Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, didn’t set out to become a lawyer. In fact, it wasn’t even on her radar. “I applied to law school in the late spring of my senior year in college because I got mad,” she explained from her Washington, D.C., office. She had originally planned to go to foreign service school, but after attending the sit-in movement in Atlanta and volunteering at the local NAACP in her “spare time,” as she referred to it with a chuckle, she shifted course. It was March of 1960, in the midst of the civil rights movement. Seeing the need for lawyers to represent the people who couldn’t afford them, she decided to become one.
“Hated it with a passion,” she said about law school. But she recognized it as the right tool at the right time. “My daddy always had this thing, ‘If you just follow the need, you’ll never lack for something meaningful in your life.’ And that’s been right.”
The transition to work with children evolved pretty organically from there. By continuing to follow the need, Wright Edelman opened up an office in Mississippi during the 1964 Freedom Summer Project, a massive volunteer effort to help register black voters. After the volunteers departed en masse, the Mississippi residents were left in dire poverty, and children were naturally the most vulnerable. “So, you began to shift,” she explained. It was this shift that eventually led to the founding of the Children’s Defense Fund in 1973, which she’s been running ever since.
The CDF is a child advocacy organization whose goal is to ensure that all children are getting what they need to live happy, healthy lives no matter what their circumstances. This includes arming children early on with the tools they’ll need in order to become successful adults and help shape future generations of children. We partnered with TIAA to share Marian Wright Edelman’s inspirational story as part of the TIAA Difference Maker 100, a program that celebrates individuals making a difference in the nonprofit space.
Everything Wright Edelman is working for can be traced back to the CDF’s mission statement, which she explained matter-of-factly. “Every child needs a healthy start; a head start — that means early childhood education; a safe start; a fair start…and a successful transition to adulthood.”
And she believes that “children don’t come in pieces.” One of the reasons Wright Edelman thinks the CDF’s approach to championing children is unique is that it looks at the whole child. The organization focuses on programs, policy, technical work and research. “[In] each of the areas, we do careful research, in the most technical way. Then we try to see behind the research, [to] the children and the families. We go out and knock on doors. And we then try to talk about how we can follow up at the local level, at the state level and the national level,” she explained.
“I think we’ve made very significant progress,” she said as she slid a list of laws the CDF had helped pass across her desk. “But it’s hard, quiet… It’s scut work.” Among the list of wins for 2018 alone are the Family First Prevention Services Act, which, Director of Policy MaryLee Allen later shared the CDF has been working on for almost four decades; and CHIP, which was extended for 10 more years. “But millions of kids are getting health care. Millions of kids are eating food,” Wright Edelman said. “We’ve made a lot of progress, but it should not be so hard. We’ve got a whole long way to go.”
Wright Edelman has a theory on how to change things, though. At its heart is making sure the CDF is creating the next generation to be role models. Her North Star is the Parable of the Sower, from the New Testament. “Jesus talks about having to plant a whole lot of seeds, and the birds are going to come eat up some, the sun’s going to burn up some, folk [are] going to step on some,” she explained. “But if you have sown broadly, as we have tried to do in many different ways…[then you’re covered].”
When asked who the next Marian Wright Edelman is, no single person came to mind. She hopes there are a lot of them out there. “Hillary was an intern,” she pointed out, referring to Hillary Clinton, of course. “We’ve been planting seeds so that you have enough of a bumper crop left over when the birds eat up some and people step on some,” she said. “You’re not going to get a full crop of everything, but if you plant enough… It’s about enabling and empowering others.” She added, “It’s about really creating a critical mass, and…our folk are everywhere, running things.”
Mayor Michael Tubbs, of Stockton, California, was once one of those seeds. At age 27, he’s the youngest mayor of a city of more than 100,000 residents. And he’s brilliant, according to Wright Edelman. “He says he’s been down to Haley Farm more than the geese who live there!” she joked. Haley Farm is a 157-acre farm that once belong to the writer, Alex Haley, that serves as a sacred space and training ground for the CDF. Tubbs spent time there as a trainee in the CDF’s Youth Advocate Leadership Training program.
“She puts you in networks with other changemakers, and shows you, and illustrates through history and other means, that change is possible,” Tubbs said of Wright Edelman, who he referred to as one of his heroes. “I remember in 2012,” he added, “I spent two days with her and 20 civil rights luminaries, with Gene Sharp, just talking about the Cradle to Prison Pipeline. And experiences like that at 20, 21 and 22 years old really left a mark on me.” He said later, “I would not be a mayor now if I hadn’t been exposed, and learned community organizing and social change from Mrs. Edelman.”
Training for the CDF Freedom Schools program takes place at Haley Farm, too. CDF Freedom Schools, modeled after the schools established during the 1964 Freedom Summer Project, provide free summer and after-school support to kids. Since 1995, the CDF has trained more than 16,000 young adults to deliver this empowering model, and there’ll be 150 CDF Freedom Schools around the country this summer.
“[The training is] run by college students with energy that would compete with anything,” Wright Edelman exclaimed. “And we’re stopping summer learning loss…and they give children a new kind of pedagogy,” she said. This new kind of education includes introducing kids to books they can see themselves in, and role models who can show them the possibilities of what they can become.
“One of the programs that I love most, because I don’t think you have a right to give up on any child,” Wright Edelman said, “is celebrating children who beat the odds…There are doctors and there are lawyers and there are Peace Corps volunteers, and they’re from homes [in which] their parent was in prison. Some lived in homeless shelters,” she continued.
To Dr. Crystal Johnson Stinson, a Beat The Odds scholarship recipient who is now a dentist at a public health clinic, Wright Edelman was always a pillar of strength. Over a phone call, Dr. Stinson said, “I know [Wright Edelman] has lots of Beat the Odds students, but you would never really know because she remembers all of us by name, the specifics of what made our lives tumultuous and what made her invest in us.” She added, “It really made me feel like she personally connected with my struggle and that she was invested in me, which made me feel like she was someone I didn’t ever want to let down.”
It’s Dr. Stinson whom Wright Edelman was talking about when she shared, “On the worst days, when I’m just totally depressed…a Beat the Odds photo will show up here, with a robe and academic regalia from a new doctor of dentistry at a college, and she will say that that little scholarship in Texas kept her going.” She added, “I just feel so grateful to watch the seeds grow and to watch them become mayors and county executives, and to run for president.”
Wright Edelman is known for her diligent work ethic, but she isn’t all business, all the time. When she spoke about her grandchildren — she has four — she lit up. She shared an anecdote about a name she was given by her first grandchild when she was an infant, La La, because they would sing the scales together walking home from the zoo. And even Marian Wright Edelman sometimes needs a break. When she wants to clear her head, she goes on silent retreats, sometimes for hours, sometimes for days at a time. She thinks she could stand to have a bit more fun, too. In true Wright Edelman style, she referred to this lack as a “fun deficit.”
As for what comes next, Wright Edelman believes in resting her investment with young people. “The children are going to frame the future of this nation,” she said. “We need to empower [their] voices, and be there with those voices, and build a world, a nation that’s fit for them.”
All over the United States, people like Marian Wright Edelman are working to make positive and lasting change in the lives of others. We’ve partnered with TIAA to celebrate its centennial — 100 years of helping people doing good do well — and to put the spotlight on visionaries whose inspirational work is shaping the next century. To learn more about recommending someone, go here: www.TIAAdifferencemaker100.org.
Words by Jesse Sposato; Photos by Andy McMillan