Thank you, thank you. Oh, it is so wonderful to be here with all of you on behalf of the Children’s Defense Fund. I was listening backstage as Marian went through the 45 years that we have known each other and even reminded me of some things that I had not recalled, namely that this event was the very first event that my husband and I went to after he was elected president, and so it’s especially poignant and meaningful to me to be here again with all of you. And I want to start by congratulating the terrific young people that we are celebrating tonight.
You will hear more about each of them because each has faced painful challenges, violence and poverty, abandonment, but they never gave up. They never stopped reaching, never stopped dreaming and, yes, they have beaten the odds. They call Troy the little poet who could. He is an artist on the basketball court and a flourishing writer in the classroom, and he dreams of becoming a filmmaker. Bethany lived in one foster home after another, but with the help of a wonderful teacher and her own determination, she is thriving and hopes to become a doctor, so she can care for others. Carlos left a difficult childhood in Guatemala, made it to America all by himself. Then he took a second journey, making it all the way to college, where he is studying to become an engineer. Janet’s secret weapon is her beautiful voice and her musical talent. Music has helped her overcome every obstacle that life has thrown in her path. And Yuchabel persevered through domestic violence at home and bullying at school and found her voice producing a student television show at school, and now she has set her sights on becoming a journalist. These fearless, generous, openhearted, determined young people represent a rising generation that should give us all much hope for the future.
And they represent the continuing commitment of the Children’s Defense Fund and Marian Wright Edelman. Now, I will admit, coming here tonight wasn’t the easiest thing for me. There have been a few times this past week when all I wanted to do was just to curl up with a good book or our dogs and never leave the house again. But, if there is anyone who knows how to pick yourself up and get back on your feet and get to work, it is Marian.
She has been doing it all her life, and she has been helping the rest of us do it too. I am as inspired by Marian today as I was the first time I met her 45 years ago. And she told the story—I was a young law student, I had lots of hopes and expectations about what a law degree would enable me to do. I had the words of my Methodist faith ringing in my ears: “do all the good you can for all the people you can in all the ways you can as long as ever you can.” She was the crusading legal activist, also a graduate of Yale Law School, and she was translating her faith into a life devoted to children, service and social justice. Observing that, being part of that, is one of the greatest gifts anyone has ever given me. Because I often thought about Marian’s journey, about the stony roads she walked, the bitter rods she endured, and how she never lost her faith and kept her eyes on the prize. I think of taking the bar exam in Mississippi, the first black woman ever to do so, and then opening offices for the NAACP and a head start program for children who desperately needed it. I think of her with Robert Kennedy in a tiny shack in the delta, opening his eyes to the realities of poverty in America. I think of her with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., starting the Poor People’s Campaign and dreaming of an America of equality and opportunity. You have to look at Marian’s life and ask, “How did she beat the odds when so many gave up the hopes of those early days?” For Marian, it has always been about children and families. That’s what matters, and that’s what has kept her going, helping to open public schools to children with disabilities in the 1970s, an effort I was honored to be part of. Working to expand Medicaid in the 1980s to cover more pregnant women and children in need. Standing with me and others in the 1990s to create the Children’s Health Insurance Program, improve foster care and create early head start, fighting in recent years to build a bipartisan movement to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline and reform our criminal justice system, especially for juveniles, and spending countless hours mentoring and training the next generation of leaders and activists at Haley Farm.
Under Marian’s leadership, the Children’s Defense Fund works to give every child a healthy start, a head start, a fair start, a safe start and a moral start in life. And I cannot think of a more noble or necessary mission. No matter what the setbacks, she has always believed in the words of Dr. King often repeated by President Obama, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” Now sometimes it can feel awfully long—believe me I know, but I also know it does bend. It bends towards justice because people like Marian and so many of you, and there are people in this audience I’ve had the privilege of working with and admiring for so many decades. You refuse to stop pushing and when you get knocked down, you get back up. I often quote Marian when she says that service is the rent we pay for living. Well, you don’t get to stop paying rent just because things don’t go your way. I know many of you are deeply disappointed about the results of the election. I am too, more than I can ever express, but as I said last week, our campaign was never about one person or even one election. It was about the country we love and about building an America that is hopeful, inclusive and bighearted.
I didn’t get into public service to hold high office.
Forty-five years ago, that would have seemed an absolute incredibly wrong-headed view, but I did decide to be an activist to use my law degree to help kids. Every child deserves to have the opportunity to live up to his or her God-given potential, and I believe the measure of any society is how we treat our children. And as we move forward into a new—and in many ways, uncertain—future, I think that must be the test for America and for ourselves. Despite the progress—and we have made progress under President Obama—more than 31 million children still live at or near poverty in America. And I hoped to have had the opportunity to build on the progress that President Obama has made because I know that we are stronger together when we are lifting each other up.
