Text of the 2017 Stanford Baccalaureate address by Marian Wright Edelman

Following is the text of the address “Where Do We Go from Here” by Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund, delivered at Stanford University’s Baccalaureate celebration on June 17, 2017.

I am delighted to be here with members of your faculty, administration and families and with what I am sure is the best graduating class in Stanford’s history.

I hope many of you will wander off the beaten career path and help redefine success in 21st-century America, asking not “How much can I get?” but “How much can I do without and share?” Asking not “How I can find myself?” but asking “How can I lose myself in service to others and leave our nation and world better than we found it?”

I feel so blessed to be born at the intersection of great events and great leaders and servants. One of my mentors, or lanterns as I call them, is the late Rev. Dr. Samuel DeWitt Proctor, a great black college president, Peace Corps leader in Africa and pastor of the historic Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, New York. He came down for our Children’s Defense Fund’s Haley Farm opening and he talked about those born below the scratch line.

He said: “We do not all start at the same scratch line although there’s one original position hypothetically for everybody. You were born here owning nothing, having earned nothing, just born! There you are – helpless! You are indebted to everybody but some of us opened our eyes and saw nothing but blessings just dumping on us. I opened my eyes and there was Herbert and Thelma and my grandma Hattie – a slave in Chesterfield County in 1882 smiling on me. How in the world could I lose? Taught me how to read and sing four-part harmony before I ever got to school; taught me how to play the clarinet and the piano and made me go to Sunday school. Daddy didn’t send us; daddy took us to Sunday school. If there was nobody in the Sunday school but one person, that would’ve been my daddy with his little six children there in the Sunday school at the Bank Street Baptist Church. That’s what I inherited! I didn’t earn it. You can’t get that with a Visa card, it was given to me. Now all through my neighborhood, there were other young fellas. I could remember all of them. Daddies were drunk half the time, they didn’t read in their homes, nobody went to Sunday school, none of that. They started life below the scratch line.

It’s your responsibility to see that the next generation gets up above the scratch line.

—Marian Wright Edelman

“I started life” – and I count myself among those I’s – “way above the scratch line. Everywhere I went, someone said, ‘Aren’t you Ms. Hattie’s grandson?’ ‘Are you Herbert’s boy?’ Skipped three grades. I never was in the third grade to fifth grade or seventh grade. Everything smiling on me – finished high school at 15, went on to college on a scholarship. None of that did I deserve; I hadn’t earned any of it. I started out with a head of steam. … My mother and father had learned poetry – Paul Laurence Dunbar, Alfred Lord Tennyson – and they gave all of that to us children in great abundance, and my buddies up the street had none of that. Now if we want these bones in our nation to live again, those of us who have inherited benefits that we did not earn or deserve need to turn around and help those who inherited deficits that they did not earn or deserve and help them to rise up to the scratch line where we are so that they may earn and enjoy all of the benefits that we so take for granted. Can these bones live again, O Lord? These bones can live!”

But only if you and I stand up and make sure that we provide the citizen voice, the faith voice, whatever that faith is, the energy and the determination to make sure that this country is going to honor its creed.

You happen to be born at the moment of extraordinary opportunity when everybody is trying to take away the last 50 years of progress, and I’ll just tell you, this one grandma, we ain’t going backward, we’re gonna have to go forward. Because we’re not going to have our grandchildren fighting these same battles all over again.

So you’ve got an enormous opportunity and responsibility to stand up and make sure we do move forward.

In 1968, Robert F. Kennedy talked to the University of Kansas students and he reminded us: “Even if we act to erase material poverty, there is another greater task. It is to confront the poverty of satisfaction – purpose and dignity – that afflicts us all. Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our gross national product now is over $800 billion a year, but that gross national product – if we judge the United States of America by that – that gross national product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads” – and I would add nuclear weapons – “and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities.

“It counts Whitman’s rifle …” – and let me say that AK-47s should not be in the hands of civilians. We’ve got to stop the killing of children in America. If we can’t do that, what are we about? – “It counts the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans. If this is true here at home, so it is true elsewhere in world.”

We are now truly one globe, and it is just marvelous to look out here at this graduating senior class because you are the face of the world, and it’s a wonderful thing to behold.

Lessons from Noah’s Ark

One day I got home, and there was an envelope with an old clipping in it from an anonymous person. And it said: “Everything you need to know in life you learn from Noah’s Ark.”

It said the first lesson was don’t miss the boat. The United States is going to miss the boat to lead and compete and be respected in our globalizing world because we are not preparing the majority of our children for the future. The greatest threat to America’s national and economic security does not come from any enemy without but from our failure to invest in and educate all of our children. Every nine seconds of every school day a child drops out of school, and every 37 seconds a baby is born into poverty. And all these years after Brown v. Board of Education, our children are going to schools, the majority of them who are nonwhite and who are poor, where the funding is separate and unequal. And we’re re-segregating without any consequences or an outcry from all of us. If we don’t educate our children, we’re not going to be the country we need to be.

