My Morning at the White House with Michelle Obama

October 28, 2010

Last week, I had the honor of going to the White House to pick up an award from Michelle Obama. No, it wasn't for Hyphen. (Though I'd love to be invited back for Hyphen -- hint, hint to any White House staffers reading this.) I was representing San Francisco WritersCorps, a program that places published writers in San Francisco communities to teach creative writing to youth.

WritersCorps was one of 15 organizations from across the country receiving the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Awards. (Here's a story in the Washington Post about the awards.) One adult and one youth were allowed to represent each program at the awards ceremony. I traveled to Washington, DC with Nicole, a 17-year-old student who has participated in WritersCorps for three years.

The morning of the ceremony, we got up early to put on our Sunday best and boarded a bus that took all of the program winners to the White House. After several security checks, we were let into the White House. In the hallway were photos of the Obamas mixed in with photos from the past.

The decor in the White House is just as you'd imagine: stately and ornate. It was like a museum except well-lived. 

We were led into the East Room, where the ceremony would take place.

The room soon filled with people. The award is given out by the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities and some of the people who serve on the committee are celebrities. I saw Sarah Jessica Parker, Edward Norton, Forest Whitaker, and Alfre Woodard. I think I also spied Yo-Yo Ma. I was hoping to see Jhumpa Lahiri, who is the only writer on the committee (and the only other Asian American besides Yo-Yo Ma) but if she was there, I missed her. 

Then we all stood as the Michelle Obama came out. I didn't think I could be any more excited.

When they called WritersCorps up to the stage, I felt like I was dreaming. The first lady shook my hand and gave NIcole a hug. Watch video of the first lady's speech and the ceremony here. (We get called up to the stage at about the 20:22 mark).

Here I am with Nicole and our award plaque at the reception following the ceremony in the State Dining Room. (I seem to be trying to do my best Michelle Obama arms in this photo.)

One of other awardees was YouthCAN, a program of the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience in Seattle. I met King Lau, a 17-year-old student, and Josh Heim, an exhibits developer at the museum who oversees YouthCAN. We spent some time site-seeing in DC together.

The Wing, as they call it, is located in Seattle's International District, the cultural hub of Seattle's Asian American community. YouthCAN is its after-school youth development program. Through YouthCAN, immigrant and low-income Asian American high school youth get the chance to make art with professional artists, develop museum programs, explore their heritage and build their leadership skills. I wish there was a program like this when I was growing up!

If you are in the Seattle area, go check out YouthCAN's latest exhibit, On the Ground Up, which explores the origins of style among Asian Pacific American youth. Join them for an opening reception (and award celebration) this Friday, October 29, starting at 4:30 pm. Details for the reception here. The exhibit is up through March 27.

But perhaps the best people to tell you about YouthCAN and the exhibit are Josh and King themselves. So, here's a brief interview with them:


Melissa Hung

Founding Editor

Melissa Hung is the founding editor of Hyphen. She was the editor in chief for the magazine's first five years and went on to serve in many other leadership roles on the staff and board for more than a decade. She is a writer and freelance journalist. Her essays and reported stories have appeared in NPR, Vogue, Pacific Standard, Longreads, and Catapult, among others. She grew up in Texas, the eldest child of immigrants. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.



That was awesome! Congratulations on your work and on the amazing opportunity to meet the First Lady of the USA.  I am grean with envy! 
Awesome! Very positive story. It must be such an honor to meet the First Lady in person.  The very best for the future!
So awesome that you got to meet Michelle Obama and so awesome that your group was honored as well. Angela at mommy bytes
Hyphen is next!