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'Be Resilient': Obama Advisor Valerie Jarrett Shares Life Lessons With Wichita Girls

Courtesy mypictureman, LLC
Valerie Jarrett, center, poses with members of the mentoring and scholarship program Caring Ladies Assisting Students to Succeed, or CLASS.

Valerie Jarrett, senior advisor to President Barack Obama, spoke in Wichita Saturday at the annual Sisterhood of the Queens event. The luncheon was held in part to raise scholarship money for high school girls who are part of a mentoring program offered by Rise Up For Youth.

Valerie Jarrett, who advises the leader of the free world, sat down with teens in Wichita during a closed session and listened to their stories. The girls are part a program offered by the nonprofit organization Rise Up For Youth. The civic leader also spoke at their luncheon, sharing life lessons she’s learned along the way.

"What I did tell them is you have to work hard in school, you’ve got to dream big, you can’t let anybody tell that you can’t accomplish whatever you want to do," Jarrett says. "If you have a setback, you’ve got to get up, be resilient. You’ve got to ask for help."

Jarrett says she made up her mind to come Wichita after meeting supporters of Rise Up For Youth at the White House.

"That day I committed to come here and to have a chance to speak to these amazing young women who have gone through more challenges than any young person should have to go through at a very early age," she says, "but most importantly, they’ve overcome those challenges because they have help."

Credit Courtesy mypictureman, LLC
Lynn Gilkey speaks at Saturday's Sisterhood of the Queens event.

Help from people like Lynn Gilkey. She’s the co-founder of Rise Up For Youth. She created Caring Ladies Assisting Students to Succeed (CLASS), a mentoring and educational scholarship program that supports girls in three Wichita high schools.

Gilkey, who’s overcome her own troubled past, is very committed to the students.

"My phone is on 24/7. I get late night texts," she says. "If there’s a moment where I need to come get them for [them to] be safe I do that, but they know that I’m available 24/7."

Gilkey says CLASS teaches the girls that they have a community that cares. Students attend weekly sessions and monthly workshops on various topics with speakers who discuss self esteem, healthy body images, and how to conduct yourself in an interview.

Credit Carla Eckels / KMUW
Kristn Stinnett

Kristn Stinnett went through the CLASS program and is now a student at Washburn University in Topeka. She says she still calls on Gilkey, who helped build her self-esteem.

"I graduated high school never thinking I would go to college. I’m a sophomore now," Stinnett says. "I’m in honors classes, I joined a sorority, I joined black student union, I’m in leadership institute, things that are out of my character. In high school I was a shy little girl. Now I have confidence. I have enough self esteem to go out and claim the world."

Tatiyanna Ray is another CLASS alum. She attends Fort Hays State and wants to be a detective.

Credit Carla Eckels / KMUW
CLASS alum Tatiyanna Ray

"Me realizing now in college, you know, it’s [a] way different ballgame so, ... I have to recognize first who I am as a person and to accept myself and learn self worth," Ray says. "Miss Lynn [Gilkey], she helped me see that in myself and now I’m just putting that all into play."

And Valerie Jarrett saw it, too.

"What I saw in them is what Lynn has done," she says. "Rebuild their self confidence enough so they can ask for help so they are extraordinary young women. I’m so proud of them and it was just an honor for me to have a chance to meet them."

And Stinnett gives Valerie Jarrett a personal thumbs up. She says hearing Jarrett’s speech was very impactful.

"I’m a legal studies major, so it’s always great to see somebody of African-American descent or a woman in a male-dominated field somewhere I wanna be, and I was like, 'Whew,'" Stinnett says. "You don’t see a lot of people or women in that field doing what she is doing, so to see that is inspiring and it’s eye-opening and like my dreams can actually come true."

Jarrett, who also chairs the White House Council on Women and Girls, says the organization has been doing a lot of research with educators across the country. She says one of the challenges that young girls face is sexual assault.

"The long-term traumatic effects of that on young girls is just very different than it is for boys, and what we have to do is recognize that, get them out of harm's way, [and] put them into a safe, loving environment where they can trust again," Jarrett says. "And that is hard for some of these young girls because the people closest to them have abused them sexually."

Jarrett says one in five women are sexually assaulted while in college.

"If that were any other statistic where that applied you would call it an epidemic. It’s an epidemic," she says. "And so we have a program that we launched called 'It’s On Us,' which means everybody has to get involved in trying to stop the assault on our college campuses."

Credit Courtesy mypictureman, LLC
Audience members listen to a speaker at Saturday's Sisterhood of the Queens event.

The Chicago lawyer also spoke about the importance of education for girls, and highlighted STEM programs that promote science, technology, engineering and math.

When asked which of her life lessons has aided her work at the White House, Jarrett mentions the importance of taking chances as part of the Obama administration.

“What President Obama came into, if you can remember, was an enormous crisis. We were losing 750,000 jobs a month. Our unemployment rate went up to 10 percent and we had to be bold and we had to take some actions that some might have thought were unpopular at the time," she says.

Jarrett says part of the lesson that she’s learned over the past 7-plus years as senior advisor to Obama is consistent with her life lesson.

"You have to be resilient, you have to take the long view, and every day I try to remind myself of why we’re there, and that is in service to the American people," she says. "Not to achieve some political notch on the belt, but to try to do what these folks are doing right here in Wichita, and that’s improve the [lives] of young people who are counting on us. "


Carla Eckels is assistant news director and the host of Soulsations. Follow her on Twitter @Eckels.

To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.