Mother Marian

Presents an interview with the most concerned parent in America, founder and president of the Children's Defense Fund, Marian Wright Edelman. Crack, AIDS and violence facing the nation; Rates of immunized US children low; Things which Edelman would most like to accomplish in the next year or two; Development of a very high-quality-early childhood system building on Head Start; Black community; More. INSET: Dear Joshua: (Excerpt from Edelman's book, 'The Measure of Our...

By PT Staff, published July 1, 1993 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

PT Interview: Major personalities whohave influenced the national mind

MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN: AN INTERVIEW WITH THE MOST CONCERNED PARENT IN AMERICA

As founder and president of the Children's Defense Fund, Marian Wright Edelman has kept her eye on the nation's kids for the past 20 years-a time, she says, when few others were willing to do so. She's sort of the nation's top mom, with friends in high places like the White House. And, as parents are wont to do, she used the occasion more to deliver a lecture than to engage in a discussion.

PT: The statistics on children in poverty today are pretty startling. From the mental health establishment also comes some pretty grim evidence. In a reversal of traditional trends, young kids are getting depressed. Adolescents are killing each other and themselves. By any measure that we take, our kids are in deep trouble. What's gone wrong?

MWE: We've really had a breakdown in community and family values in this nation. We've obviously had very altered priorities in the last 12 years that basically gave us permission to be our worst selves rather than our best selves. The slow progress on children that began in the Sixties, with the establishment of new political and civil rights, didn't last long enough.

As we began to realize that we don't have endless resources and have to make some choices, a backlash began, combined with less committed leadership. All the great expansions in food stamps and child nutrition came from the Nixon years, but his ringing veto of the child-development bill left a residue of fear about government interference in family life that took us 20 years to overcome. Mr. Reagan and Mr. Bush said in effect that it was okay to be selfish and cater to racism. We began to scapegoat each other rather than figure ways of coming together.

Instead of being considered as national investment priorities, families, children, the poor, and minorities were deemed not important. We had a transfer of resources away from domestic needs-families, job creation, the economy, investing in housing-to the rich. There are extraordinary tax breaks for non-needy corporations and non-needy individuals, so that as the income of people at the top went up dramatically, the income of those at the bottom eroded, while the middle stagnated.

We have had a decade or so of very painful division by race, by age, and by class, and children were the true victims. Children are now the poorest Americans. Young families of all races suffered an extraordinary decline in earnings-these are the parents of young children, the cradle of nurture for the next generation. We're paying for the results of that. And now we have three other plagues.

PT: Crack. AIDS....

MWE: And violence. All are unprecedented and occurred at a time when our public health infrastructure was eroding and more and more people were becoming uninsured. So we have this spectacle of the wealthiest nation on Earth-though we're the greatest debtor nation-not even skillfully immunizing our kids. We have to get children immunized.

PT: Back to basics.

MWE: Ninety-five percent of children in China are immunized. Here in our nation's capital only 43 percent of preschool children are fully immunized. That shows you how far we have dropped. Psychologically our threshold of tolerance for totally morally unacceptable things has been lowered. A child is murdered every three hours. A gun is produced every 20 seconds and a million folks are walking around with semiautomatic weapons.

PT: Have we made any progress with children in 20 years?

MWE: Children are now visible. People are beginning to understand-unfortunately, it has to come out of tragedy-that the things we thought happened only to other people's children are happening to all of our children.

PT: We now have a new administration and public mood, but do we have the resources to make the investments we need?

MWE. Well, we've got to do what we've got to do to save ourselves and save our children, who are criminally transformed in values.The casing for all that has happened over the last years in America has been a shift to defining success by external things. You are powerful if you have a gun or if you have lots of things or lots of money. These externally driven market values have been allowed to consume us all. One of the first things we are going to have to do is make some hard choices and some hard sacrifices. We do have a $4 trillion deficit that children didn't cause. We're going to have to recognize that there are some things that a decent society has to do. And one of them is to say some things are wrong and unacceptable-killing children, shooting children, letting children be shot, letting children not be safe in their homes or on the street.

We need sensible deficit reduction, but we also have a human investment deficit. You can't solve all of one without investing in the other-in early childhood, Head Start, immunization, and the Women, Infants, and Children nutrition program (WIC). If you don't invest in your people, your children, and your schools, then you're not going to have a productive economy in the future.

