The 2019 Human Needs Hero Reception: ‘We are not going backwards.’
“Service is the rent we pay for being. It is the very purpose of life, and not something you do in your spare time.”
– Marian Wright Edelman
CHN members, supporters, friends, and activists gathered in the Gompers Room of the AFL-CIO headquarters last week for an evening of celebration, commiseration, and congratulations, even in the shadow the Trump White House just a few blocks away.
This year, at the 2019 Human Needs Hero Reception, CHN honored longtime children’s and anti-poverty advocate Marian Wright Edelman and Peter Edelman, Faculty Director of the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality, and also a longtime champion in the fight against poverty. The two received CHN’s Human Needs Hero Awards.
Presenting the awards were Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR); La’Mont Geddis, Community School and Freedom School Director, National Center for Children and Families; Wendell Primus, Senior Policy Advisor for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi; and Kisha Bird, Director of Youth Policy, Center on Law and Social Policy (CLASP).
Olivia Golden, Executive Director of CLASP and a CHN Board officer, emceed the event. She noted that Marian Wright Edelman was her first boss in Washington, DC, starting in 1991, when Golden moved here to work for the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF).
“It’s from her that I learned to ‘assign yourself,’ in Marion’s words, to figure out what needs to be done and step forward to do it,” Golden said. “I learned from her never to let anyone tell you that you have to choose between being honest and being persuasive – you have to do both. I learned from her always, always to look for incremental advance and hold on to the big vision.”
Now, Golden noted, Peter Edelman is a boss of hers – he serves on the CLASP Board of Directors. CLASP is a nonprofit advocacy group that works on behalf of low-income people to reduce poverty, promote economic opportunity and address barriers faced by people of color.
“He has played an incredible variety of roles over his career, on the Hill, leading a state youth agency, serving in the federal government, and, of course, as a scholar and author and professor,” Golden said. “So he’s modelled for all of us that advocacy is about the person, not about the job. You can be an advocate from many different places.”
The Edelmans have been involved in the fight against poverty since the 1960s – in fact, that’s how they met. They met in Mississippi, as Peter Edelman was doing advance work for Sen. Robert Kennedy, helping plan a visit by Senators to see the extreme poverty in the Mississippi Delta. The Senators were invited by Marian Wright, who had testified about people being so poor that they could not afford to buy the food stamp coupons that would put food on their table.
Following that visit, two things happened of historic consequence. First, Marian, Peter and Senator Kennedy worked to convince the Secretary of Agriculture to change the regulations allowing this “…penniless group to get food stamps without charge,” as Marian wrote in her memoir Lanterns. And second, Marian and Peter became married, becoming only the third interracial couple to marry in Virginia, in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Loving decision striking down bans on such marriages.
In his book, Searching for America’s Heart: RFK and the Renewal of Hope, Peter Edelman wrote, “Newly married to my wonderful wife, Marian, with her own passion for justice, which has brought her from the civil rights movement in Mississippi to the Children’s Defense Fund, I decided to pursue my personal memorial to Robert Kennedy by carrying on his spirit.”
Peter Edelman’s passion and conviction have never left him; he is known in progressive circles as one of a handful of former aides in the Clinton Administration who resigned his position in protest of passage of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, a change to the nation’s welfare system that resulted in a massive reduction in benefits to Americans most in need.
Last year, Marian Wright Edelman announced she was stepping away from her position as President of the Children’s Defense Fund and would serve as CDF’s President Emerita. Wyden noted that he is the ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee – a committee that has jurisdiction over retirement issues.
“I want to announce tonight that nobody, not on my watch, allows Mrs. Edelman to retire,” Wyden joked.
Turning serious, Wyden said Edelman’s “passion, her smile, her desire to bring people together have just been infectious all those years. And now, in these times, we need this more than ever.
“Thank you for never accepting business as usual if people were hurting. Thank you,” Wyden said.
For her part, Edelman struck a theme of refusing to go backwards in these difficult times, when the federal government’s percent of expenditures on children’s programs has dropped to a modern-day low, and children face cuts to programs such as SNAP and Medicaid. It was a quite similar message to a letter she wrote to the community of children’s advocates and others when she announced she was stepping down as President of CDF.
“We are not going to backwards. This Trump is not going to set the agenda for children. We are,” Edelman declared.
Wednesday’s night festivities brought out a diverse and impressive array of individuals – new and experienced staffers from CHN’s broad membership of faith organizations, service providers, labor and civil rights groups, policy experts, and more. Throughout the evening, the culture and collaborative nature of “coalition” was in the air..
“From CLASP’s perspective, CHN has always been incredibly useful and it has never been more important than today, in a climate where no one organization can do it alone,” Golden said.