Senator John Heinz

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The Heinz Awards

1996

Marian Wright Edelman

Marian Wright Edelman receives the Heinz Award in the Human Condition for her dedication to protecting the rights and meeting the needs of America's children.

From her work with poor children in Mississippi in the 1960s to the present, Mrs. Edelman has endeavored to give all children the public voice they lack, yet so desperately need. Through her creation of the Children's Defense Fund (CDF) over 20 years ago, Mrs. Edelman has sought to bring the plight of children to the attention of policy makers and the public. Just as important, she has been a vigorous advocate for the creation and funding of programs to improve children's lives, strengthen families, and weave a web of community support for children. In a world in which children are too often overlooked, or are blithely used as props in battles between adults, Mrs. Edelman urges us to remember children and their distinct needs.

Marian Wright Edelman was raised to believe that it is every person's duty to help improve the lives of others. From this upbringing and her childhood in the segregated South, she derived a personal philosophy that has guided her throughout her life: "If you don't like the way the world is, you have an obligation to change it," she says. "Just do it one step at a time."

From an early age, Mrs. Edelman knew that the world she wanted most to change was the world inhabited by children, especially the children of the poor. A graduate of Spelman College and Yale Law School, she became, while serving as head of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund's office in Jackson, the first African-American woman admitted to the Mississippi state bar. Following a move to Washington, D.C., she became counsel to the Poor People's Campaign and later established the Washington Research Project, where she lobbied Congress for expanded child and family nutrition programs and an expanded Head Start program. In 1973, she founded the Children's Defense Fund.

Mrs. Edelman has described America's overarching challenge as the need "to rebuild a sense of community and hope and civility and caring and safety and morality for all our children." It is an ambitious agenda and it is one that reflects her work through the past two decades. Through the CDF, Mrs. Edelman was instrumental in persuading Congress to overhaul foster care, support adoption, improve child care, and protect handicapped, homeless, abused and neglected children. The Children's Defense Fund has also worked to curtail teen pregnancy, encourage immunizations of poor children for major childhood diseases, and distribute information about programs that help African-American children and preserve their families.

Mrs. Edelman has never shied from controversy in her single-minded pursuit of a nation more attentive to the needs of its children. She recalls urging a group of teenagers the day after Martin Luther King was assassinated to forego violence and to think about their futures. One of the youths responded, "Lady, why should I listen to you? I ain't got no future." Marian Wright Edelman will undoubtedly continue her mission to ensure that every child is given reason to believe in the future. At a time of momentous change in government, it is important that we each remain mindful of her timeless admonition to "remember the children."

Note: This profile is excerpted from the commemorative brochure published at the time of the awards' presentation.


UPDATES SINCE RECEIVING THE HEINZ AWARD

February 2013 - Marian Wright Edelman is to receive the Harvard Graduate School of Education Medal for Education Impact, the highest honor given by the School. The medal is awarded to a person who is making a lasting difference in the field of education and on the lives of learners across the nation and beyond. - Harvard Graduate School of Education

April 2011
- John Jay College of Criminal Justice presented the 2011 John Jay National Leader for Justice Award to Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of Children's Defense Fund and the Children's Defense Fund for their commitment to improving the lives of all children. As founder and president of the CDF, Ms. Wright Edelman has been an advocate for disadvantaged Americans for over 35 years. - City University of New York

March 2011 - Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children's Defense Fund, will receive the 2011 Dr. John Hope Franklin Award from Diverse Issues in Higher Education magazine at the 93rd Annual Meeting of the American Council on Education in Washington, D.C. Cited for her deep impact on the nation and the highest standard of excellence, Edelman joins a short, exclusive list of honorees. - The Children's Defense Fund

August 2000 - President Clinton has awarded Marian Wright Edelman, of the Children's Defense Fund, a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country's highest civilian honor, along with 15 others. - The New York Times

Marian Wright Edelman
Marian Wright Edelman