While we do have the plagues of violence, economic insecurity, and racial intolerance, there is a readiness and a new activism that you can feel. People are beginning to understand that we've got to come back together.

PT: How do You account for this change?

MWE: I think there are periods of transformation in a nation's history. The Declaration of Independence was always our vision of who we wanted to be, our ideal of freedom and justice, how we were going to be different, and what the American experiment was going to be about. We didn't live up to that; we had slavery, and women were not counted. But we had spurts of movement towards those aspirations. The first big spurt involved a period of total destruction-the Emancipation Proclamation, the Civil War, and the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments.

The second big movement came in the 1960s with the Civil Rights movement. But it didn't last long enough. The Vietnam War came, along with profound break-downs of family and community, then the added problems of drugs, AIDS, and violence. Now we've begun rebounding. We turned the curve about 1985 when Congress stopped cutting very basic programs and began putting back some.

There are a lot of Americans out there who know that we've fundamentally gone off base, that something fundamental has come loose and we have got to put it back together or we're going to die. Both economically and socially, and as an idea and a vision. Things have gotten so bad they've affected all of us. There is nobody who feels safe from violence anymore. There is nobody's child who is not worried about getting a job. Poor black and Latino kids see life as a choice between jail and death. Middle class kids are asking, "Am I going to be able to afford a house and a kid?" Our generation has been selfish and we've got to make it right again.

PT: We largely believe that children are a private responsibility of their parents and if their parents mess up we don't do anything to help the kids. Where is our belief wrong, and how can we reconcile it with what actually does need to be done?

MWE: The old notion that children are the private property of parents dies very slowly. In reality, no parent raises a child alone. How many of us nice middle-class folk could make it without our mortgage reduction? That's a government subsidy of families, yet we resent putting money directly into public housing. We take our deduction for dependent care yet resent putting money directly into child care. Common sense and necessity are beginning to erode old notions of the private invasion of family life, because so many families are in trouble.

Many middle-class families are one husband away from welfare. The people in New Hampshire who thought it could never happen to them are standing in food-stamp lines - and are beginning to have a very different view about their government's role in their lives. Mr. Iacocca has never been defensive about government's role in subsidizing corporations. Families cannot exist apart from caring communities and the government is part of-though not the only-solution. If wages and good manufacturing jobs decline and with them goes health care, do you let children die?

Much of the change in family life is related to changes in the economy. We now know that economics is a part of what makes a family strong. We used to say, "My God, it's my own fault if I can't support my kids." But what about that worker in New Hampshire whose shipbuilding job got shipped to Taiwan? It shows the craziness of the notion that parents ought to be able to do it alone without any help.

Secondly, we're beginning to recognize that we pay for it one way or the other. If you don't foster a healthy family with prevention, you pay through emergency care, which is the most expensive in the world. You pay for low birth-weight babies and have them at the highest rates of any country in the industrialized world. Do we want to spend a million dollars to save a baby or $600 on good prenatal care?

There must be recognition that no parent does it alone. Some parents can afford to pay for it and others can't, but everybody needs it. "Every man for himself" doesn't work anymore.

PT: When you started the Children's Defense Fund, you said that America ignores the needs of black children, poor children, and handicapped children. Looking back, do you think you left out all the others? Were you not then aware of what was happening to all of us, or did some things actually change to involve everyone?

MWE: At the CDF, we've always asked two questions: How does policy, or its absence, affect all children, and how does it affect the kids at the bottom? I recognized in the beginning that children as a group tended to be voiceless and uncared for, and certain kids have the shortest end of that stick.

There have been certain developments that have cut across all races and classes. The breakdown in family is not limited to poor kids; the divorce rate cuts across all races, classes, and geographic areas. Drugs and violence are sensitive matters in every community. A lack of positive purpose and of a sense of service have left many kids idle and adrift-prey to alcohol in the suburbs, cocaine and maybe crack in the cities.

I worry about the kids who have too much. As a parent living in a so-called good neighborhood with children who went to private high school, I found myself spending much time in parent groups worrying about alcohol, unsupervised parties, and parents not being parents. We've got to send messages to our kids about what is important. I have been absolutely astonished at the response to my book.

PT: It's a wonderful book.

MWE: I have a book of letters from blacks and whites and rich and poor and Latinos and Jews. Everyone says the same thing: This is what my parents taught me. We forgot what we used to know. We have got to get back to some basics but at the same time recognize that those basics have to be reflected not only in our private lives but in our public lives.

