Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Marian Wright Edelman and trying your best

I've been thinking about what inspires social justice activists to continue fighting when it feels like there's always more work to do. One of the women whose work continues to inspire me is Marian Wright Edelman.
"You’re not obligated to win. You’re obligated to keep trying to do the best you can every day." Marian Wright Edelman
The more I learn about her life and her work, the most I admire her. This quote is one I refer to often when I'm feeling discouraged. She has dedicated her life to protecting children, and especially children from disadvantaged backgrounds, and has helped improve the lives of millions. But there is still so much work to be done, and if anyone would know about how to stay focused and to keep doing their best every day in the face of daunting odds, it's Marian Wright Edelman.

Where does her strength come from?
While she was growing up, her father, a minister, would say "God runs a full employment economy." Her parents lived by the philosophy that whenever they saw a need, it was their responsibility to try to fill it, and guided their children to do the same. They were taught to be "servant-leaders," using their service as a way to improve the world around them. She was only 14 when her father died. His last words to her were "Don't let anything get in the way of your education." Such a heavy mantle to lay on a child, but she carried with grace and an incredible inner strength that came from knowing she was given the great gifts of intelligence and determination. She had already been told that she was powerful and capable, and that the best way for her to serve would be to make the most of her opportunities in service of the greater good.

She didn't let him down. She graduated as valedictorian from Spelman College in 1960, and studied law at Yale Law School, graduating with her JD in 1963. It was in her senior year at Spelman College that she joined the Civil Rights Movement, and was arrested as part of one of the largest student sit-ins at the Atlanta City Hall.

Becoming a servant-leader.
After she graduated from Yale Law School, she immediately headed directly to the center of the Civil Rights Movement activities: Mississippi. She worked as a lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense And Educational Fund out of their Mississippi office, and became the first African American woman admitted to the Mississippi Bar. It was the Freedom Summer of 1964, and she was right there in the middle of it all, representing activists, working on racial justice issues, and witnessing first-hand the horrors Jim Crow and the tragedy of grinding poverty.

It was the experience of seeing children dying from preventable diseases, starvation, and generalized poverty that changed the course of her life. While still in Mississippi, she was instrumental in establishing the Head Start program there. Created under President Johnson's War on Poverty, the goal was to give communities the help they needed to meet the needs of disadvantaged preschool children, giving them a "head start" to prepare them for elementary school.

Using her voice.
Still fired up by her experience in Mississippi, she moved to Washington, DC, where she founded the Washington Research Project, a public interest law firm focused on civil rights and racial justice. But her real focus was serving the needs of children. She founded the Children's Defense Fund as a voice for those who cannot speak for themselves, particularly poor children, children of color and those with disabilities.

For 45 years she served as president of the CDF, using her position to tirelessly advocate for children across the country, taking on critical issues as diverse as child poverty, child health, youth justice, teen pregnancy, and gun violence. The CDF has been at the forefront of nearly every piece of legislation affecting children in the United States.

In November 2018, Marian transitioned from president to the role of president emerita, stepping back from the day to day duties. I guess that's as close to retirement a "servant leader" will get. As she said in a recent TED interview, "I feel like the luckiest person of the world to have been born at the intersection of great needs and great injustices and great opportunities to change them. I just feel very grateful that I could serve and make a difference."

My inspiration to keep telling the stories of remarkable women comes from your support! If you were inspired by what you've read here, please consider making a donation, and share this post with your friends.

You may also be interested in:

Read This: Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Freedom
"I'd had enough of just feeling angry... I was tired of hoping for justice. When my moment came, I was ready." Her moment came on March 2, 1955, when she was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on the bus. A full nine months before Rosa Parks did the same. In many ways, I find the story of this brave teenager to be even more inspirational than Rosa Park's.
Lorraine Hansberry - Eternally Young, Gifted and Black
"A woman who is willing to be herself and pursue her own potential runs not so much the risk of loneliness, as the challenge of exposure to more interesting men - and people in general." Lorraine Hansberry knew what she was talking about. She never shied away from pursuing her own goals.
Uncovering Stories: Raye Montague - Navy Engineer
She was promoted into a civilian position with the equivalent rank as a captain, working as the Program Manager of Ships, in charge of the entire process of building a ship -- a dream job that combined her engineering talents with her business degree. She was the first woman to earn that position and she took it very seriously.


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