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In conversation: Marian Wright Edelman and Valerie Jarrett

Sept. 28, 2020

Civil rights activist Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president emerita of the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF), received the 2020 Thurgood Marshall Award from the American Bar Association Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice at the ABA Virtual Annual Meeting in August. The award ceremony included a candid conversation between Edelman and Valerie Jarrett, former senior adviser to President Barack Obama and distinguished senior fellow at the University of Chicago Law School. The two women touched on topics ranging from voting and equality to diversity and change. 

Here are some quotable highlights:

Leveling the playing field

Jarrett: “I think about equity as being a level playing field. I know that when the field is level, then everybody's going to be able to compete based on their own talents. We also know that the field is currently, and has historically, been unlevel. I think about justice as the way that government tries to level that playing field. So, whether it’s our school system or criminal justice system or the business community, all those levers are out of whack.”

Edelman: “I believe the government ought to be an enabler of a leveled playing field and government has a responsibility to treat all people equally, particularly all children.”

On progress and power

Edelman: “We’ve come such a long way, though we’ve still got a lot of ways to go to ensure an equal chance for every child to succeed. … I can’t believe that we’re still going through the same things as the Poor People’s Campaign began in 1968, which is the parent body of what created the Children’s Defense Fund. … I thought I would be out of business by now.”

Jarrett: “People who have power don’t give it up unless you wrestle it away from them. They’re not just going to go, ‘Oh, here have some power.’ You got to really take it from them.”

Get out the vote

Jarrett: “I am more convinced than ever before that we have got to improve the level of participation in our democratic process. And in the last presidential election, a hundred million eligible voters did not vote. … but even those who are young adults and eligible to vote, disproportionately opt out, even though evidence shows that if you vote in your first election, the chances of you becoming a lifelong voter go up exponentially. … Our voice is really through our vote.”

Edelman: “Voting is a critical mechanism to level that playing field, but there are many other things that you’ve got to do. … Voting is critical. Political organizing is critical.”

A lesson in civics

Jarrett: “I think in a sense, both COVID-19 and the tensions that we have seen bubbling up between police and communities of color have been a civics lesson about how important government is in our lives. It’s not just who is the president, but who’s your governor? Who’s your mayor? Who are the prosecutors? How does government actually work? And is it fair? And is it equitable?”

Money matters

Edelman: “You save a whole heap more money by investing in healthy children and giving them an early childhood education — that’s a whole lot cheaper than prison.”

The case for diversity

Jarrett: Diversity “gives you a competitive advantage, if you are surrounding yourself with people who reflect the marketplace in which you’re trying to sell your goods and services. For years, as I fought for gender equity, I would say, ‘Well, it’s the right thing to do.’ I stopped doing that when there began to be mounting evidence to show that it was a competitive advantage. It was the way to get the business community to listen in a way that they had not listened.”

Pondering change

Jarrett: “Change takes time. It never happens as quickly as you want it to … Sacrifice is a part of change, too.”

Edelman: “I think that a lot of change has come about, and I’m very pleased by the young, what I call servant leaders that have been growing up. … our young ones who were student body presidents and our mayors and county executives, I see them in the budget groups and they're running for Congress and for the Senate. I believe in the parable of the sower. You got to plant a lot of seeds out there, and a lot of transforming change does not come about by press conferences. You’ve got to do the scut work.”

Giving back

Edelman: “This press conference stuff I can do without. You just do the work. Lord knows what you’re doing. You just do the work, and then see where it leads you.”

Jarrett: “All of us have a responsibility to give back. All of us have a responsibility to use Martin Luther King Jr.’s words, that that long arc of the moral universe is long, but it does bend towards justice if we all push.”

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