Marian Wright Edelman

Standing Up For The World's Children: Leave No Child Behind - unknown date, 1996

Marian Wright Edelman
January 01, 1996— San Francisco, California
State of the World Forum
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I am deeply honoured to participate in this State of the World Forum and thank those who brought us together.

We are living in a time of unbearable dissonance between promise and performance; between good politics and good policy; between professed and practiced family values; between racial creed and racial deed; between calls for community and rampant individualism and greed; and between our capacity to prevent and alleviate human deprivation and disease and our political and spiritual will to do so.

Something is awry when the net worth of the world's 358 richest people equals the combined income of the poorest 45 percent -- or 2.3 billion people -- of the world's population, and when the per capita income gap between the developed and developing worlds has tripled since 1960. Something is awry when, in the United States, 23,000 families lived on less income in 1993 than one entertainment industry executive. These facts are not acts of God but of men and can be changed. We also are living at an incredible moral moment in history- Few human beings are blessed to anticipate or experience the beginning of a new century and millennium. How will we say thanks for the life, earth, nations, and children God has entrusted to our care? What legacies, principles, values, and deeds will we stand for and send to the future through our children to their children and to a spiritually confused, balkanized, and violent world desperately hungering for moral leadership and community?

How will progress be measured over the next thousand years if we survive them? By the kill power and number of weapons of destruction we can produce and traffic at home and abroad, or by our willingness to shrink, indeed destroy, the prison of violence constructed in the name of peace and security? Will we be remembered in this last part of the 20th century by how many material things we can manufacture, advertise, sell, and consume, or by our rediscovery of more lasting, non-material measures of success -- a new Dow Jones for the purpose and quality of life in our families, neighborhoods, cities, national, and world communities. By how rapidly technology and corporate mergermania can render human beings and human work obsolete, or by our search for a better balance between corporate profits and corporate caring for children, families, and communities? Will we be remembered by how much a few at the top can get at the expense of the many at the bottom and in the middle, or by our struggle for a concept of enough for all? Will we be remembered by the glitz, style, and banality of too much of our culture in McLuhan's electronic global village or by the substance of our efforts to rekindle an ethic of caring, community, and justice in a world driven too much by money, technology, and weaponry?

The answers lie in the values we stand for and in the actions we take today. What an opportunity for good or evil we personally and collectively hold in our hands as parents, citizens, religious, community, and political leaders; and -- for those Americans among us -- as titular world leader in this post-Cold War and post-industrial era on the cusp of the third millennium.

A thousand years ago the United States was not even a dream. Copernicus and Galileo had not told us the earth was round or revolved around the sun. Gutenberg's Bible had not been printed, Wycliffe had not translated it into English, and Martin Luther had not tacked his theses on the church door. The Magna Carta did not exist, Chaucer's and Shakespeare's tales had not been spun, and Bach's, Beethoven's, and Mozart's miraculous music had not been created to inspire, soothe, and heal our spirits. European serfs struggled in bondage while many African and Asian empires flourished in independence. Native Americans peopled America, free of slavery's blight, and Hitler's holocaust had yet to show the depths human evil can reach when good women and men remain silent or indifferent.

A thousand years from now, will civilization remain and humankind Survive? Will America's dream be alive, be remembered, and be worth remembering? Will the United States be a blip or a beacon in history? Can our founding principle "that all men are created equal" and "are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights" withstand the test of time, the tempests of politics, and become deed and not just creed for EVERY child? Is American's dream big enough for every fifth child who is poor, every sixth child who is Black, every seventh child who is Hispanic, and every eighth child who is mentally or physically challenged? Is our world's dream big enough for all of the children God has sent as messengers of hope?

Can our children become the healing agents of our national and world transformation and future spiritual and economic salvation? Edmond McDonald wrote that "when God wants an important thing done in this world or a wrong righted, He goes about it in a very singular way. He doesn't release thunderbolts or stir up earthquakes. God simply has a tiny' baby born, perhaps of a very humble home, perhaps of a very humble mother. And God puts the idea or purpose into the mother's heart. And she puts it in the baby's mind, and then God waits. The great events of this world are not battles and elections and earthquakes and thunderbolts. The great events are babies, for each child comes with the message that God is not yet discouraged with humanity, but is still expecting goodwill to become incarnate in each human life". And so God produced a Gorbachev and a Mandela and a Harriet Tubman and an Eleanor Roosevelt and an Arias and each of us to guide the earth towards peace rather than conflict.

