance of accountability, pressing Tchen on how to keep moving the proverbial ball down the field. How, she asked, would we fuel the current momentum into the next administration?

Tchen’s answer was simple: “We put on the biggest and best conference ever.” Such a concise answer coming from your average human would seem a potentially artificial and dubious sidestep of Seller’s question. But from Tchen, whose authenticity was apparent throughout the panel, the words piqued a precious morsel of hope. By celebrating successes and “demonstrating the power of the next generation,” momentum, she said, would be certain to continue.

The state of women can seem bleak, yes — but then again, we’ve also never had a dedicated summit at the White House with a president rallying around the issue of gender inequality.

Tchen sat down with me after her panel and graciously allowed me to pepper her with questions. We chatted about the summit, presidentiality in the age of social media, and, because I couldn’t help myself, whether the First Lady is as “awesome as she seems.” [Happy spoiler alert: she is.] An abridged version of our conversation is below.

Kelley Calkins: People talk a lot about “women’s empowerment” and yet a lot of efforts seem hollow or anemic. What makes this summit different? What are the things you’ve learned over your expansive career that are actionable and work to effect change?

Tina Tchen: I think the key is leveraging all the various threads that are out there. The whole is more than the sum of its parts.

For example, in our recent Let Girls Learn initiative, we looped in the issues of maternal health, child health, the economy, child marriage, and education, etc. It’s important to get the various spheres in conversation with one another. These issues are multifaceted, and you need to loop in all their various components to be successful in addressing them.

Kelley: You discussed the next generation and younger activists a lot in your panel. I’m curious what your thoughts are on how they’re different from older generations of activists.

Tina: What strikes me as different about the next generation is how they’re translating their personal lives into their activism; they’re really putting themselves out there in a way I don’t think my generation did. Lena Dunham founded Lenny Letter and is writing about her experiences of endometriosis. I wouldn’t be able to write such personal things.

I think what is sometimes missing, though, is taking that power of telling these stories and projecting it larger. What doesn’t always happen is translating the personal into public policy issues; taking an experience, connecting it to various policies in place, and taking action on those fronts.

What strikes me as different about the next generation is how they’re translating their personal lives into their activism.

Kelley: Are you speaking about a lack of civic engagement? Is that what’s missing?

Tina: I came out of the Obama campaign, so I can say there’s definitely not a lack of civic engagement. The base is fired up, people are doing things, working with the government, and that’s exciting.

What I think has changed is that issues are more complex these days. Concerning reproductive rights, it’s not just Roe vs. Wade — it’s long-term contraception, it’s access to care, etcetera. The issues are more complicated, but just as important.

Kelley: Are there issues that don’t fall within the scope of government? Issues that the government shouldn’t touch?

Tina: I think it has less to do with what government should and shouldn’t do, and more that we need to involve all spheres. It’s about creating jobs, which requires companies and entrepreneurs. We need to include NGOs, academia, activists. This is why, in the White House Council on Women and Girls, we include all the government agencies and people from all sectors.

Kelley: Is there a quality you have that you think is most responsible for your success? A quality women should think about and focus on?

Tina: Oh, that’s tough. I’ve never been asked that question . . . but what comes to mind first and what I enjoy most about my current job is that it allows me to connect people. I see how people and groups relate, and I can bring them together. I’m good at seeing the commonalities in what people care about and encouraging them to work together. Fitting together agendas and bringing people together is important and probably something everyone should focus on and do more of.

Kelley: I have to ask, is working with Michelle Obama as awesome as it seems?

Tina: Michelle’s really wonderful — and she’s taught me a ton. She’s very authentic, and she focuses on the issues that matter to her and passionately pursues them. She’s really harnessed the role of being the first First Lady in the social media age. It’s a brand-new media environment that she’s navigating. She said the other day, “If Eleanor Roosevelt were in office today, she’d be running Twitter chats in addition to speaking on the radio.”

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this presidential couple is in office at this time when new ways of communicating is exploding. Some people criticize the First Couple when they take new approaches, they say what they’re doing isn’t a “traditional” White House approach. But this environment has never existed before, and the Obamas have a natural instinct for how to use this new technology.

Michelle is big on reaching audiences, and emphasizes the importance of meeting people where they are, and social media can be great for that.

Kelley: Hailing from the media world, there’s an ongoing discussion about social media, what it’s changing and how. From your perspective in government, do you have thoughts on the role and value of social media — is it a “good thing”?

Tina: With the Internet and social media, there’s massive accessibility to information, which is wonderful. And there are brand-new ways to engage with people, which is great.

But there’s also a darker side, of course — the bullying, the harassment that goes along with the ability to be anonymous. I think what we’re seeing are a lot of growing pains. We’re all learning at the same time what those are. There isn’t a small test group for this technology — we’re all that group and trying to figure it all out.

Every member of Congress now has a Twitter account. Social media really allows for two-way communication, which we try to emphasize at the White House. We don’t just want to tweet things out into a vacuum; we want feedback from people. We’re getting the voices of “real” people constantly. Social media allows us to harness the great power of the campaign trail. On the campaign, you’re in living rooms, you’re shaking hands, you’re hearing what people think and want and need, but then you get elected and vanish into your government bubble. Social media allows us to continue to hear these voices, and it’s exciting.

Kelley: Do you think it will affect the shape of public policy, this two-way street with new voices? People talk a lot about the democratization of the Internet, how it allows for marginalized people and their opinions to get into the mix. Will these have an effect on government and policy?

Tina: The Internet and social media are powerful, but they’re tools. Everything depends on how you use it, but definitely the Internet is creating possibilities. It’s really up to the public on how they use them.

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