I wonder if the poor children of New Jersey and all of America know that they have two great advocates in their corner. I hadn't put two and two together — or rather one and one — until this past week, when I heard speeches by Marian Wright Edelman and First Lady Michelle Obama at separate gatherings.
Both are strong, smart, and articulate women deeply committed to helping poor children have better lives. Recent numbers show that "one third of all Hispanic children and more than a third of black children are poor." In a political climate focused on the economy, health care reform, bailouts and mortgage collapses, it was refreshing to hear two women talk about children, who are otherwise not mentioned on the campaign trail or featured in stump speeches and debates.
Edelman, founder and president of the Children's Defense Fund (CDF) in Washington, D.C., has been an advocate for poor, minority children since founding her organization in 1973. Its motto is "Leave No Child Behind." She started CDF after becoming the first black woman to graduate from Yale Law School and to practice law in Mississippi after being the first black woman admitted to the state bar.
She has been a heroine and mentor of mine since I first connected with her in the early 1980s. As a member of the State Board of Education working to adopt a policy requiring family life and sex education in the public schools and with opponents on the attack, I reached out to Edelman, whom I did not know, for assistance. She told me that CDF didn't get involved in state political issues.
However, she invited me to come to her annual national conference in Washington, D.C., to learn more about her organization's mission. It was there that I learned of the connection between poverty and teen pregnancy: Young, poor, minority teen girls with no vision for the future often drifted into early sexual activity and became pregnant. They decided that having a baby would give them someone to love and a reason to live.
"Hope is the best contraceptive," said Edelman, a comment I recall whenever poverty rates climb.
Edelman hasn't changed her tune in the almost 30 years I've known her. She sang it loud and clear at the Nassau Presbyterian Church in Princeton before some 500 people as the guest speaker in a series on "Re-imagining Charity," offered by the Crisis Ministry of Princeton and Trenton.
She never minces words when it comes to poor children and how badly she believes they are treated in America.
"Our nation is in the midst of a ‘child emergency.' The greatest threat to America's national security comes from no enemies without. It lies within our failure to protect and educate our children who make up all of our futures," she said.
Her reasons are always based on facts, and here are a few that she shared
- more preschool student lose their lives to gunfire each year than police officers who lose their lives in the line of duty
- more young blacks are lost to gunfire than all the lynchings of blacks in history
- schools are turning with increasing frequency to the police to address nonviolent behavior, so that many children wind up in juvenile detention facilities, which can quickly become criminal training grounds
Edelman has always believed that adults' inattention to poor children's needs stems from their lack of moral fiber.
"If we can bail out the banks, surely we can bail out babies who, without our help, will see their hopes and dreams for basic needs wiped out," she said.
She asked her audience: "What is it about us that insists on hurting children? ... We don't really have a money problem; we just have a priorities problem."
Edelman believes that we can do better for our children. She says that charity is very important, but we have to influence government policy to make social change. Carefully non-partisan and non-political in her speech, she urged us to "reject tax cuts for the wealthy," noting that in 2008, "the highest-paid American CEO took home more than $100 million, a sum equal to the salaries of 3,827 Head Start employees that year."
(Head Start is a national program started in 1965 for low-income young children that "promotes school readiness by enhancing the social and cognitive development."
If Edelman is the steel fist to the work we need to do for poor children, then the First Lady is the velvet glove. Her approach is softer, but no less sincere. Like Edelman, she is a commanding presence.
I had never met or seen the First Lady in person, and what immediately struck me was her height. She is statuesque. This might have been helped by the fact that she was wearing silver pumps with stiletto heels that seemed to me to be six inches long. Wearing a black taffeta dress with a halter-neckline that showed off those rippling arm muscles that the President loves to boast about, she towered over most of the women and a lot of the men in the room. Yet her persona is lovely, charming, and warm.
Fashion aside, the First Lady spoke eloquently about ensuring that the American Dream reaches everyone in our nation. She stressed that this was her husband's principle reason for entering politics. (She referred to him throughout her 20-minute talk as Barack.) She also stressed the importance of individual hard work, which Edelman did not mention. (Perhaps this is a generational shift: Edelman came out of the Civil Rights movement, where the need for government action to right wrongs predominated; Obama is a product of a more recent time in history, when personal responsibility is mentioned along with government action.)
But the First Lady also talked about government action. She spoke about children's needs in our society, too many of whom "go to school in crumbling school buildings." She noted the large amount of money that her husband's administration is investing in education programs for those in the poorest parts of the U.S. She spoke glowingly of the health care reform bill and how it would provide coverage for children with pre-existing conditions.
She ended on an upbeat note, urging her audience to repeat after her those famous words from her husband's presidential campaign: "Yes We Can!"
The steel fist and the velvet glove. What a dynamic duo Edelman and Obama make for our children in need.
ALSO BY SUSIE WILSON