I believe that protecting today's children tomorrow's Mandelas and Mother Theresas is the moral and common sense litmus test of our humanity in a world where millions of child lives are ravaged by the wars, neglect, abuse, and racial, ethnic, religious, and class divisions of adults.

The state of the world's children today represents both a colossal triumph and failure for humankind. Over the last fifteen years, through the "child survival revolution", UNICEF and WHO, working with governments and nongovernmental organizations, have saved tens of millions of child lives - perhaps the greatest humanitarian act in history. Rising developing world's child immunization rates (from 25 percent to nearly 80 percent); oral rehydration therapy to combat diarrhea; advances against vitamin A deficiency; the iodization of salt (which eliminates iodine deficiency disorders and much preventable mental retardation); the distinct possibility that polio, like small pox, will soon become extinct; and the increasingly effective campaign against guinea worm disease, are among the greatest yet most invisible human triumphs of the 20th Century. Together they prevent as many as 5 million child deaths a year.

These triumphs are overshadowed, however, by our failure to prevent nearly 8 million other child deaths each year. The shortfall is not in vaccine efficacy, health worker willingness, or parental concern) but primarily in the priorities and commitment in many developing and developed countries to meet the needs of the more than 120 million children born poor each year. And the shortfall is in our failure to provide the 30-40 billion additional dollars a year needed to reach the year 2000 child health and development goals set by the nations of the world in 1990. UNICEF says the world spends more than this on playing golf and that Europeans spend more on cigarettes. $30-40 billion is far less than defense budget cuts around the world since the Cold War ended. Indeed, U.S. spending (in real inflation adjusted dollars) an arms exceeds the amount spent during the average year of the Cold war. In the U.S. we are spending $30 million an hour on national defense -- more on the military every 14 hours than we spend annually on child abuse prevention and treatment programs; more on the military every 29 hours than on summer jobs for unemployed youth; and more in just 5 hours on the military than we invest in early Head Start for poor children under three.

Little or none of the wholly inadequate "peace dividend" has been invested in urgently needed child and human development. While child deaths from disease have fallen dramatically, child deaths in wars and civil conflicts have risen. In the last decade, 2 million children have been killed and 4 1/2 million have been disabled in wars. Warring sides increasingly target civilian populations and so-called leaders recognize the pliability of children as soldiers. Lighter and simpler weapons like AK-47s and M-16s have given still-growing children greater firepower just as the cancerous spread of small, cheap "Saturday Night special" handguns have done in my country. In the ultimate adult abuse and corruption of childhood's innocence, children have become engaged in war as soldiers and as civilian targets. In over 25 countries in the last decade, children under 16 and as young as 6 have fought in wars and in the U.S. gun manufacturers have targeted women and children as a consumer market. And the deadly fruits of war in the form of landmines daily turn childhood dreams into nightmares in many parts of the world.

Epidemic violence coupled with growing inequality among and within many nations; persistent poverty, especially in Africa and in the U.S.; widespread hunger and malnutrition in South Asia and elsewhere; and disparate education levels between boys and girls (although investing in education of girls can increase incomes, free women from subjection, improve child health and nutrition, increase marriages, and lower birth rates) keep us from realizing Martin Luther King, Jr.'s vision of a beloved community. It is not only the developing world that has a child survival and development crisis. The stagnation, retrogression, and lack of political and moral will to invest in children and families in the developed nations of the world must be addressed. Strong communities rest on strong families. Yet in the United States, and to varying degrees throughout the developed world, young families with children are struggling with falling wages and income. The number of children growing up in single-parent families has skyrocketed; and teen pregnancy and parenting rates remain stubbornly high. Lengthening life spans, fewer children per family, and more single-parent families all mean that parents and grandparents living with children are a shrinking share of the electorate, and the political power needed for voteless children is eroding. Decreasing adult time for child nurturing, coupled with child corrupting content from powerful modern communications technologies like television, pose ominous problems for the world and the United States and threaten our leadership role in the 21st century world. Among industrialized nations, the United States ranks:

1st in military technology and exports;

1st in Gross Domestic Product (GNP);

