Children’s rights activist Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, spoke yesterday at the Graduate School of Education about the difficulties in her personal attempts to improve conditions for children in America.
Edelman, who has received both the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the MacArthur “Genius Award” Fellowship, said that black children are facing their “worst crisis since slavery,” pointing to a low quality of education and high rates of youth incarceration.
Kathleen McCartney, Dean of the Ed School, introduced Edelman and called her an advocate for children.
“She challenged the country to stand for children, and her mantra was ‘leave no child behind.’ She was the first to say this,” said McCartney, a specialist in early childhood development.
Edelman said she views her cause as the “grandchild of civil rights,” but that the movement for children’s rights has been more difficult in voicing.
“I thought if we just told people the facts and realities of children’s lives, that they would respond,” Edelman said. Instead, the Children’s Defense Fund is nearing its fourth decade, and Edelman described the current landscape for black and Latino children as a “crisis.”
In particular, Edelman spoke of the Fund’s Cradle to Prison Pipeline campaign, which aims to change the current trend of young, delinquent, minority children ending up in jails.
“I believe incarceration is becoming the new American apartheid,” she said. “How can six and seven and eight-year-old children be arrested and handcuffed on school grounds for offenses that used to be handled in the principal’s office, and there’s not a huge ruckus from the community of adults?”
Edelman said that black males are six times as likely to be incarcerated as white males, and said that trend has to be reversed for children.
“We adults have lost our common sense,” she said. “We seem, as a nation, to have become addicted to incarceration as a first resort.”
Andrea N. Black, an Ed School student who attended a childhood program that was similar to the fund’s Freedom Schools, said that Edelman’s work restored her passion to work in troubled communities. She said her summer program allowed her to meet and get to know the leaders in her neighborhood, and that the approach Edelman takes in involving the community is the proper mentality.
“It’s not uplifting out of neighborhoods, but giving [children] opportunities to transcend poverty to do what I’m doing,” Black said. “It’s not about leaving a neighborhood, it’s about building.”
Lashunda S. Hill, an Ed School student who has worked with the Fund in the past, said that reform will require cooperation from multiple levels of society and not only schools.
“It’s going to take all child service agencies to correct those problems,” she said.
—Staff writer Michelle M. Hu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.