Let’s be clear, when I talk about children in or near poverty, this isn’t someone else’s problem. These aren’t someone else’s children. This is America’s problem because they are America’s children. Child poverty isn’t just an urban challenge or a black or Latino challenge, although children of color continue to suffer disproportionately from high rates of poverty, but make no mistake, there are poor children of every race and ethnicity. Three out of every 10 white children in America are at or near poverty. That is more than 11 million kids. When you add in 11 million Latino children, more than 6 million black children, a million and a half Asian and American-Indian children, nearly 2 million children of two or more races, the scope and scale of this challenge becomes clear. Poor children live in every state and every congressional district, so they deserve the attention and efforts of every one of our representatives and leaders. And the measure of success must be: how many children and families climb out of poverty and reach the middle class? We know what works to support kids and give them opportunities to succeed. Parents need good-paying jobs, affordable quality health care and childcare, to have help balancing the demands of work and family. Communities need investments that lift families up, not neglect that lets them fall further behind. There are millions of children who will go to school tomorrow in classrooms with crumbling ceilings, empty bookshelves and walls covered with mold. There are children in places like Flint, Michigan, drinking water poisoned by lead. And children all over our country face the daily danger of gun violence. We have to ask ourselves, what are we doing to give them the safe and healthy lives they deserve?
There are also children who are afraid today, like the little girl I met in Nevada who started to cry when she told me how scared she was that her parents would be taken away from her and be deported. No child should have to live with fear like that. No child should be afraid to go to school because they are Latino or African-American or Muslim or because they have a disability. We should protect our children and help them love themselves and love others.
So there is a lot of work to do as long as any child in America lives in poverty, as long as any child in America lives in fear, as long as any child—not just here but in the world—faces these challenges, there is work to do. Girls as well as boys in every country on every continent deserve that chance to fulfill their own potential. And it is going to take all of us doing our part. I wrote a book 20 years ago called “It Takes a Village.” And a lot of people asked, what the heck do you mean by that? I meant what CDF has represented and understood from the beginning: None of us can raise a family, build a business, heal a community or lift a country by ourselves. We have to do it together.
So I urge you—I urge you, please, don’t lose heart. Don’t give up on the values we share. Look at the young people we are honoring tonight. If they can persevere, so must all of us, and if Marian has taught us anything, it’s there are so many ways to make a difference. Organizations like CDF have never been more important. Businesses, philanthropists, foundations, congregations of every faith have to step up too because there is work to be done in every community, debates to be joined in city halls and state capitols, and even if it may not seem like it right now, there is common ground to build on. A lot of governors and legislators and mayors are pioneering new ways to support parents and provide children with early learning in red states as well as blue states. Many of our most important accomplishments for the wellbeing of children and families have come from both parties working together like the Children’s Health Insurance Program. That could never have happened without Republican leaders. Now it covers eight million kids, and even in this presidential campaign, for the first time ever, a broad consensus emerged about the importance of affordable, quality childcare and paid family leave.
So we have work to do, and for the sake of our children and our families and our country, I ask you to stay engaged, stay engaged on every level. We need you. America needs you. Your energy, your ambition, your talent. That’s how we get through this. That’s how we help to make our contributions to bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice. I know this isn’t easy, I know that over the past week, a lot of people have asked themselves whether America is the country we thought it was. The divisions laid bare by this election run deep, but please listen to me when I say this. America is worth it. Our children are worth it. Believe in our country, fight for our values and never, ever give up because over the past two years, I have met so many people who reaffirmed my faith in our country, all kinds of people—young people starting businesses, people working in every way they could to make the world a better place, police officers who put their lives on the line, members of communities who work with the police to try to keep everybody safe, immigrants who worked so hard to become citizens and so many people who work long hours caring for children and the elderly, even when the pay is not enough to support their own families.
I met and had the chance to work and travel with mothers who lost children and turned around and started a movement for peace and justice. A pastor in South Carolina who shared his bible with me open to First Corinthians. Love never fails, it tells us, and I believe that. Way back when I was in college, and I gave the commencement speech, I said to my classmates then that our goal should be to make what appears to be impossible possible. I may be older now, a mother and a grandmother. I have seen my share of ups and downs, but I still believe that we can make the impossible possible. I will hope that the stories of the people we’re honoring tonight, Marian’s story, all that she’s achieved—the Children’s Defense Fund has often made the impossible possible.
And then finally, as some of you heard me say during the campaign, I draw hope and sustenance from another person who influenced my life and still does every day, my mother. I have talked about her difficult childhood. She was abandoned by her parents when she was just 8 years old. They put her on a train to California all by herself in charge of her little sister, who was three years younger. She ended up in California, where she was mistreated by her grandparents, ended up on her own, working as a housemaid. She beat the odds. She found a way to offer me the boundless love and support she never received herself. I think about her every day and sometimes I think about her on that train. I wish I could walk down the aisle and find the little wooden seat where she sat, holding tight to her younger sister, all alone and terrified. She doesn’t yet know how much more she will have to face and even suffer. She doesn’t yet know she will find the strength to escape that suffering. That’s still years off. Her whole future is unknown, as it is for all of us, as she stares out at the vast country moving past her. And I dream of going up to her and sitting next to her and taking her in my arms and saying, “Look, look at me and listen. You will survive, you will have a family of your own, three children, and as hard as it might be to imagine, your daughter will grow up to be a United States Senator, represent our country as Secretary of State and win more than 62 million votes for President of the United States.
Now, I can’t and you can’t go back in time and hug all those children that preceded us, but we can do that now. We can reach out to make sure every child has a champion because I am as sure of this as anything I have ever known. America is still the greatest country in the world. This is still the place where anyone can beat the odds. It’s up to each and every one of us to keep working to make America better and stronger and fairer. Thank you. God bless you and God bless the work of the Children’s Defense Fund.