1st in defense expenditures; and,

1st in the number of millionaires and billionaires

But we rank worst in the number of children killed by guns among industrialized nations and have twice the rate of teen births as England, and five times the rates in France, Italy, and other Western European nations. Our children rank 7th in science and 12th in mathematics achievement among 15 nations (as 13-year-olds); 16th in living standards among our poorest fifth children; 18th in 18 industrialized countries in the gap between rich and poor children; 18th in infant mortality (27th if we compare only Black infant mortality); and 19th in low birth weight rates. Most tragically, the morally unthinkable killing of children has become routine in Boston, Bosnia, and Burundi, in New York city and Rwanda, and is increasing. In the U.S., since 1979, more than 50,000 American children have been killed by guns in our homes, schools, and neighborhoods in a civil war on and among our own young. This is more child gun deaths than all America's battlefield casualties during the entire Vietnam War. Although we are the world's leading military power, we permit a classroom full of children to be killed violently every two days from guns - one child every hour and a half. White children constituted more than half the 5,751 children killed by guns in 1993. Guns kill more American preschool children each year than law enforcement officers or active duty military personnel in the line of duty. The 2,221 Black children and youths murdered by firearms in 1993 were almost twice the total number of gun homicides in Australia, Belgium, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Holland, Norway, Spain, Switzerland, and Finland combined. More toddlers and preschool school children were murdered in 1993 than citizens of all ages in Japan, Switzerland, Holland, England and Wales.

Our nation responds to this tragedy not by taking guns out of the hands of children and those who kill them, and not by giving parents the jobs, child care, and health support they need to give children the home environments; and not by investing adequately in quality schools, and after-school and summer activities that will keep children safer, engaged, and give them hopes for their futures, but by decreasing child and family investments, putting more children in adult jails, and making the citizenry fear children by branding them "predators" and "teen terrorists." The recently enacted welfare repeal bill will slash over $50 billion from low-income families with children (most of whom work and are not on welfare, are legal immigrants or disabled); consign a million more children to poverty) and sharply cut family and child nutrition benefits for 14 million children. Our leaders did not demand any sacrifices from corporate welfare recipients and Pentagon contractors. our challenge is to build a citizen movement so strong that no political leader of any party will be able to do this again--even in an election year

What Do We Do?

First: we must affirm the sanctity of each child. (Jewish Midrash). When Jesus Christ invited the little children to come unto Him, He did not invite only rich, middle class, White, male, children without disabilities, from two parent families, or our own children to come. He welcomed all children. And so must we. All great faiths place a priority on child protection. Our challenge is to reflect this priority every day in our families, communities, and professional lives, and in our private sector and governmental policies.

Two: We must build strong politics and climate for child investment that cuts across race and class, and appeal to self-interest as well as conscience. And we must combat the myths that it is only poor or minority children or those in developing nations who are afflicted by the breakdown of moral, family, and community values throughout our world today. The pollution of our airwaves, air, food, and water; growing economic insecurity among middle-class children and young families; rampant drug and alcohol abuse; teen pregnancy; and domestic violence among rich; middle-class, and poor alike; AIDS; random gun and terrorist violence; resurging racial, ethnic, and gender intolerance in our places of learning, work, and worship; and the crass, empty materialism of too much of our culture, threaten every child. Affluenza and lack of moral purpose are more dangerous viruses than influenza for millions of America's and the world's children.

Third: we must stop adult hypocrisy and live what we preach. Our children do what we do and not just what we say. Each of us must conduct regular personal audits and make sure we are a part of the solution and not a part of the problem our children face. If we tell or snicker at racial or gender jokes or acquiesce in practices that demean other human beings, then we are a part of the problem. If we are violent, our children will be violent. If we abuse drugs - including alcohol and tobacco - while telling our children not to, then we are contributing to our overly addicted societies. If we do not engage in regular service to others, our children will absorb our selfishness. We must also preach better what we practice if it is good.

Fourth. conduct a community audit to see if schools, religious, and other community institutions are providing children and youths positive alternatives to the streets, to drug dealers, and gangs, and to the relentless: cultural messages glamourizing irresponsible sex, and excessive violence and materialism. And we must celebrate the majority of children who are beating the odds rather than just publicizing the minority who get into trouble. We must insist that the media provide a better balance between good and bad news. A key to this is personalizing child suffering. We must take opinion and political leaders on site visits to see the children and families behind the statistics and policies. And we must show them solutions as well as problems. We must disseminate widely the things that do work so that the public will know that positive change is possible and occurring.

