Marian Wright Edleman name is synonymous with advocacy and civil rights. She is a true living legend not just in the black community, but in the world of education advocacy. She cares deeply about our nation’s most vulnerable and valuable resource: Our children.
theGrio caught up with Edelman for a one on one interview about the state of education and black America during a recent Public Policy Town Hall aimed at improving the quality of life of all citizens. The forum was moderated by veteran political strategist Donna Brazile sponsored by Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., at Howard University’s Blackburn Center.
Edelman, a Spelman College grad, who was the first black woman admitted to the Bar in the State of Mississippi is the Chairman and founder of the Children’s Defense Fund started the organization in 1973. Characteristic of her trailblazing path; she was on fire during the panel despite being in her 70s, and continually kept asking the crowd of over 200 collegiate women and public attendees to “cause a ruckus, protest, and stir the pot” in order to call our political leadership in America to action on behalf of a black community in economic and family distress.
The poverty rate in America is at a 25 year high, with 1 in 4 black families living in poverty. Of course those who suffer the most disproportionately are children of color. How is this bad economic climate hurting our kids, their ability to learn in school?
Marian Wright Edelman: It has impacted children of color most of all, and the younger they are poorer they are over 1 in 3 black children is poor today. Many live in extreme poverty, they are sliding backward, and young black families are being assaulted in this economy. We are in dangerous downward trend, our children and grandchildren are not going to better than we did if we do not wake up and act now to turn things around.
When Dr. King died in 1968 calling for poor people’s campaign in 1968, there were 11 million poor children in US of all colors, now there are almost 16 million poor children in America. This is the poorest children have been in many decades. Of course all of this has a devastating impact upon our children’s readiness and wellness to start school and perform well in school. I hope you will follow are children are off the board website as we mount this new anti-child poverty campaign.
You mentioned on the panel that you believe the black family is in the “worst crisis” since slavery-what do you mean by that — what is the state of the black family in America today?
I want to be clear we are facing the worst crisis since slavery. Look at the numbers: Record unemployment; home foreclosure, lack of wealth and savings, our young black males are being incarcerated at alarming rates. Law enforcement does not seem to separate our young middle class boys from those actually engaged in criminal behavior.
The illiteracy rates for college educated black people’s kids for example is high, very high versus our white counterparts. We don’t like to talk about this — but it is true. Why? The video games, lack of interaction with kids in their educational endeavors, we don’t read to our kids as much at early ages, and more. That needs to change.
I often think we are in the beginnings of the next post-reconstruction era in America relative to black people. I know that sounds strong but you simply cannot have literacy 80 percent of black kids in America cannot read. Eighty percent. Where are these kids going to go when they grow up and have to get jobs?
This all comes from many factors the break down of the black family largest among them-the truth is the adults have gone AWOL in their kid’s lives. We as a people and as a nation need to re-order our priorities. Our churches need to re-engage. And you know while I support teachers unions, if 80 percent of your kids are failing [black kids] then we need to make some changes. I cannot stress enough that we need to wake-up. We as a people are under attack, some of it from ourselves, and our children are in the worst shape they have been in for generations.
Given these difficult financial times, budget cuts, how do we protect the needs of our most vulnerable-our kids and schools, teachers?
We need to fight and make a big ruckus and we tell our leaders in Congress that children are off the board. The CDF is starting a media campaign we got to figure out how we get in their faces-as we did with the baby stroller parades and that is how we got our children’s health bill passed that helped over 10 million children in America who were in need of health care. We need to become activist for our children. The bottom line is this: You cannot put bankers ahead of babies, or corporations ahead of mothers. The voices in the black community in particular need to be clear that our children are at stake and their are off the board. That they will not take food out of mouths of our kids.
What is the relevance and necessity of HBCUs in the 21st Century-why are they still so important with our black boys falling behind as they are?
HBCUs may be more important now than ever if you can believe that. Why? Because a black boy today at 10 years old has a 1 in 3 chance of going to prison in his lifetime. That is a disaster for our black culture. But we are engaged in this fight and we have a new initiative that feeds into our HBCUs called “freedom schools” which are taught by students of color and over 90 percent are black with almost 50 percent being black males.
This program has had an enormous impact on our students trained over 9000 students and they collectively have taught over 90,000 students. Haley Farm is where we train them. Secretary [of Education] Duncan could not believe the success we have had when he called us to see if we could help find more black male teachers in our nation’s schools.
We did a little SOS call and we were able to find some great teachers. Our goals is to help black children, particularly black males see a college in their future and not a prison.You can’t be what you can’t see. So we are working closely with HBCUs to create a fertile environment for these young boys to help them build a life of success. That success begins with a quality education.
There is no future for our kids without education and HBCUs have been at the core of successfully graduating black doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers, business owners, professors,and executives. We need our HBCUs and we must start supporting them financially.