Marian Wright Edelman

Commencement Address at Tulane University - May 19, 2001

Marian Wright Edelman
May 19, 2001— New Orleans, Louisiana
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It's time! It's time to build a mighty movement to Leave No Child Behind in the richest and most powerful nation on earth. I hope you will be a part of it.

It's time! An incredible magical moment in history which few human beings have been blessed to experience. A new millennium. A new century. A new decade. How will we say thanks to God for the earth, nation, and children entrusted to our care?

It's time! A time of political transition. A new president who repeatedly has used CDF's trademarked mission words and promised to Leave No Child Behind. In his inaugural address, the President eloquently and correctly stated that, "America, at its best, is compassionate. In the quiet of America's conscience, we know that deep, persistent poverty is unworthy of our nation's promise. And whatever our views of its cause, we can agree that children at risk are not at fault." How do we work with him and our political leaders in both parties to translate these words into reality for the 12 million children who are poor and the 10 million who need health insurance and the millions more who need quality Head Start, education, and after-school and summer programs?

It's time! The wealthiest time in American history. A $10 trillion American economy. Eight years of unprecedented economic growth. A projected multi-trillion dollar federal budget surplus over the next 10 years. Number one in billionaires and millionaires. The top Gross National Product in the world. Many state budget surpluses. Hundreds of billions of dollars of state tobacco settlement monies. Billions more dollars still unspent by some states from welfare and child health legislation.

It's time! An era of stunning American intellectual, technological, and scientific achievement: 168 Nobel Prize winners in science this past century. We've sent humans to the moon, spaceships to Mars, cracked the genetic code, amassed tens of billions of dollars from a tiny microchip, and discovered cures for diseases which give hope to millions if they can access treatment. We can transmit information faster than we can digest it and buy anything we desire instantly on-line in our global shopping arcade. Wouldn't you think we could figure out how to teach all our children to read by fourth grade?

It's time! A churning new world order is being born. Changing rules of doing global business are creating important new questions, challenges, and opportunities. Who will gain and who will be left behind? Will the life chances of the poor, women, and children be enhanced or exploited? Will powerful corporate interests eviscerate or respect democratic nation-state decision-making processes? Will multinational conglomerates be accountable to or run roughshod over communities and citizens in pursuit of quicker and bigger profits? Will the changing nature of work and the demands of the new economy strengthen or weaken family and community life and job security? Will cultural homogenization and corporate branding contribute to or detract from the rich diversity of the world's peoples? How can we close the spiraling digital, health, income, and education divides between the rich and the poor of the world and at home? Can we develop a concept of enough for those at the bottom and at the top so that the common good, stability, and our children's futures will be preserved?

It's time for idealism--not ideology. It's time for greatness--not greed. It's time for empowering parents and young people and citizens and communities--not just the rich and already powerful. It's time for moral and political leadership in all sectors of our society to help us believe again the words and trust the integrity of our political leaders--not for partisan bickering and political one upmanship. It's time for compassionate words and compassionate budgets and tax policies which do not favor the few at the expense of the many and put the interests of the wealthy ahead of the needs of our children. It's time for sharing America's great prosperity with all our citizens--especially children--and millions of hard working parents struggling to make ends meet in this time of surplus.

Just four wealthy Americans possess greater wealth than the GNP of the 34 least developed nations in the world with over 650 million people. Harper's magazine estimated in 1997 that 240,183 people could be fed for one year with the food we Americans waste in one day. The gaping divide between the rich and poor nations is mirrored in the gap between rich and poor in our own country. The wealth of these four richest Americans exceeds that of 14 million American families combined, exceeds the revenues of 24 state governments with 42 million citizens, and could lift 12 million children out of poverty five times over.

Since 1979, the top 5 percent (3.6 million) of American families saw their average income increase by $101,000 or 66 percent, while the bottom 20 percent (14.4 million families) lost $184 a year from their average income of $13,500 in 1999 dollars. In 1999, chief corporate officers' pay ballooned by $1.8 million to a new high of $12.4 million each, six times what they made in 1990 and 475 times more than the average blue-collar worker, 800 times more than the average child care worker who helps shape children in the formative early years, who earns $7.42 an hour, $15,430 a year and 315 times more than the average public school teacher who earns $39,300 a year.

Between 1999 and 2000, the U.S. economy grew by half a trillion dollars, the largest single-year jump ever recorded. This increase alone was 13 times the amount needed to end child poverty in America which afflicts over 12 million American children -- one in six. Although 78 percent of poor children lived in households where someone worked in 1999, their increased work effort did not get them ahead.

Something crucial is missing from our current picture of enormous American achievement and prosperity. It's justice and hope for all and a commitment to see that no child is left behind in the richest and most powerful nation on earth.