You can't tell parents to teach children the value of work when we don't have jobs and the jobs we have don't pay a decent wage. You can't tell children to achieve and then let them go to broken-down schools with teachers who don't care. We need a consistency of values in our public, corporate, and private lives. That is the challenge of the Nineties.

PT: Your book is full of conviction and faith. How much of it informs what you've done personally?

MWE: It's everything. I grew up in a very religious family and it is the motivating force to every thing I do. I am fortunate to have had adults all around me who really lived their faith, in helping other people and doing the best you can do. The world wasn't so wonderful back then, with segregated rule in the South. But we were never hopeless and we never despaired because we had adults out there struggling with us, being there for us, and buffering us.

It gave you an inner sense of who you are and of making a difference-whether or not the world pays attention to it. Self-worth was internally rather than externally driven. You didn't shoot people to have a jacket. What is that about? Our kids are really the manifestation of the breakdown of internal, spiritual, and community values all around us.

We really have to have a fundamental sea change in values. The Church has lost its bearings as well. It is very clear from our Judeo-Christian tradition that it is wrong to kill children. But we need the church to rediscover its deepest values and to say "it is wrong to let children go hungry in the wealthiest nation in our world." "It is wrong to have children mowed down on street corners, with guns." "Or to have children orphaned by AIDS without the community coming together to do something about it." So, the church is going to have to reexamine its faith and see what its faith dictates. Until you build a strong moral base you cannot have a mass movement for a just society.

PT: You had the privilege of knowing Martin Luther King. What is his single most memorable characteristic, looking back.

MWE: He helped me a lot in my adult life. He was an adult who was a great public figure but who was never afraid to show his vulnerability. I remember the times when he was absolutely terrified or uncertain about what the next step was.

PT. Did he talk about it?

MWE: I feel very lucky to have grown up having interaction with adults who were making change but who were far from perfect beings. That feeling of not being paralyzed by your incredible inadequacy as a human being, which I feel every day, is a part of the legacy that I've gotten from so many of the adult elders. I remember Martin Luther King describing how afraid he was in Cicero and in Chicago.

PT: Physically afraid?

MWE: Physically afraid, which simply means he was a totally human being. I remember many conversations about him being absolutely depressed and not knowing where he was going to go next. The Dr. Kings and all the others who went through extraordinary trials were always scared but functioning, not paralyzed.

You had a community of support and you had a positive purpose-a sense that you were going to be able to carry on. That is again what's so different about the world for kids today. I try to sense what it must be like to be seven or 11 years old and to be walking in today's neighborhoods with gunfire and drug addicts and gangs and no community support, no sense of positive purpose, no hope that things can be different, no vision that things can be different, nobody that you can turn to. What must it be like to live like that?

We have to get back into the struggle into connectedness with adults who are going to get out and fight with them. I knew Robert Kennedy in the last stages of his life and, again, I saw the vulnerability and conviction-and an ability to struggle. Both King and Kennedy were intensely human and intensely connected with kids and listened to them. They were not afraid to be vulnerable and to take risks. They were men of faith who had a sense of right and wrong and an instinctive sense of outrage. The lack of instinctive outrage is the most troublesome thing about American culture today.

PT: Can you name specifically the five or so things you would most like to accomplish in the next year or two?

MWE: What I want to do before the turn of the century is eliminate child and family poverty in this country and place children first. This year, get a comprehensive immunization plan off the ground as a first step towards comprehensive health insurance. Immunization is not a one-term thing. You have to put kids in ongoing primary care. You have to get the health care system in place.

Secondly, I want to build a high-quality, early-childhood system for every parent, and revamp high-quality, full-day, full-year Head Start programs. It's got the framework for comprehensive services; its quality needs to be improved. It needs to be adjusted to take into account the changing family lives today.

PT: Would you broaden Head Start to all children?

MWE: If we develop a very high-quality early-childhood system building on Head Start, down the road we can integrate it with a range of child-care subsidies-the child-care block grant, Family Support Act child care, state preschool money-so that you eventually have an integrated system that serves all parents and all children. You have got to make sure that good public policy does what parents want it to do.

Parents need a genuine choice whether to stay at home and take care of their children, adequate child support so that parents take responsibility for supporting their kids, adequate jobs that pay well so people can care for their kids, and good child care in case the parents want to go to work. Parenting is important and work is important and support for children is important.

