Today it was announced that the founder and leader of the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF), Marian Wright Edelman, will transition out of the role of President to her new role as President Emerita.
After 45 years of leading CDF, and frankly, the children’s advocacy community, she will, in her own words, “step away from CDF’s day-to-day responsibilities and will focus all my energies towards building a lasting movement for children to end child poverty and inequality through servant leadership development at key spiritual retreats and convenings at CDF’s Haley Farm and continue to provide a moral compass for CDF.”
After my parents, who are both educators and have dedicated their lives to children, Marian Wright Edelman has been one of the most important inspirations to me when I was in college but also throughout my career, just as she has been for thousands of others in making their individual decisions to work in public policy, social justice, or child advocacy.
I have been inspired by Marian Wright Edelman since I first met her in 1969. She has spent her life as a crusading legal activist devoted to children, service and social justice. Watching and working with her is one of the greatest gifts anyone has ever given me.
Frankly, her decades of work on behalf of children in this country is unsurpassed. Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, correctly points out:
Over the last half-century, no one has done more to help the most vulnerable children in America than Marian Wright Edelman. After meeting starving children in the Mississippi Delta in the 1960s, she became the most passionate, strategic and effective advocate for helping poor children and their families in the nation. Her leadership and tenure at the Children’s Defense Fund has created rights and services that have aided millions of families. We owe her an enormous debt.
I had the pleasure of working with Marian Wright Edelman on the passage of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) when I was working in the Senate for a member on the Senate Finance Committee back in 1997. That was a difficult battle, as it was an expansion of health coverage for kids in legislation, the Balanced Budget Act of 1997, that was focused on cutting the federal budget deficit.
CHIP is far from perfect, as it is the only federal health care program that is not mandatory and is capped. It also had a lot of initial problems to work out in all 50 states across the country, but today, it provides the nation’s only child-focused, high-quality health insurance coverage to over 9 million children across this country. For all of us who worked on CHIP two decades ago, it has proven to be an incredible bipartisan success story.
That encapsulates the work of Marian Wright Edelman, as she often sees opportunity and hope in places where others see less or nothing at all. Her powerful voice has often had a way of transforming the playing field that is often stacked against children back toward a focus on their needs. In her words:
If you don’t like the way the world is, you change it. You have an obligation to change it. You just do it one step at a time.
Marian Wright Edelman has always been that leading moral voice for a better place for children in this country, whether on the issues related to child health, education, child poverty, child abuse and neglect, child hunger, homelessness, juvenile justice, or child rights. Although our country far too often fails to see past the needs of their own children, she has constantly implored the nation to do better for all of its children.
In a speech at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) in 1997, that vision was clear then and remains so today. She said:
Wouldn’t you like to believe that we and our leaders would make sure that our personal and collective actions and decisions made it easier rather than harder for children to grow up healthy, safe, and educated and that our personal, social, business, and public policies and practices made it easier rather than harder for parents to support their families and meet their children’s needs? Wouldn’t you like to believe that a people who committed to and succeeded in sending the first human to the moon, created an atomic bomb in forty-one months during World War II, and led the world in health and information technology could and would tackle and solve their children’s problems with the same can-do verve and will?
If we think we have ours and don’t have any time or money or effort to help those left behind, then we are part of the problem rather than the solution to the fraying social fabric that threatens all Americans.
During the two decades that I have know Marian Wright Edelman, including the decade that I have been her partner in the child advocacy community here at First Focus, I have found nobody more dedicated to the lives of children than her. More than once, I have become dispirited and upset by the actions of Congress or this President and have asked her about how she has kept up the fight for nearly half a century. Her response has been simple and direct, which is that “we must always and without hesitation do what is right for children.”
Unlike some child advocates, who can be accused of being too wimpy or accommodating of far too little, she is unwavering in her steadfast demand that our nation do better for its children. To those politicians that try to make excuses for why they cannot take action to improve the lives of kids, she quickly points out:
We do not have a money problem in America. We have a values and priorities problem.
When asked by a Washington Post reporter in 2013 if her reputation for being “inflexible” were true, her response was perfect and classic Marian Wright Edelman:
I’m inflexible about children being killed by guns, of course. I am totally intolerant and inflexible about children going hungry in the richest nation on earth . . . about children being homeless, about children being in schools that don’t teach them how to learn.
“If that is inflexible, yeah, I’m inflexible.
The fact is that she has never vacillated in her push for the nation to make important steps forward for children. I have purposely quoted her extensively in this tribute because, to me, it has always been her voice and words that have been so very important and powerful for children throughout her career.
With that, my favorite quote of her’s is:
If we don’t stand up for children, then we don’t stand for much.
And, if that is the test and it certainly should be, then there are few, if any, who stand taller than Marian Wright Edelman.