  • An American child is born into poverty every 44 seconds--most of them are White, live outside inner cities and in households where someone works. Almost 317,000 Louisiana children are poor--about 1 in 4.
  • An American child is born without health insurance every minute although we lead the world in health technology; 290,000--nearly 1 in 4 Louisiana children lack health insurance. Louisiana ranks 48th in the percentage of children without health insurance and 38th in child immunizations for two-year olds.
  • An American child is reported abused or neglected every 11 minutes -- in Louisiana one child every 35 minutes.
  • An American child or youth is killed by guns every 2 hours and 20 minutes (10 every day) -- in Louisiana one child every 2 days.

Child poverty, neglect, health care, illiteracy, and gun deaths are not acts of God. They are our moral and political choices as a nation. Since 1968 we decreased poverty among the elderly more than 60 percent while the child poverty rate increased 8 percent. Child hunger was virtually eliminated in the 1970s thanks to a series of events set in motion by an outraged Senator Robert F. Kennedy after seeing the bloated bellies of hungry children on his visit to the Mississippi Delta in 1967. He returned to Washington determined to do something about it. His passionate concern catalyzed a series of changes that led to an expansion of child and family nutrition programs during the Nixon administration years. He encouraged doctors to go out into poor communities to examine children and to document hunger. He convinced Agriculture Secretary Orville Freeman to reduce food stamp barriers after sending Freeman's disbelieving staff to see first hand that there really were people in Mississippi with no income. He encouraged CBS' 60 Minutes to do a documentary and encouraged fellow senators to hold hearings to make visible the existence of hungry children across America. Hearing my despair later that year over the continuing suffering of Mississippi's poor after his earlier visit, he told me to tell Dr. King to bring the poor to Washington to make their needs visible and to make our political leaders act. We both feared the Vietnam War was diverting more and more attention from the struggle against poverty at home.

Each of these statistics is a real child like Antonio and a life and death issue for some child in America today. Maria, his young mother, was sent home with Antonio the day he was born. Only she didn't have a home. She was a single parent with no extended family support. But she loved her baby and within the limits of public assistance found a small room. About three months later, Maria called the health clinic to report her baby was sick. The nurse told Maria to bring him in. Maria said she didn't have transportation. The nurse asked for the baby's symptoms, and upon hearing that the baby had diarrhea for two days, concluded he had a flu virus that was going around and advised the mother to keep the baby hydrated. "Feed the baby liquids every hour. Pedialyte or apple juice is good." Maria went to the refrigerator. She certainly didn't have Pedialyte, apple juice, or even ice. In her cupboard, she did have tomato sauce, so she filled the baby's bottle with tomato sauce and stayed up all night, feeding him every hour on the hour. The sodium content of the tomato sauce accelerated Antonio's dehydration and by morning his tiny body was lifeless. Should any parent in rich America have to watch a child die because she does not have enough food or cannot afford transportation to get needed health care?

A Texas mother with an $8 an hour salary and no health insurance described her stressful dilemma when her daughter woke her up in the middle of the night gasping for breath saying her inhaler was broken. The mother had to debate whether to rush her child to the emergency room or to an all-night drugstore for an over-the-counter remedy she prayed would work. She realized later that for $88 she was gambling with her child's life. Should any parent or child face this draconian choice in rich America?

It's time to realize Dr. King's dream and to avoid his nightmare. The day after Dr. King's assassination on April 4, 1968, the pent-up rage, hurt, and grief of poor Black communities exploded in riots across America. As smoke swirled through the air of Washington, D.C., I visited several public schools to urge children not to loot, risk arrest, and jeopardize their futures. A 12-year-old boy looked me straight in the eye and said, "Lady, what future? I ain't got no future. I ain't got nothing to lose."

That child's truth is a truth Dr. King died trying to get us to do something about when he reminded us of the parable of the rich man Dives and the poor man Lazarus in a sermon at the Washington National Cathedral the Sunday before his death. "Dives did not go to hell because of his wealth," Dr. King said, "but because he refused to see and help his brother." He feared America could make the same mistake and warned that our wealth could be either our opportunity or our downfall. He called for a Poor People's Campaign to help bridge the gulf between the haves and the have nots. "The question is whether America will do it. There is nothing new about poverty. What is new is that we now have the techniques and the resources to get rid of poverty. The real question is whether we have the will."

That is still the real and even more urgent question in a $10 trillion American economy that has tripled in real value since Dr. King's death. Although America has made enormous racial and economic progress in many areas, huge inequalities remain. In 1968, 11 million American children -- 15.6 percent -- were poor; in 1999, 12.1 million American children --16.9 percent -- were poor. A majority live in working families.

It's time to end child poverty in rich America. President George W. Bush and members of Congress have the opportunity to take a giant step towards this goal by making the President's proposal to double the Child Tax Credit from $500 to $1,000 refundable. This single act would lift two million children from poverty--one-sixth of all poor children--and 1.8 million from extreme poverty right now. 41,000 Louisiana children would be rescued from poverty and 1,097,000 would be significantly helped. If the President and Congress fail to make the Child Tax Credit refundable, 16 million children will be left behind -- one in four of all children. In an administration budget which invests at least $40 for every $1 proposed for the education of our children in a tax bill of 1.3 - 1.6 trillion dollars which benefits primarily the wealthiest Americans, a tax refund for the parents of the 16 million children left behind who pay high payroll taxes and state and local taxes would add a touch of fairness to a tax cut that helps those who have most rather than those who need most. It is not right that a majority of Black and Hispanic families will get no tax cut and that millions of children will be left behind from a child tax credit we have the money to help. When Jesus Christ said 'let the children come unto me,' He did not say only wealthy children or those with incomes above $25,000 or $30,000. I think the urgent needs of hungry, homeless, and poorly educated children should come before investing $266 billion in repealing the estate tax which will help only the top 2%. If you agree, I hope you will make your voices heard this week.