A majority of children in all racial and income groups and over 70 percent of Hispanic children and 80 percent of black children cannot read or do math at grade level in fourth or eighth grade. What is a child going to do in this globalizing economy if they can’t read or compute at the most basic levels? They’re being sentenced to social and economic death and the cradle-to-prison pipeline. And we’re going to break up that cradle-to-prison pipeline. Let’s break up the prison, but let’s also make sure that that pipeline is destroyed. And we get out there and we put in place an early childhood system or high-quality education system with out of school time and high-quality summer programs. It is so important that children, all of them, have hope and opportunity. And you are the generation that can begin to help us do that on a scale.

The greatest threat to America’s national and economic security does not come from any enemy without but from our failure to invest in and educate all of our children.

—Marian Wright Edelman

Any nation that fails to prepare most of its children for productive work and life must correct course and must do it right now. And all of us must be a part of the solution as parents, educators at all levels, community, business, faith and political leaders. Children have to be able to read, and we know how to do that, and so we really need to make sure that part of our new movement is to make sure that we move forward and not backward. In the first weeks of this administration, they proposed to cut billions and billions from education funding from disadvantaged children. They’ve repealed all of our guidelines hard earned to help the most vulnerable children in school, who are in foster care, who are homeless, who are without parents. We need to stand up and build a strategic, nonviolent, loud, sustained movement to say we’re not going to go back, and I hope your forces will join with the rest of us because we’re not going to go back.

The second lesson from Noah’s Ark is we are all in the same boat. Many Americans may not like or think they have any self-interest in assuring a fair playing field for other people’s children – especially poor and nonwhite children – but black, Hispanic, Native American and other children of color will constitute a majority of our child population by 2020. They are already a majority of babies being born today. Isn’t it better to have them supporting strong Social Security and Medicare systems – if they don’t destroy those too – and ensuring a productive and competitive workforce than for us to be supporting them in costly, ineffective prisons? Our states are spending on average nearly three-and-a-half times more per prisoner than per public school pupil. That’s about the dumbest investment policy I can think of. In fact, California is spending five times more per prisoner than per public school pupil. Let’s keep our children out of prison, and let’s reinvest that money into education and health and jobs. Seventy-one percent of Americans aged 17 to 24 are ineligible for military service because of weight issues, a history of drug use, crime or lack of adequate education.

The greatest threat to America’s security does not come from any enemy without but from our enemy within, and our failure to protect and invest in all of our children. We can change that, and we must change that, and we need your voice.

The third lesson from Noah’s Ark reminds us that it wasn’t raining when Noah built the Ark and that we have to plan ahead. Tomorrow is today and children have only one childhood. We need to be giving them a healthy start, quality early childhood experiences, first-rate schools with first-rate caring and culturally sensitive teachers and administrators, and stimulating, high-quality out of school time programs so they can see their role models. We need to give them books that are diverse, so they can get hope from those books and see themselves in those books. And I hope that you will move away and begin to talk about freedom schools everywhere, and move away from this first-quarter, quick profit and invest in the lives of our children as they are growing up. It’s most cost effective, and it is also the right thing to do.

The fourth lesson from Noah’s Ark is don’t listen to the critics and naysayers. I’m sure everybody thought Noah was crazy. But just get on with the job that needs to be done to educate and prepare all our children for the future. If you don’t want to be criticized, don’t say anything, don’t do anything, and don’t be anything.

What I hope is you will stand up when children are mistreated. I hope you will stand up when you see unequal opportunities for children in your communities and in your nation. And when you see unjust policies, stand up and fight back. They need to hear from you.

And my favorite: Remember that the Ark was built by amateurs, and the Titanic by professionals. Use your own citizen power, your voting power, your individual power and speak up to wrest our ships of state from that small group of experts and powerful and greedy corporate pirates who recklessly jeopardize all of our futures and professed values for personal gain and greed. We must begin to have a fair share of our nation’s wealth and income.

It is really, really wrong to have 14-and-a-half-million children in America who are poor, 6-and-a-half million living in extreme poverty. And again, what are our leaders doing? They’re beginning to emasculate that hard-earned 35-year effort to build a health safety net for children. We now have 35 million children covered by Medicaid and CHIP. Watch what they’re going to try to do in the next 10 days in the Congress of the United States. Watch what they’re going to do to the child hunger network and protections.

Use your own citizen power, your voting power, your individual power and speak up to wrest our ships of state from that small group of experts and powerful and greedy corporate pirates who recklessly jeopardize all of our futures and professed values for personal gain and greed.

—Marian Wright Edelman

We have been through a bunch of cuts before. But the danger here is they’re redefining the role of government and really beginning to talk about how you take from the neediest and the neediest children and education – from early childhood, from health care, from nutrition, from the most vulnerable children in our system. And they’re going to do it in order to give tax cuts to people who already have too much.