Fifth: monitor and conduct regular national audits of how private sector and governmental policies impact on children and engage in strong, systematic advocacy to meet child needs first.

Children don't vote but adults who do must stand up and vote for them. While personal responsibility, moral example, and private charity are crucial, so are jobs, decent wages, child care, health care, clean air, water, and public safety that government must ensure, in collaboration with employers. All the soup kitchens and homeless shelters in the world cannot substitute for community and economic development which provide jobs with decent wages, and dignity. But we will not achieve adequate child and family investments in the U.S. without a massive, moral movement to redirect the leadership and budget priorities of our nation.

A lot of people, including CDF, have been seeding and watering this movement for over two decades. On June 1, 1996, it reached a crucial new stage when, in just four months, 3,800 organizations and over 300,000 Americans of every race, age, faith, state, and ideology stood together at the Lincoln memorial. Thousands more stood in 133 local rallies throughout the country. We committed to putting our children first as parents, grandparents, citizens, and community leaders and insist our private and public sector leaders do so. Children's Action Teams are engaging in follow-up action in 46 states and laying the foundation for the long overdue grassroots movement needed to protect our children. In July, 125,000 Massachusetts children got health coverage when citizens and state legislators overrode a governor's veto of a pending child health bill. Thousands more individuals are volunteering in child-serving programs, monitoring child policies, and tutoring and mentoring children. On October l8-20, thousands of congregations of all faiths will lift up child needs during annual Children Sabbaths celebrations; and children's summits and rallies are taking place in California, New York, and Michigan in this month alone. Next June 1st we plan a Virtual Stand for Children Day which I hope our friends around the world will join in. Every state, city, and congressional district and community need a well-trained band of leaders committed to lifting up child needs and mobilizing a critical mass of citizens to ensure all children a Healthy, Fair, Safe, and Moral Start in life. Leadership development, especially among youth and local community leaders, must be a high priority for us all.

Sixth: all the nations of the world can use the International Convention of the Rights of the Child to ~promote child well being. Promulgated in the early 1990s to lift up children's needs, the Convention gives children a comprehensive set of social, economic, civil, and political rights to be protected against discrimination, child labor, and sexual exploitation; to speech and participation commensurate with their age; to adequate health care, food, shelter, and other items of subsistence; and to a range of other basics we adults take for granted. And the Convention does all this while recognizing the paramount importance of parents and family. No human rights treaty in history has been ratified so quickly by so many countries. To date, 167 countries have ratified and only four (Oman, Somalia, the United Arab Emirate, and the Cook Islands) have neither signed nor ratified the Convention. And only two - I'm embarrassed to say they are the United States and Switzerland - have signed but have not ratified this Convention.

Nevertheless, the 1990 World Summit for Children at the United Nations and the Convention on the Rights of the Child have helped consolidate the presence of children and young people in political and social debate in international bodies and dozens of countries around the world. For decades to come, the Convention will be an essential framework for national and international action for children.

Let me end with a prayer:

0 GOD OF ALL CHILDREN O God of the children of Somalia, Sarajevo, South Africa, and South Carolina, Of Albania, Alabama, Bosnia, and Boston, Of Cracow and Cairo, Chicago and Croatia Help us to love and respect and protect them all. O God of black and brown and white and Albino children and those all mixed together, Of children who are rich and poor and in between, Of children who speak English and Russian and Hmong and Spanish and languages our ears cannot discern, Help us to love and respect and protect them all. O God of the child prodigy and child prostitute, of the child of rapture and the child of rape. Of run or thrown away children who struggle every day without parent or place or friend or future, Help us to love and respect and protect them all. O God of the children who can walk and talk and hear and see and sing and dance and jump and play and of children who wish they could but they can't Of children who are loved and unloved, wanted and unwanted, Help us to love and respect and protect them all. O God of beggar, beaten, abused, neglected, homeless, AIDS, drug, and hunger-ravaged children, Of children who are emotionally and physically and mentally fragile, and of children who rebel and ridicule, torment and taunt, Help us to love and respect and protect them all. O God of children of destiny and of despair, of war and of peace, Of disfigured, diseased, and dying children, Of children without hope and of children with hope to spare and to share, Help us to love and respect and protect them all.

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