Thursday, October 02, 2008

Marian Wright Edelman at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History

The auditorium was filling up quickly. "Darn!" I thought, "Too late to get an aisle seat..No, I think I see a few empty rows down near the stage." I hurried to throw my purse and jacket across two cushioned chairs, and once having staked my claim, flopped down to wait for the speaker to take the podium.
I'd been invited to the evening's reception by my friend, Susan Miller, to hear a presentation by Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children's Defense Fund and award winning author. Ms Edelman came to Cleveland this week to promote her latest book, The Sea is So Wide and My Boat is so Small - Charting a Course for the next Generation, and celebrate the opening of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History's new provocative exhibit, "Race-Are We so Different?", sponsored in part by the nonprofit organization, Facing History and Ourselves
Finally, after the representatives the event sponsors greeted the audience, the third speaker introduced Ms Edelman and called her to the stage. To my surprise, a little woman with elegantly coiffed salt and pepper hair who had been sitting quietly in front of me, stood up and walked to the microphone.
In a low voice of quiet authority, she began to read from her book. Her words grabbed the audience by our collective conscience:
"A poor black boy born in 2001 has a one in three chance of going to prison in his lifetime; a Latino boy a one in six chance; a black girl a one in seventeen chance; a white boy a one in seventeen chance; a Latina girl a one in forty-five chance; and a white girl a one in one hundred and eleven chance."
"Child poverty and neglect, racial disparities in systems that serve children, and the Cradle to Prison Pipeline are not acts of God. They are America's immoral political and economic choices that can and must be changed with strong political, corporate, and community leadership."
The audience of more than 400 people gasped, although I was not surprised. I have been familiar with many of these statistics for several years. I cannot count the number of times I have looked over my classroom full of inner-city students and sadly wondered, "What will eventually become of them? Which of these young faces will end up behind razor-wire? Will it really be ten out of the thirty? How do we put a stop to this insanity?"
Every point she made so eloquently were themes I'd also written about over the years. It was very encouraging to hear the message repeated in a public forum large enough to have an impact. She has done the research, assembled the facts, and reached conclusions one could only arrive at if one has been not only a careful observer, but has fully experienced life in it's many facets. A smile, borne of recognizing a kindred thinker, spread across my face.
Each chapter of her book was addressed to a different audience. To the educators she wrote:
"If we want to assess the status of America's future competitiveness, national
security, and democratic health, one need only stop at the school doors through
which millions of ill-prepared students pour every day.
What do we do?
Educators need to remember what their mission is: educating children. Those
who use public schools as political patronage and job security rather than as
child learning and development sites need to be confronted and ousted. Old
interests and ways of doing business need to give way so that children's futures
can be protected. While there are many wonderful teachers and schools all over
the country, there are very few whole school systems where all children are
achieving well."
Ms Edelman reprimanded schools who implement zero-tolerance discipline policies for non-violent behavior, calling them feeder systems for the prison industry. She also spent some time chiding individual educators who don't love (or even like) children, advising them to get out of teaching. Worst of all, she warned, are those who seek to line their own pockets at the expense of innocent children. She brilliantly coined the term "affluenza" to describe the apathetic culture of the 'haves' and their deliberate avoidance of the 'have-nots'.
Every person in the audience received a copy of her new book, and of course mine is already digested, highlighted, and annotated.
I think I have discovered a new favorite author.
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