WASHINGTON — Marian Wright Edelman may as well have Friend of Hillary as a honorific behind her name. Although the head of the Children's Defense Fund downplays her powerful White House connections, all Washington has noticed. Edelman, America's best-known children's advocate, and her husband, Peter, are on the A list--thanks to their long history with the Clintons. Hillary chaired the CDF board for years. The current CDF board chair, Donna Shalala, is the Clinton Administration's secretary of Health and Human Services; Peter Edelman serves as her counselor. Another CDF friend, Janet Reno, is attorney general. Those connections are bound to pay off for Edelman's constituency: America's children.
Edelman crusades for children with the same passion and skill she used while a civil-rights attorney on the dangerous front lines in Mississippi, 30 years ago. Then, the goal was freedom. Today, the goal remains freedom: Freedom from poverty, violence, abuse, hunger, homelessness, poor schooling and lack of health care.
A daughter of the South, Edelman grew up in segregated South Carolina, attended the prestigious, predominantly black Spelman College in Atlanta and Yale Law School. She founded the nonprofit Children Defense Fund in 1973, and has spent her professional life in service to others.
In Washington, Edelman pursues her agenda relentlessly. Tough by her own admission, unwilling to compromise unless she must, Edelman, 54, lobbies Congress and the White House to invest more in children. Her "must" list includes universal health care for all children, full funding for Head Start, decent welfare reform, strict gun control and a host of other laws that emphasize prevention or intervention. But she doesn't limit her advice to the government, her best-selling book, "The Measure of Our Success: A Letter to My Children and Yours" shares her commitment to service and the values she used to raise her three sons, Joshua, 24, Jacob, 23 and Ezra, 19. Her next book, a parenting guide for African-Americans, whose children Edelman believes are in the worst shape, is due out next year.
Question: \o7 Is America losing a generation of children to poverty, violence, drugs and lack of health care?\f7
Answer: We're losing two generations, the younger parents and the young families . . . . We are going through a period that is unprecedented. Look at violence against and by children. We've never seen anything like it. I cannot believe a child is murdered in this country every three hours; a classroom-full of 25 children, every two days--and we're standing for it. I cannot believe 2-year-olds and 4-year-olds can be shot. And we go on doing business-as-usual. We still don't have serious gun control . . . .
Q: \o7 How do we stop the killing? \f7
A: By confronting the obsession with violence in this culture . . . the incredible proliferation of guns. We produce a handgun every 20 seconds. There is no industrialized nation that permits people to sell handguns in such careless ways and to have this proliferation of guns. Semi-automatic weapons have no socially redeeming purpose. Hunters don't need semi-automatic weapons. We've got to have serious gun control . . . .
We have to deal with the signals, the glamorization of violence in our culture, on TV and in the movies. You can't turn on the tube without seeing somebody maimed or killed. Surely we can be more creative in producing programs that don't laud violence as a way in which weresolve disputes.
Q: \o7 Sen. Carol Moseley Braun wants to prosecute young teen-agers, 13- and 14-year-olds, as adults. Is that an answer?\f7
A: You've got to have law enforcement. People cannot go around killing people. You also have to have gun control--but that's not the long-term answer. There are no prisons that can hold the despair and the hopelessness that is all around us. We've got to talk about prevention . . . productive alternatives . . . jobs, decent education, rebuilding communities . . . decent role models . . . These 13-year-olds are children. What are you solving by sending them off to prison, which is just another breeding ground for more crime . . . . Give me more jobs rather than more prison cells, and we'll begin to deal with that 13-year-old.
Q: \o7 Why does the Children's Defense Fund have a specific campaign targeted at the black community?\f7
A: It is a campaign within a campaign. Our goal is to mount a massive crusade, to leave no child behind--white, black, middle-class, poor, Latino, Asian-American--because it's really time for a new movement, to pick up where we left off from the civil-rights promise of the '60s and early '70s . . . .