interviews

Michelle Obama’s Former Chief of Staff Tina Tchen on the Importance of Diversity and Community Action

The Obama Foundation hosted its inaugural summit in Chicago this week, where hundreds of rising and established community leaders gathered to exchange ideas, explore creative solutions to common problems, and experience civic art, technology, and music from around the world. The Obamas were in attendance, of course, along with other world leaders and community activists like Prince Harry, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Elizabeth Alexander and Tina Tchen, Michelle Obama’s former chief of staff.

The Cut spoke with Tchen just before she led a summit breakout session on empowering women and girls around the world. Here, she talks about her days in the Obama administration, diversity in the workplace, and more.

On her role as chief of staff to Mrs. Obama and executive director of the White House Council for Women and Girls:

I oversaw the social office, the team responsible for the events at the White House, like Halloween, which we just had; the Easter Egg Roll; and the State Dinner. I also helped run each of the four initiatives we operated, like Let’s Move to combat childhood obesity; Joining Forces to support veterans and military families; Reach Higher to help disadvantaged kids go to college; and Let Girls Learn to support adolescent girls completing their education globally.

The President’s message was every part of the federal government will touch the lives of women and girls so every part needs to be thinking about how the policies, or the laws, or even their own employees, affect the lives of women and girls. So we oversaw that from the White House Council, encouraging agencies to do work like opening all occupations in the military to women or having programs in the Department of Transportation to increase the number of female highway engineers. But then we also did several initiatives that cut across all agencies, like our work on violence against women, which we worked with Vice President Biden on; efforts to combat campus sexual assault; and the first-ever White House Summit on Working Families.

On the importance of workplace diversity:

There’s plenty of data and research right now that shows the more diverse a workplace is, a company is, the leadership is, then the more profitable and successful an institution is going to be.

As a lawyer, it was especially meaningful to me that we diversify the federal bench. You know, federal judges have a lifetime appointment so they affect public policy and the laws of our country in very profound ways for a long period of time, in ways that sometimes the general public doesn’t even realize because it’s happening in a courtroom.

Having that same diversity of thought and experience in our federal judiciary is very important to make sure we are getting good judicial decisions made and decisions that reflect the diversity of our country.

On getting involved at the community level:

We talk about this a lot in the United State of Women, [of which I’m an advisor], and I think it’s a theme for the Obama Foundation. People need to find their own voices and need to act on those voices locally. What this Summit is about is lifting up those great young leaders. Here’s a problem, and here’s a solution, and it’s not a big global solution. It’s a local solution, but that local solution really builds upon itself and is the foundation upon which you build bigger community action.

That’s very much, I think, how President Obama and Mrs. Obama saw their careers and personal trajectories, and the hope here is to create an architecture and a platform to allow that kind of leadership to develop.

Tina Tchen on the Importance of Diversity