But at the outset I'm taking care of those children who most need it.

The black community bears the burden of having to instigate social change. So we're trying to reestablish the intergenerational connectedness that I certainly had growing up. We are training a new generation of young people. Black college students across the country have set up the Ella Baker Leadership Training institute and a network among themselves. What little black boys and girls need is not people like me coming in and saying, "You know, you can be this," but seeing kids closer to their own ages to get a sense of the possibilities. We skipped over a generation, but it's being reborn.

PHOTO: Marian Wright Edelman with a young child (JONATHAN LEVINE)

PHOTOS (4) Marian Wright Edelman (JOE PINEIRO(

PHOTO: Marian Wright Edelman with her husband, Peter, and sons Joshua, Jonah, and Ezra

DEAR JOSHUA:

On the occasion of her eldest son's 21st birthday, Marian Wright Edelman sat down and drafted a letter to pass on what she had learned about the lessons of life. The letter grew into a book that has become a best-seller, The Measure of Our Success: A Letter to My Children and Yours (Beacon Press; Boston). At the heart of the book are 25 lessons in which Edelman exhorts us all to make no distinction between private and public values. Here's a sampling of her wisdom.

There is no free lunch. Don't feel entitled to anything you don't sweat and struggle for. You have got to work your way up-hard and continuously. Each of us must take the initiative to create our opportunities, not wait around for favors. We must not assume a door is closed but must push on it. We must not assume if it was closed yesterday that it's closed today.

Assign yourself. My Daddy used to ask us whether the teacher had given us any homework. If we said no, he'd say, "Well, assign yourself." Don't wait around for your boss or your co-worker or spouse to direct you to do what you are able to figure out and do for yourself. Don't do just as little as you can to get by. If someone asks you to do A, and B and C obviously need to be done as well, do them without waiting to be asked or expecting a Nobel prize for doing what is needed.

Take parenting and family life seriously and insist that those you work for and who represent you do. Since too many men in power still just don't get how hard it is to juggle work and family burdens, it is time for the struggling, beleaguered mothers-and supportive fathers-of this nation to tell our leaders to get with it and stop the political hypocrisy so that all parents can have a real choice about whether to remain at home or work outside the home without worrying about the well being of their children.

Remember that your wife is not your mother or your maid, but your partner and friend. Young men need to take the responsibility for seeing and figuring out what needs to be done at home just as you do at your job. There is nothing that decrees that only women are capable of cleaning toilets, washing clothes, cleaning up children's vomit, remembering flowers, staying at home from work or having the responsibility for asking you to stay home, any more than it is a given that only you are responsible for meeting all family expenses or for cleaning out the garage.

Sell the shadow for the substance. Don't confuse style with substance; don't confuse political charm or rhetoric with decency or sound policy. Words and schmoozing alone do not meet children's or the nation's needs. Political leadership and different budget priorities do. There's nothing wrong with wanting a BMW or nice clothes. But a BMW is not an advanced degree and a designer coat is not a life goal or worth a life. Get your insides in order and your direction clear first, then worry about clothes and wheels. You may need them less.

Be confident that you can make a difference. My role model, Sojourner Truth, slave woman, could neither read nor write but could not stand slavery and second-class treatment of women. One day during an anti-slavery speech she was heckled by an old man. "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.

A lot of people think they have to be big dogs to make a difference. That's not true. You just need to be a flea for justice bent on building a more decent home life, neighborhood, work place, and America. Enough committed fleas biting strategically can make even the biggest dog uncomfortable and transform even the biggest nation.

Listen for the sound of the genuine within yourself and others. Meditate and learn to be alone without being lonely. There are so many noises and pulls and competing demands in our lives that many of us never find out who we are.

Remember your roots, your history, and the forebear's shoulders on which you stand. And pass these roots on to your children and to other children. Young people who do not know where they come from and the struggle it took to get them where they are now will not know where they are going or what to do if and when they get somewhere.

All children need this pride of heritage and sense of history of their own people and of all the people who make up this great nation. I have raised you, my children, to respect other people's children, to become yourselves at your best. I hope others will raise their children to respect you.

Always remember that you are never alone. There is nothing you can ever say or do that can take away my or God's love. Home remains as you go out to serve and conquer the world. And I always follow you wherever you go in spirit, in prayer, and in love. You are never alone.