Arts & Culture

Edelman pumps up Memorial Church crowd

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Edelman delivers inaugural Coles Call of Service Lecture

On Oct. 19 at the Memorial Church, while a heavy rain pelted down outside, Marian Wright Edelman pelted a near-capacity audience with facts about America’s social failings. An American child is abused or neglected every 36 seconds, said the founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund, and every 42 seconds a child is born without health care.

Edelman stood at the pulpit named for 1855 Harvard graduate Phillips Brooks, one of the most famous preacher of Boston’s Victorian era and the descendant of Puritan clergymen.

Her speech — the inaugural Robert Coles Call of Service Lecture — was a jeremiad that gave Puritan fervor a modern edge. In an America where big incomes are honored over public service, said Edelman, “we need to reset our moral compass.”

The lecture was sponsored by the Phillips Brooks House Association (PBHA), a nonprofit community service organization at Harvard that was founded in 1904. Today, its 1,600 volunteers work in 73 programs that help 10,000 low-income people a year.

Dorothy A. Austin — Sedgwick Associate Minister in the Memorial Church and chaplain to the University — introduced the Friday evening program, calling the PBHA “Harvard’s conscience, in public service, social justice, and advocacy.”

Robert Coles ’50, a onetime PBHA volunteer and trustee, was in the front row. He stood briefly to acknowledge a standing ovation, and later to get the key to the city of Cambridge from Mayor Kenneth E. Reeves.

Coles, 78, was the James Agee Professor of Social Ethics at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education until his retirement in 2003. A one-time adviser to President John F. Kennedy, the slender, modest scholar is a child psychiatrist, a developmental psychologist, and the author of more than 75 books. They include 1993’s “The Call of Service: A Witness to Idealism” and “Children of Crisis,” a five-volume book series that won Coles a Pulitzer Prize in 1973.

In 1981, Coles was the recipient of one of the first John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur fellowships — the famed “genius grant.”

Edelman — herself a 1985 MacArthur Fellow and in the early 1970s director of Harvard Law School’s Center for Law and Education — began by praising Coles. “God was really showing off when he created you, Robert,” she said. Edelman then turned admiringly to Coles’ own self-description — as “a storyteller, a busybody, and a nuisance.”

Edelman has done her own best to be a nuisance since graduating from Yale Law School in 1963. She was the first black woman admitted to the bar in Mississippi, worked as civil rights lawyer, and was counsel to the Poor People’s Campaign that Martin Luther King Jr. was organizing just before his death. In 1973, Edelman founded the Children’s Defense Fund. It’s her way of making even higher waves inside the Beltway.

In “a world hungry for moral leadership,” she said in her ringing lecture, the United States seems bound to instead be the architect of a “global prison of violence in the name of peace.”

And its leaders seem bound to honor profit and net worth above “more lasting nonmaterial success,” said Edelman.

She used data like a hammer, nailing together a picture of U.S. social trouble: epidemic gun deaths (eight a day) among children and teenagers; infant mortality rates (24th among developed nations); and teenage mothers (“children having children,” she said — enough every year to populate Atlanta).

Minority children face the greatest risks, said Edelman, who said that black males born since 2000 will face a one-in-three risk of going to prison in their lifetimes. She described “the most dangerous place” in America as “the intersection of race and poverty.”

This disturbing confluence of statistical trends, she said, “is a recipe for national disaster.” Not surprisingly, Edelman asserted that solutions begin with children — universal health care, the elimination of childhood poverty, and “coherent and universal” preschool programs.

Edelman quoted former slave and 19th century racial justice advocate Frederick Douglass: “It is easier to build a strong child than to fix a broken man.”

Americans need better public policy too, and the 2008 presidential race is an opportunity to argue for it, she said. That would include ways to reduce gun violence, establish summer programs, and devise strategies for alternative sentencing.

Zero-tolerance programs at public schools have led to childhood arrests for disciplinary infractions, said Edelman — 5- and 6-year-olds cuffed and carted away in police cars. “I think adults have lost their minds,” she said of criminalizing childhood behaviors. “We need to come back and repair our common sense.”

Edelman came down hard on what she said was a related trend: a “cradle-to-prison pipeline” for the poor that includes dysfunctional child welfare and foster care systems.

In the end, the only guaranteed social policy for American children is “a jail and a detention cell,” she said. “That’s just dumb investment policy” in a world where per capita prison costs are triple the cost of schools.

At school, poor outcomes are another path to prison and poverty. By fourth grade, only 13 percent of black children are reading at grade level — performance three times worse than their white classmates, said Edelman — and without reading skills “you’re being sentenced to social death.”

Instead, children should be offered “a safe and fair and moral start in life,” she said.

“We’ve got to break our silence, and reconnect to placing children first in our lives,” said Edelman of what she sees as misplaced U.S. priorities. “We do not have a child and youth problem — we have a profound adult problem.”

On a personal scale, mentoring helps, she said, taking the moment to praise the PBHA for its tradition of service. “Every child has to be paired up,” said Edelman. “Children live up — or down — to our expectations.”

On a larger scale, public policy has to be reshaped with children in mind — to banish inequalities in health care, education, and employment, said Edelman. (She quoted Benjamin Franklin: “The best family policy is a good job.”)

Next year marks the 40th anniversary of the apogee of the Civil Rights movement. With the plight of poor American children in mind, said Edelman, “it’s time to go back and finish that job.”