Marian Wright Edelman’s career in civil rights began when she organized a sit-in at a segregated cafeteria as a college student. She went on to work for voting rights in Mississippi and in 1965 became the first black woman lawyer in the state.
For the past 20 years, Edelman has headed the Children’s Defense Fund, the nation’s leading research and lobbying group devoted to the needs of children. She has held a steady spotlight on such problems as health care, teen-age pregnancy, violence and the growing cycle of poverty.
Despite her efforts, she has watched many of those problems escalate. In her book The Measure of Our Success, Edelman writes, “The mounting crisis of our children and families is a rebuke to everything America professes to be.” And she urges all Americans to “offer your hands” to the service of children in need.
The Measure of Our Success is in part a letter from Edelman to her grown sons, who were raised in the dual traditions of Judaism and Christianity by their black mother and Jewish father. She offers them “25 Lessons for Life,” firmly-worded rules of character intended to serve as guideposts not only for her children, but for society.
Among the lessons: “Remember and help America remember that the fellowship of human beings is more important than the fellowship of race and class and gender in a democratic society.”
In November, Edelman spoke with Teaching Tolerance editor Sara Bullard. Excerpted here are parts of the conversation, along with passages from The Measure of Our Success.
For years, you’ve been telling Americans in irrefutable terms about the harm we are doing to our children and the harm we are doing to our society as a result. But in 1992, the statistics on child poverty are as heartbreaking as ever. What needs to happen for us to make a real change in our children’s chances?
We’re going to have to have a massive transformation of values and priorities in this society, and it’s going to have to come from individuals all over this country, in every network and every nook and cranny of America, saying we want to take care of our kids. We need to invest in the tools of life—health care, food, housing and good education; not in the tools of death which is where we have robbed our children and robbed our country for so many years. We’re still spending $25 billion more this year than we did during an average year in the Cold War, and that $25 billion would take us a long way toward giving every child a head start and getting them ready for school.
You have urged adults to take responsibility for all of America’s children, to help give them a life that transcends boundaries of race, class, gender and other differences. In what ways can this be accomplished?
We have to recognize that we’re all teachers of our children in our everyday examples, because they do what we do, not what we tell them to do.
I was at the National Gallery in a room with a number of Jewish symbols, and a young boy with his mother was looking at a case with a tallis, and he said, “What is that?” And his mother immediately said, “That doesn’t have anything to do with you. Let’s go on.” I was very struck by the message that parent was sending.
Someone said once that every bigot is a child that was once without prejudice, and they learn these things from us as parents. Whether we snicker at racial jokes, who we associate with, the way we conduct ourselves in our daily lives—it’s very important for parents to make sure that the signals they send at home on race are signals of fairness and of tolerance.
Secondly, I think classroom teachers are crucial, because if we don’t have high expectations for every child, we should get out of the classroom. We can have all the fancy buildings we want, all the wonderful books we want, all the equipment we want, but if children don’t feel we care, and love them and respect them and expect them to learn, then it’s not going to work.
Teachers, after parents, are the most important molders of children’s self images. Somehow we have to think about how that child feels and whether we are transmitting messages and values and attention in ways that affirm their existence.
What in your upbringing gave you the sense that you could transcend the barriers of race and gender?
The first thing was really just a very deep grounding in faith. I come from a religious tradition where we were very much clear from the beginning that we were all children of God, and that no man could look down on us and we could look down on nobody else.
And despite living in a segregated community, despite the fact that we were excluded from things, our parents were there to say, “It’s not about you; it’s about them, and this is wrong.”
While it was a segregated existence, we always had a sense that the world could be better. So we were prepared to challenge and to struggle, and, because we had adults who kept affirming our worth and buffeted us against the negative messages of the outside world, we were able to keep that in balance.
Too many kids today don’t have those buffers, or those countervoices. I mean, where’s the countervoice to violence? Who’s speaking out strongly and consistently every day against racism and against hate crimes? It’s the good people’s silence which can be as damaging as the bad people’s actions.
What is the risk we run, if we do not address the problems of our children?
I think we’re in great danger of becoming two nations, one of first-world privilege and another of third-world deprivation. We’ve seen a disintegration in our sense of community and the renewing of racial divisions. And we’ve had a whole generation of children, white and black, grow up in an era where they’ve been told by our political leaders that government is useless, that blacks and the poor are to blame for their own conditions. Great, great damage has been done, but hopefully we can begin to turn that around.
We need a movement, and it has to come from parents and teachers and the religious community speaking up and saying, “This is wrong.” Somehow we have got to decide that it’s un-American for children to be judged by the color of their skin and for children to go without health care, immunizations and child care in the wealthiest nation on earth.
One of the things I am tired of is people telling me how much they admire me, and “Keep it up.” I keep saying “Help!” Everybody’s got to help. It’s not about other people doing things. Everybody’s got to assign themselves to building a more decent community, to healing our communities, and to saving our children.
What can schoolchildren do to help you?
I would love for schoolchildren to begin to write letters to their elected officials, telling them what life is like for them. Children writing to politicians matters. We had boxes and boxes of letters and drawings from children when we were trying to pass the national child care bill, and that made a big difference. And I hope that we can do the same thing on the issue of school readiness. I hope children will invite their congressmen to come out and visit them, and ask questions about what their representatives are doing for kids.
I think there should be curricula in every school, every church, where adults can discuss, with children, ways of fostering tolerance. We’ve got to find a way of engaging children in discussions and try to expose them to different kinds of children.
Children are instinctively more decent than we adults are. I think children should be given a voice and a way to participate. There was never a time when I was growing up that we were not involved and not aware. We always thought we could change the world, and that sense of empowerment is something that has to begin young.