I recently came across an old African proverb, scribbled in one of my journals. It says, "When two elephants fight, it is the grass that gets trampled." As adults, we often lose touch with our inner child, forgetting what it was like to grow up in a world powerless, a world where warring factions of elephants (and donkeys) are the ones making life-altering decisions for you. Who is on the front lines fighting for children, being their voice? Three words: Marian Wright Edelman.
Marian, a world-renowned author and activist, has spent most of her life fighting against systemic injustices and serving our nation's most underprivileged children. As the first African-American woman admitted to the Mississippi bar, Marian spent her youth tearing down the laws of segregation, alongside the many women who were the backbone of the civil-rights movement. Because she observed the residual impact segregation had on our nation's most vulnerable firsthand, Marian founded the nonprofit Children's Defense Fund (CDF) in 1973.
I met Marian ten years ago, and instantly I knew I was in the presence of greatness. She gives off a sense of quiet command that will simultaneously inspire and challenge you. At the time, I had been invited by the CDF to join a delegation of women traveling down to New Orleans to visit the children devastated by Katrina. We visited families stuffed inside FEMA trailer homes and receiving health care at a Lord & Taylor department store that had been converted into a hospital.
Touring the Ninth Ward broke my heart. Since the federal government was slow to react, Marian sent her foot soldiers to the ground to service those in need, providing schooling and health-care assistance. We ended our trip at the opening of a brand-new Freedom School, funded by CDF. Marian stood up, boldly calling us all to action, saying, "Service is the price we pay for living."
Shortly thereafter, Marian asked me to join the CDF board. I have since witnessed the tangible change she makes in the lives of so many children. Whether it's providing after-school programs and quality education to more than 125,000 pre-K–12 children through the CDF Freedom Schools program, awarding college scholarships to kids across the nation, or lobbying Congress to expand health care for children, Marian is tireless and unapologetic in her fight for the youth who are often forgotten. I spoke to her about this ongoing fight, criminal-justice reform, and her Harriet Tubman medallion.
Jurnee Smollett-Bell: Children can't vote. They don't have a voice in our political process, and yet their lives are directly affected by decisions adults make on their behalf. You grew up in a generation where children were to be seen and not heard. What made you decide to be their voice?
Marian Wright Edelman: In my house, that was not the case. We were encouraged to state our views. We had thoughtful discussions around the dinner table. It was clear that there were problems all around us in my segregated small town, Bennettsville, South Carolina. Luckily, I had incredible parents who, when they saw a problem, didn't say, "Why doesn't somebody do something?" They would say, "Why don't we do something?" I also grew up with community co-parents who looked out for each other. They looked out for children and tried to be the hands of God. They tried to live their faith.
Much of what I do now stems from my rage at segregation and discrimination. I can't stand to see children not able to do anything, anybody not able to do what they can do. The daily lessons of exclusion, having hand-me-down books in schools, of seeing ambulances turn away and not give health care for people lying in the streets who are migrant workers. Everything I do today stems from that segregated existence.