What Can You Do to Help Build a Nation Which Values Each Sacred Child?

The first thing you can do to redefine the measure of success in our power and money-crazed culture? Never work just for money and power. They will not help you sleep at night or buy you a ticket to heaven or a loving family. Dr. King shared his dream of an America that would judge children not by the color of their skin, the stylishness of their clothes and cars, or the size of their bank accounts, but by the content of their character. Senator Robert Kennedy urged us in a University of Kansas speech not to surrender "community excellence and community values to the mere accumulation of material things," and said the Gross National Product (GNP) was a very poor measurement for what is important in life. He said it did not count the health of our children, the quality of their education, the joy of their play, the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate, the integrity of our public officials, or our courage and wisdom. "The GNP measures everything," he said, "except that which makes life worthwhile."

The second is to assign yourself to make a difference in building a just America where no child is left behind. Many people are waiting for their Dr. King and Mahatma Gandhi to come back and set things right. They're not. We're it. The real challenge is not what to do for children but how to build the spiritual and civic will to achieve what all children need for all children. How do we build a broad-based movement to Leave No Child Behind that has the transforming power of the civil rights, anti-war, and environmental movements of the 1960s and 1970s? How do we evoke in the American people the same deep ingrained national commitment to voteless children that existed to protect elderly Americans from poverty, hunger, and social isolation? How do we move children's needs to the top of community, state, and national agendas regardless of who is in office? How do we mobilize and organize a critical mass of Americans to demand concrete major actions from policy makers and then hold them accountable? How do we present a bold, visionary, and comprehensive agenda that covers all of children's needs, rather than piecemeal, fragmented incremental steps that do not resonate beyond the beltway, state capitals, or policy wonks? How do we bring together disparate child advocates and service providers (child care, child welfare, child health, education, youth development, juvenile justice, and violence prevention) with powerful mainstream networks (faith, women, parents and grandparents, youths, and health professionals) to support, strengthen, and achieve an inspiring big vision to protect the whole child and family and to rebuild community and a sense of common space and purpose as a nation?

Sojourner Truth, an illiterate slave woman, provided the model. She never missed a chance--however hopeless her cause seemed to speak out against slavery and second class citizenship for women. One day she was heckled by an old White man who told her he didn't care anymore about her anti-slavery talk than for an old fleabite. She snapped back, "That's alright. The Lord willing, I'm going to keep you scratching." So must we keep our leaders scratching until no child is left behind. Enough fleas biting strategically can make the biggest dogs uncomfortable. I hope you will join me in being a flea for justice for children in America.

We can build a nation where families have the support they need to make it at work and at home; where every child enters school ready to learn and leaves on the path to a productive future; where babies are likely to be born healthy, and sick children have the health care they need; where no child has to grow up in poverty; where all children are safe in their communities and every child has a place to call home -- and all Americans can proudly say "We Leave No Child Behind."

Let me end with a prayer for each of us on this glorious day of achievement and joy to care and to serve and to build an America where every child is healthy, safe, educated, and able to contribute to our great country's future.

I Care and I Am Willing to Serve

Lord I cannot preach like Martin Luther King, Jr.
or turn a poetic phrase like Maya Angelou
but I care and am willing to serve.

I do not have Fred Shuttlesworth's and Harriet
Tubman's courage or Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt's political skills
but I care and am willing to serve.

I cannot sing like Fannie Lou Hamer
or organize like Ella Baker and Bayard Rustin
but I care and am willing to serve.

I am not holy like Archbishop Tutu,
forgiving like Mandela, or disciplined like Gandhi
but I care and am willing to serve.

I am not brilliant like Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois or
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, or as eloquent as
Sojourner Truth and Booker T. Washington
but I care and am willing to serve.

I have not Mother Teresa's saintliness,
Dorothy Day's love or Cesar Chavez's
gentle tough spirit
but I care and am willing to serve.

God it is not as easy as it used to be
to frame an issue and forge a solution
but I care and am willing to serve.

My mind and body are not so swift as in youth
and my energy comes in spurts
but I care and am willing to serve.

I'm so young
nobody will listen
I'm not sure what to say or do
but I care and am willing to serve.

I can't see or hear well
speak good English, stutter sometimes, am afraid of criticism
and get real scared standing up before others
but I care and am willing to serve.

Lord, use me as Thou will today and tomorrow and to help build a nation and world where no child is left behind and everyone feels welcome.

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