Babies should not be subsidizing billionaires, and mothers should not be subsidizing millionaires. Look up, speak up, and let us not go in that direction. So pay attention; make yourselves heard. Children’s Defense Fund and our allies can’t do it all. But more importantly, let’s remember Dr. King. I always feel like the luckiest person because of being born at the intersection of great events and great people. And the Poor People’s Campaign – we’re going to be celebrating its 50th year next year. It came out of work in Mississippi, where we had malnourished, even starving children. And Robert Kennedy was willing to come down and go there because no one believed that there are hungry children in America – that it was their own fault. Dr. King saw in a child care center a teacher cutting one apple to divide it among 10 children. And he could not stand it.

But the bottom line was in 1968, the Poor People’s Campaign got conceived after Robert Kennedy saw children with bloated bellies. And that brought a real visibility to hunger, and we made enormous progress, despite what you hear in the press. That safety net is not going to be destroyed because we’re going to fight like mad, but we’ve got to move forward. It is now time for a new Poor People’s Campaign, but I think the focus has to be on children.

This country can eradicate child poverty and prevent all this cost dependency. So we’re going to call on you to come and do what you can do to make sure that we end poverty. Now, 14-and-a-half million children should not be poor and should not be hungry and should not lack health care in the richest nation on Earth.

A prayer to the God of children

I want to end with a prayer to the God of children:

O God of the children of Syria and Sudan, of Iraq, Iran and Israel, of Nigeria, Myanmar, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and of the West Bank and Gaza, because we believe in the God of all children, wherever they are,
Of Chicago, Cleveland, Darfur and Detroit and Ferguson,
Help us to step up to the plate and make sure that they are safe and protected,
Of Libya, Yemen and Ukraine, England and Turkey,

Help us to love and respect and protect them all.

O God of Black and Brown and White and Albino children and those all mixed together,
Of children who are rich and poor and in between,
Of children who speak English and Russian and Hmong and Hebrew and Arabic languages and dialects our ears cannot discern,

Help us to love and respect and protect them all.

O God of the child prodigy and child prostitute, of the child of rapture and the child of rape,
Of runaway or thrown away children who struggle every day without parent or place or friend or future,

Help us to love and respect and protect them all.

O God of children who can walk and talk and hear and see and sing and dance and jump and play, and of children who wish they could but can’t,
Of children who are loved and unloved, wanted and unwanted,

Help us to love and respect and protect them all.

O God of beggar, beaten, abused, neglected, homeless, AIDS-, drug-, violence-, war- and hunger-ravaged children,
Of children who are emotionally, physically or mentally fragile, and of children who rebel and ridicule, torment and taunt,

Help us to love and respect and protect them all.

O God of children of destiny and of despair, of war and of peace,
Of disfigured, diseased, and dying children,
Of children without hope and of children with hope to spare and to share,

Help us to love and respect and protect them all.

With everywhere we go and everything we do and in our actions, recognize that God did not make two classes of children. He did not sort them by faith or color or income. They are all sacred.

And so you go out now with the great thing that you can begin to do, transforming this troubled world, and I wish you heart. I hope that we can begin on this 50th anniversary coming up of the Poor People’s Campaign in an effort to eradicate child poverty and come together. If we do that, we will win.

Lessons from Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth

Let me just end this with Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth. Tubman, as you know, went and freed herself. But the important thing is that she had an underground railroad. She came back, even though she got her freedom. She came back and to bring other people the freedom. And she boasted that she never lost a passenger on her underground railroad. I don’t know of any airline or train company that could boast that. But she was tough, and she had a sense of community. It wasn’t just about me freeing myself. We’ve got to free other people if we want to be free.

And Sojourner Truth is the other. There is now a new ship being named for her. She was a very eloquent and tough woman who spoke out all the time on slavery and on second-class treatment of women. She used to get on the streetcars in Washington, D.C. The driver would put her off, and she’d run to the next stop to get back on. She would say: “I’m gonna ride.” She was the first woman to sue to get her child back from slavery.

But one day she was speaking, and she got threatened by an old white man who stood up in the audience and said to her: “Oh, slave woman, I don’t care anymore about your anti-slavery talk than I do for the bite of a flea.”

She snapped back at him and said: “That’s alright. The Lord willing, I’m gonna keep you scratching.”

So often we want to be big dogs, be in the media doing flashy things. My feelings have changed watching the fleas for children grow over the last 50 years.

We just all need to be strategic fleas. If we have enough strategic fleas who bite and who stand up and fight back when our political systems are doing the wrong thing for children, we will begin to move this country in a new way.

I urge you in this time, with all the new opportunity for us to build a new movement, which we must do to end poverty, to end the violence that’s really just unacceptable in our nation and wrong, and to build a community rather than chaos:

Get involved. It’s your responsibility to see that the next generation gets up above the scratch line. So Godspeed as you go out.