On Marian Wright Edelman’s New Role


November 19, 2018

Marian Wright Edelman

On November 14, Marian Wright Edelman announced that after 45 years as the President of the Children’s Defense Fund she will be transitioning to the role of President Emerita in the Office of the Founder. She will continue to be the strong moral voice that this nation badly needs, insisting that child poverty in the United States is an unacceptable, unnecessary, and costly choice. She will continue to call upon us to follow her lead in the steady work of demanding justice for children. Ms. Edelman’s legacy (still in the making!) lies in showing the facts about the needs of children,  delivering these facts with compelling moral urgency, and inspiring advocates nationwide to work together to improve children’s lives.

Ms. Edelman likes to wear the image of Sojourner Truth at her neck, and often tells a story about that great freedom fighter, also recounted in Edelman’s famous book The Measure of Our Success: A Letter to My Children and Yours. An old man heckled Sojourner Truth as she was delivering an anti-slavery speech. He said, “ ‘Old woman, do you think that your talk about slavery does any good? Why I don’t care any more for your talk than I do for the bite of a flea.’ ‘Perhaps not, but the Lord willing, I’ll keep you scratching,’ she replied.”

That’s a good story, and not only because it’s such a satisfying verbal victory over the self-important old man. It’s also a guide for what Marian demands of us:  keep up the fight, every day, and we will see progress, no matter how powerful and entrenched our opponents seem to be.

Over her 45 years of steadfast leadership at CDF, more and more children got a “Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start.” Millions of children owe their education, quality child care, protection from abuse, medical care, and increased income to the work Marian Wright Edelman leads.

But in addition to Marian Wright Edelman’s resolute spirit, what stands out for me is her steadfast commitment to finding the truth about what children need and how best to provide it. From the very beginnings of the Children’s Defense Fund and onward, research showed that children with disabilities were being denied education, that working families could not afford child care, and that children were going without health care. In each case, CDF under Ms. Edelman’s leadership worked for significant and lasting change that improved children’s lives. (You should read First Focus’ President Bruce Lesley’s Tribute to Marian Wright Edelman for his description of her work towards the creation of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP).)

Ms. Edelman’s ongoing fight to end child poverty is a prime example of her steadfast pursuit of the truth. I know something about this because for nine years I worked on family income issues at CDF, and helped in the work that resulted in the book Wasting America’s Future. Marian had seen child poverty firsthand in Mississippi. She didn’t just rail against it; she was instrumental in getting Congress to change the food stamp program so that impoverished families no longer had to buy food coupons. She saw that they had no money to buy them and went hungry. Years later, Wasting America’s Future compiled research (skillfully done by then staffer Arloc Sherman, now with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities) showing concretely how poor children are more likely to experience chronic illnesses, lead poisoning, and accidents, and to fall behind in school for health and developmental reasons and also because of frequent housing moves and family instability. She then sought the next piece of evidence, commissioning estimates of the dollar costs of allowing millions of children to remain in poverty. She was insistent that people know how poverty hurts children and that its toll in reducing their ability to participate fully in our economic life is an avoidable cost. She assembled a distinguished Advisory Board chaired by Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Solow to oversee the research. Dr. Solow drew out the economist’s point: “The evidence in this volume indicates that ending child poverty is, at the very least, highly affordable. More likely it is a gain to the economy, and to the businesses, taxpayers, and citizens within it.”

Published in 1994, the book did not end child poverty. But it was part of a continuing chain of work, with more recent findings showing that child poverty and its attendant harms can be substantially reduced by investments in specific programs. She is showing us that we can lift millions of children out of poverty, that failing to do it imposes costs on all of us, and that as a very wealthy nation we can do something about it.

That’s a moral vision, strengthened by evidence. Marian Wright Edelman’s stature has been assured for many decades now, but in these lying times, she inspires all the more.

In announcing her transition to President Emerita, Ms. Edelman said she would “focus all my energies towards building a lasting movement for children to end child poverty and inequality through servant leadership development…” Servant leadership? That is what Marian Wright Edelman’s vision calls on all of us to provide – to serve together on behalf of children, who depend on us to defend them, and who in return will secure our future. More than ever, we need and celebrate Marian’s vision and work, and more than ever, we need to help her build that lasting movement.

child poverty