The Enduring Influence of Marian Wright Edelman

By Olivia Golden

Children have been in the news a great deal lately—for terrible reasons like the administration’s policy of tearing children from their parents at the border, and for good reasons, like the historic federal investment in child care in 2018 and the exciting child care guarantee and paid family and medical leave proposals now being floated in Congress. With such a mix of threats and opportunities, it’s a high-stakes moment for the diverse generation of children and young people who represent the nation’s future.

As somebody who has worked on child and family policy for decades, I know that navigating this moment requires reflecting on what we have learned from leaders about how to fight back while also advancing positive change. One such pioneering leader is Marian Wright Edelman.

As the founder and president emerita of the Children’s Defense Fund, Marian not only transformed how we think about and support children, she mentored scores of advocates (like me) who continue working to carry out the vision she set decades ago: improving children’s lives and wellbeing as an entry point to racial and economic justice. 

I recently had the privilege of paying tribute to Marian at a New York University School of Law event honoring her lifetime of advocating for children. The student editors dedicated the 2019 edition of the NYU Annual Survey of American Law to Marian.

Past recipients of this prestigious honor include Supreme Court Justices Sotomayor, Breyer, Ginsburg, O’Connor, Blackmun, Stevens, Marshall, and Brennan—and U.S. and world leaders like Barbara Jordan, Hillary Clinton, George Mitchell, and Desmond Tutu, just to name a few. 

In selecting Marian, the NYU law students made an important point: that leaders are not only those who hold official power—but also those who advocate passionately and persistently from outside.

Persistence, passion, and effectiveness in advocacy from the outside are key qualities that all of us who honored Marian have always known about her. She is an extraordinary leader who taught several generations of advocates how to fight effectively over the long haul.

As we defend against today’s terrible threats to children and build a foundation for tomorrow’s reforms, three lessons I learned from working for Marian should serve to guide us. First, hold on stubbornly to our own core values and instincts. Second, place child advocacy at the center of an economic and racial equity agenda. And third, stay committed to both long-term vision and incremental success.

When I came to Washington, D.C. more than 25 years ago, I worked for Marian. Her example and insights shaped me as an advocate and influenced my thinking about how crucial it is to be both practical and idealistic—to start from the reality of where families’ lives are, improve them step-by-step, yet never lose sight of the transformative changes needed in the end.

In this difficult and high-stakes moment, many of us owe her a debt of gratitude. It was a privilege to reflect on what I learned from her and on how much those lessons matter today.

My full remarks honoring Marian are available here.

Photos: ©Thomas: Courtesy of NYU Photo Bureau