Photo credit: Shawn Poynter for NPR
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Children’s Defense Fund (CDF). But today is exceptionally special as it’s the birthday of CDF’s Founder and President Emerita, Marian Wright Edelman. To honor Mrs. Edelman’s vision and legacy, CDF is proud to designate June 6, 2023, Mrs. Edelman’s birthday in CDF’s 50th year, as the first CDF Founder’s Day.
Rooted in the Civil Rights Movement, Mrs. Edelman has stood alongside children and youth in the fight for racial justice since the organization’s conception. Inspired by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Mrs. Edelman knew the importance of Black youth taking a stand against segregation that assaulted their “dignity and lives.” The prints of Mrs. Edelman and SNCC can be seen throughout CDFs work.
In 1990, CDF founded the Black Student Leadership Network (BSLN) to address the layered systemic injustice facing low-income Black communities. This immense engagement and mobilization effort focused on training Black students and youth “in direct action organizing, social movement building, voter education, child advocacy, and teaching methodology,” as Dr. Sekou Franklin notes in After the Rebellion: Black Youth, Social Movement Activism, and the Post-Civil Rights Generation. Our founder laid the groundwork for us. Today CDF continues to amplify young Black leaders’ vision and voice for a more just democracy and economy.
Giving youth a voice in the fight against racial injustice has also in turn birthed CDF programs that provide youth with agency and the tools needed to thrive. Through the Beat the Odds® Program, for instance, which transformed young lives and emboldened youth on their path to adulthood, CDF directly provided high school graduates from marginalized communities with the funds and tools they needed for success. With current programs like the NBA HBCU Fellowship and CDF Freedom Schools®, we continue to champion the rights and agency of youth, creating pathways for them to overcome obstacles and thrive in a society that too often overlooks their potential.
Mrs. Edelman never hesitated to speak truth to power, maintaining an authoritative presence on Capitol Hill. Among many examples of her successful advocacy, the Foster Care Independence Act of 1999 improved the lives of foster care youth by providing them with vital resources and support as they transitioned into adulthood. Inspired by that legacy, CDF’s current efforts in several states ensure that young people exiting foster care can access support to build independent lives. CDF’s Vice President of operations, Sheri Brady, said it best: “There is not one piece of major federal legislation related to children that does not have CDF’s fingerprints on it.”
While we elevate youth through programs and advocate on the Hill, CDF always comes back to its roots: service. We are servant-leaders focusing on the growth and well-being of children and youth. Our servant-leadership is rooted in our founder’s vision of the CDF Freedom Schools® Program. Mrs. Edelman and her sister, Olive Wright Covington, founded CDF Freedom Schools in 1993 to provide safe, nurturing, literature-rich summer and after-school environments where children can learn, bloom, and serve. CDF, supported by a team of esteemed reading specialists and through rigorous training for college servant leaders at CDF Alex Haley Farm, has dedicated extensive time and effort to the development of CDF Freedom Schools program. We share power, put others first, and help them develop to be the best versions of themselves. Through service, CDF is able to take lived experiences from classrooms and the community to inform its programs and policy agenda. In turn, we can amplify community power.
Thank you, Mrs. Edelman, for your unwavering dedication to defending and uplifting America’s children and youth. Your commitment for the past 50 years has brought us closer to a nation where marginalized children flourish, leaders prioritize their well-being and communities wield the power to ensure they thrive.