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A conversation with Marian Wright Edelman

Special Report

The children’s defender

A conversation with Marian Wright Edelman

Her name is synonymous with child advocacy. No one in the nation is more celebrated for being a champion for children than Marian Wright Edelman. Forty years ago, she founded the Children’s Defense Fund. Since then she and the organization have been at the forefront of overhauling public policy in child poverty, early childhood development, education and health. They’ve pushed to protect poor and minority children and those with special needs. They’ve worked to prevent gun deaths among children and teens for over two decades. Edelman calls the culture of violence in America “an obscenity.”

Her stature in the public policy arena is unparalleled. A graduate of Spelman College and Yale Law School, she was the first black woman admitted to the Mississippi Bar. Her awards and honors include the Albert Schweitzer Humanitarian Prize, a MacArthur “genius award” Fellowship, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Robert F. Kennedy Lifetime Achievement Award and more than 100 honorary degrees.

Paul Costello, Stanford Medicine’s executive editor, spoke with Edelman about the state of America’s children. She began the interview with a rapid roll of data detailing a state of peril for children. At the end, Costello asked her to describe the world she would conjure if she were to rewrite the iconic John Lennon song Imagine. Read on to see what she believes belongs in a museum.


Costello: Last spring in a commencement speech, you said that nowhere is the paralysis of public and private conscience more evident than in the neglect and abandonment of millions of our children whose futures will determine our nation’s ability to compete and lead in the new era. I found that to be a very provocative statement. 

Edelman: Well, we have 7.9 million children in extreme poverty. Every 47 seconds, we stand by as children are abused and neglected. Every 82 seconds, a child is born to a teen mother. We could fill up the city of Atlanta with the children who are having children. While we’ve made some progress on health coverage, every 72 seconds a child is born without health insurance. And the figure that worries me the most is every three hours and 15 minutes a child or teen is killed by a gun.

We have lost more children to guns in the last 50 years than we have lost in American battle casualties in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. That’s disgraceful, and we’ve got to stop.


Costello: How do you reconcile all of the facts and figures you’ve just enunciated and remain optimistic about the future for kids?

Edelman: The fact is, over the last 40 years I thought we’d be out of business by now, because I thought if we told people that here’s the right thing to do for children, and here’s the cost-effective things for us to do as taxpayers that they would do the right thing. They haven’t. On the other hand, I remain optimistic because I’ve seen change. I mean, when we started doing child gun-violence reports 22 years ago, there were 16 children dying every day from gunfire. Today, it’s seven and three-quarters. That’s still an obscenity, but it’s more than halved.


Costello: Nearly half of the states are opting out of Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act. These states are, essentially, walking away from billions of dollars, and walking away from expanding health care to the poor. The impact for children’s health? 

Edelman: It’s a dumb investment policy. These Medicaid expansion refusals are a real disservice to the people of those states. It’s going to cost them more and is going to spill over into many other things. This is an education issue, not just a health issue. Children who can’t see or hear the teacher are not going to learn well. Children whose attention-deficit disorders are not diagnosed are not going to do well. It is very unfortunate, and we need to be monitoring and raising a ruckus. 


Costello: There are some who believe that philanthropy can fill in the gap left by cuts in government social programs. 

Edelman: There’s not enough charitable dollars that can make up for the food stamp cuts and the cuts in other nutrition programs. Charity will not educate all those children who were cut from classrooms in the summers and, during the school year, the teachers that are lost. In a fair system, there needs to be just provision for those who cannot make it for themselves, and there ought to be just opportunities to work: just opportunities for every child to be able to come onto this Earth with a level playing field and succeed according to their abilities. We don’t have that.


Costello: One in three black and one in six Latino boys born in 2001 is going to end up in prison in their lifetimes. You describe this as the cradle-to-prison pipeline of mass incarceration, as America’s new apartheid. Those are jarring words.

Edelman: The combination of poverty, race and illiteracy is overwhelming. Many of them are being shunted off into the prison pipeline. This is exacerbated by school discipline policies that now are applied disproportionately against children of color — particularly on the black and Latino males.

They’re criminalizing our schools. They’re criminalizing children at younger and younger ages. I never thought I’d see the day when we’d be arresting and expelling 5-year-olds and 6-year-olds, and handcuffing them, and sending them off to the juvenile justice system for things that used to be handled in the principal’s office.


Costello: What worries you about pop culture today?

Edelman: Its triviality, its mindlessness. I think we really threw out the spiritual baby in the bathwater of American materialism. The question is, how do we find a way of redefining the measure of what we mean by success in America, because I think we’ve gone astray. Our children are lost. I may be old-fashioned but certain enduring values don’t change: the basic concept of justice, the basic concept of mutual respect. As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, I hope we will pay attention to the first part about the uncashed promissory note for millions of children and people of color and people with special needs who have not been able to find total inclusion in our society. 


Costello: Shortly after the school shootings in Newtown, Conn., in your online column you quoted David Wheeler, the father of a 6-year-old who was killed there, as saying, “This time around, I promise there will be change.” But a bipartisan effort to expand background checks on gun sales failed in the U.S. Senate last spring. What would you tell Mr. Wheeler about why his promise hasn’t been fulfilled?

Edelman: Change is very hard in Washington, and it seldom happens on the first time or the second time. You have an incredibly powerful opposition — even if it does not reflect the professed majority sentiment of this country. The NRA never gives up, and the gun manufacturers never give up, and they’re well-funded.

But I’m not unhopeful when I look at what has happened in Connecticut and Colorado and New York State [all of which passed gun-control laws after the Newtown shootings, in December 2012]. The momentum hasn’t died. We’ve just gone back to regroup. I’m still more optimistic since Newtown than I’ve ever been. The organizing is going to continue. The parents are absolutely determined their children will not have died in vain.


Costello: If you would write your own lyrics to Imagine, John Lennon’s song about a better world, what would they be?

Edelman: I’d like to imagine a world where every child is healthy, where every child is educated and has a good early start. Where every child is safe in their home, walking down their street and being who they are. That every child can dream. I did a piece for The Huffington Post on my friend Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus, who envisions a world where poverty would be visited in a museum and we wouldn’t see it anymore in our lives. That’s what I would imagine.


Paul Costello is the chief communications officer for the School of Medicine. This interview was condensed and edited by Rosanne Spector.

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Vernor Vinge, MD
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1:2:1 Marian Wright Edelman

Listen to the interview.

Photo courtesy of Children's Defense Fund





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