Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF), delivered a lecture on the meaning of life Wednesday evening in Memorial Auditorium. As the 2011 Rathbun Visiting Fellow, Edelman shares an honor previously awarded to Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, former Secretary of State George Shultz and the Dalai Lama.
The tradition of “Harry’s Last Lecture” originated when law school professor Harry Rathbun determined that he would dedicate the last lecture of his course every spring quarter to ponder the meaning of life with students who were about to leave Stanford. The Foundation for Global Community recently endowed the Harry and Emilia Rathbun Fund for Exploring What Leads to a Meaningful Life, a program of the Office for Religious Life.
“Dr. King warned us a long time ago about excessive materialism and militarism . . . and worried that we were integrating into a burning house,” Edelman said in an interview with The Daily. “He warned us about the failure to use our great wealth as a nation to make sure that everybody had the basic necessities of life.”
With these ideals at heart, Edelman focused her speech on “the need to redefine the meaning of success in America,” claiming that the United States is “off track.” She spoke about education, incarceration, nuclear disarmament, poverty, excessive materialism and family values. Edelman presented each of her concerns to students as lessons of life she had given to her own children.
As a young woman growing up in the south, Edelman learned core values of social responsibility. She became the first African American woman admitted to the Mississippi Bar and led the Poor People’s Campaign with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. These experiences influenced her decision to create the CDF in 1973.
“Prevention and early intervention became the theme [for CDF],” Edelman said. “And hopefully, I thought that people wouldn’t blame five-month-old babies for parents they didn’t choose.”
Since then, Edelman has written eight books and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom — the nation’s highest civilian honor — among other accomplishments. She spoke of her struggle to found the first Head Start program for children in her community, one of her many efforts to improve the lives of those surrounding her.
Edelman discussed the tendency of impoverished children to end up in prison, a process that she refers to as the “Cradle to Prison Pipeline.”
“[The United States spends] three times more per prisoner than per pupil,” Edelman said in her lecture. She urged for America to “replace that pipeline to prison with a pipeline to college.”
When asked to compare the Occupy movement to the Civil Rights Movement, Edelman praised the publicity the movement has given to economic gaps in American society. She said that “major transformation is possible if enough people are willing to get out of their comfort zones [and demand change].”
In addition to her lecture in Memorial Auditorium, Edelman spent time during her visit speaking with students. At a discussion with students who were planning to go abroad or who had already traveled, she spoke of the need for young adults to understand their endeavors in a global context. She indicated this perspective could only be obtained by visiting other countries.
“Don’t think you have to win immediately or even at all to make a difference,” Edelman warned. “If you see a need, don’t ask, ‘Why doesn’t somebody do something?’ ask, ‘Why don’t I do something?’”
Edelman emphasized the role of young people in advocating for change.
“I think that young people need to find their voice in all of this because so much is at stake for them as well as for the country, and I’m hoping that there will be more campus-based activism,” Edelman said. “Democracy is not a spectator sport.”