A passionate advocate for children

As a girl growing up in the segregated Southern town of Bennettsville, S.C., Marian Wright Edelman learned early the indignities of racial inequality.

At the age of 6 she innocently drank from a water fountain for whites, and a teacher quickly reprimanded her. Schools for black children were typically decrepit, lacking books and supplies. And family outings meant packing lunches to eat in the car, because no restaurant would serve blacks.

But amid the hardships and injustices, the young Marian found compensations and rewards. From childhood she was "richly blessed" by devoted parents, caring teachers, and an informal network of community elders who reached out to nurture her and other children. These "co-parents," as she calls them, offered listening ears and guiding hands.

"The world was not wonderful, and segregation was not terrific," Mrs. Edelman says dryly. "But we had adults to provide direction." She credits those adults with aiding her on the long journey from her small town to the presidency of the Children's Defense Fund in Washington.

Among the supportive adults nurturing Edelman in her early years were three black women, "steady anchors" who were short on formal education but strong on moral values and common sense. Later mentors included such luminaries as Martin Luther King Jr., Robert F. Kennedy, and William Sloane Coffin Jr., former chaplain of Yale University.

A plea for mentors

So revered a place do these people hold in Edelman's life that she is now honoring them in a book, "Lanterns: A Memoir of Mentors" (Beacon, $20). It is both a paean to the individuals who helped her and a public appeal to restore the ideal of mentoring.

"I'm for volunteer programs and career mentors," Edelman says in an interview. "But there is no substitute for supportive parents and neighbors. Something very fundamental has come loose and will not be put back together with volunteer programs." Young people need "natural daily mentors," including "spiritual anchors."

Lamenting what she sees as "weakened family and faith-based structures," she adds, "That sense of connection has got to be rebuilt." In her own experience, life without mentors "would have been less rich. I would have had to be a lot stronger if I had had less support."

For Edelman, that support began early. Her parents instilled in their five children a strong belief in family, God, education, and helping others. Her own deep spirituality shines forth even in the diary she kept as a student.

As a sophomore at Spelman College in Atlanta, Edelman received a Merrill Fellowship, which funded a year of study and travel abroad. Her 15 months in Europe and the Soviet Union proved to be a life-changing experience. After graduating from Yale Law School, she worked as the first and only black woman lawyer in Mississippi during the tumultuous civil rights movement in the 1960s.

There she also met Peter Edelman, a legislative assistant to Robert Kennedy. They married and have three grown sons.

Any conversation with the tireless Edelman never strays far from the subject of her passionate advocacy: helping poor children. Calling the neglect and impoverishment of children "the Achilles heel of this nation," she points out that most poor children in the United States live in homes where at least one parent works.

A problem with adults, not children

Edelman also sees great loneliness and neediness among children in all economic groups. "As fewer adults are in their lives, with less time, more kids are home alone," she says.

Edelman cautions against the quest for celebrity, money, or power that increasingly shapes the values and desires of children and adults. "We are at risk of letting our children drown in the bath water of American materialism, greed, and violence," she warns. "We don't have a child and youth problem, we have an adult problem." When children are violent or dishonest, she explains, people wonder, " 'Why are these kids doing that?' Because we as adults are being violent, and we're not being honest."

Despite all the talk about family values, Edelman sees Americans giving the least support to people who serve children. She makes a plea for adults to "step back up to the plate and protect children." Doing that will require an inclusive movement of parents, religious leaders, and lawmakers. "We need to engage with our children, so they see themselves as people who can make a difference."

Edelman frames what she calls the "central struggle of this age" in a question: "How do you improve a sense of moral value and concern? We have got to have a real moral debate. What kind of people are we? We've really got to have a new moral vision. I wish we could have 40 Paul Reveres to say, 'You've got to hear this.' "

Yet in the midst of unsolved problems, Edelman sees encouraging signs. "There are wonderful people all over this country right now doing wonderful things for children," she says. "Each of us can make a difference in small ways, just speaking to kids, smiling at them, letting them know we care. We mentor every day whether we like it or not. Be very mindful that children pick up the signals, the messages we give as parents, teachers, neighbors, political leaders."

Emphasizing the need for more mentors, she adds firmly, "Anybody who says they can't find the time to reach out to a child is abdicating their responsibility."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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