News: Web Feature: Defying Labels

Children's Defense Fund honors teens who stay the course

Mar 29, 2001 at 2:06 pm
Marian Wright Edelman

Her own children call her the most conservative parent alive. But labels matter little to the countless other children aided by Marian Wright Edelman.

Since starting the Children's Defense Fund (CDF) 28 years ago, Edelman has made her personal and professional edict, "Leave No Child Behind."

CDF has an extensive network of resources and a legacy of lobbying for child-specific government programs, sometimes drawing criticism for its staunch support of children's rights. Edelman says labeling CDF's mission "liberal" distracts from the agency's real work — feeding and caring for American children.

"I describe CDF as an organization that (is charged with) the idea that children are taken care of," Edelman says. "We should stop these labels and it should be non-partisan. We are whatever we need to be. The labels don't work."

Labels also fail when applied to children, according to Eileen Cooper Reed, director of the CDF's Cincinnati chapter.

For example, if children are labeled poor or learning disabled, that label may follow them throughout their education.

CDF promotes what it calls "the five starts:" a healthy start, a head start, a fair start, a safe start and a moral start. Ten years ago, in Los Angeles, the organization started Beat the Odds, a $1,000 award to honor and encourage high school seniors who have flourished and survived against seemingly insurmountable odds. The Beat the Odds program is now in 20 cities, including Cincinnati.

"We wanted to celebrate success," Edelman says. "I love the fact that Cincinnati has picked this up. I hope people will celebrate the success and image that children can overcome obstacles."

Recipients can use the award money for college or during the transition from school to work.

"For being the richest country in the world, we don't do a good job taking care of our children," Reed says. "Some of these children are poor; and being poor in this country, there's a whole lot that comes with that — poor education and poor health care."

This year marks the sixth annual Beat the Odds program for the Cincinnati chapter, its only fundraiser. Edelman is the keynote speaker at Friday's award ceremony.

Reed says there is Beat the Odds has shortage of nominees. Some have experienced a lifetime of foster care, poverty, physical, sexual and emotional abuse or live with physical disabilities.

"The sad part is we don't have to look for stories," Reed says. "When encouraged, the kids will share their stories. The issue is they've been able to overcome these things despite that their community has not been supportive."

Asked to grade Cincinnati on care for youth, Reed demurs.

"Grades are too easy," she says. "What I know is that it seems most people do care and they have a hard time translating that into action. This community gives more money; it's very charitable. In our civic life, we do a good job. But our government needs to do a better job. It's a largely parochial town, so it's very easy to take care of our own children, but we need to do a better job of taking care of all of the children."

Concern about shootings in schools will not by itself mobilize the country into better caring for children, Edelman says.

"Movements are best over a period of time," she says. "The school shootings add to the tributaries that feed into this river of a movement. We are going to see that the movement happens. We are going to start regular mobilization. Something's happening in this country. I think it (starts) with women and mothers and grandmothers and people of faith."

Marian Wright Edelman speaks at noon Friday at the Beat the Odds luncheon in the Albert Sabin Education Center, at Children's Hospital.