Obama was greeted by enthusiastic applause when she arrived for a luncheon for about 250 young people at the Detroit Institute of Arts.
Obama addressed the group in straightforward terms, acknowledging Detroit's tough economic predicament and the fact many of them come from poor families. But, she said, they can't use that as an excuse not to excel and help others along the way as they write a new, better chapter for the city.
"And that's why I am here. Young people, I am asking you to embrace that responsibility to be our future," she said.
"No one would blame you for choosing just to look out for yourselves. I get that. We all get that, right?
"But I hope of all hopes that you don't feel that way, because there is a real truth out there, and that is there are a lot of people listening."
She said she hoped the day's event would leave them energized to take on that role.
"Some of you may not have many role models to look up to -- but that shouldn't keep you from being a role model for somebody else," she said.
"Fight for every inch of your future. But take a little time each week to lift up the families, and neighbors, and schools that need your help today.
"We have got your backs. Sometimes you just need to know that big, important people out there are rooting for you."
The first lady was joined by former NBA star Magic Johnson, actor-director Spike Lee, singer Kimberly Locke, Susan Taylor, editor in chief emeritus of Essence magazine and founder of National CARES Mentoring Movement, and a string of public officials including Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., Detroit Mayor Dave Bing and Lloyd Carr, a former University of Michigan football coach.
Obama also was to make a stop at Wayne State University for a forum that was to draw several thousand teenagers.