|THE ROLE MODELS|
JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, a Gergen Dialogue about another form of education. David Gergen talks to Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children's Defense Fund and author of "Lanterns: A Memoir of Mentors."
DAVID GERGEN: Marian, your new book is about the way caring adults can help and shape, inspire the lives of young people. That's happened in your own life, and now you're trying to carry on that tradition. Tell us about some of the people who inspired you.
MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN: Well, this is a book about the great natural mentors in my life, my parents, my community co-parents, and some of the most important people were well-educated, but some didn't have a whole lot of education formally, but who really were like community elders who cared for kids as if they were their own. I have portraits in here of Ms. Tea Kelly and Ms. Lucy McQueen and Ms. Kate Winston, who were community women and women of faith who instinctively knew what Walker Percy wrote about, and that is that you can get all A's and still flunk life. And they cared for me as if I was their own child, and the other children in the community. They were like Ms. Oseola McCarty, who died not too long ago, and everybody was so surprised that this black washerwoman would give $150,000 to the University of Southern Mississippi to educate children who didn't, to give them a chance that she didn't have. But I knew Ms. Oseola in less dramatic ways all of my life, and it's so wonderful to be able to say thank you in this book to them.
DAVID GERGEN: Those are the people who helped you in your early days when you were in South Carolina, a segregated town. Then you went on to Spellman, and you had new mentors who came into your life.
MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN: I had great mentors during my college years, most of whom were men, though there were great women, like Ella Baker and September Clark. But Dr. Benjamin E. Mays was the president of Moorehouse College and a great educator and man of faith, who was Dr. King's mentor. And I had Dr. King, who was a very integral part of my life. And the diary that I kind of discovered 40 years later talked about the first time of hearing dr. King in the chapel at Spellman College, and what I remembered about him was that he was a great prophet and a wonderful man who led the Civil Rights Movement, but he was also a man who was not afraid to tell young people he didn't know what he was going to do next, and how afraid he was. But I had two messages that came through from him and Dr. Mays that keep me going a lot today, and that is keep moving. He used to preach in the chapel and elsewhere that, you know, if you can't fly, drive. If you can't drive, run. If you can't run, walk. If you can't walk, crawl. But keep moving. Dr. King used to always say, as well, and Dr. Mays' life reflected it, that you have to walk by faith and not just by sight. And because you can't see the whole stairway doesn't mean you don't stop, and you start and let God do the rest. And so these were wonderful voices of faith, but who spent time with us translating that faith into action and into the Civil Rights struggle. And one of the striking things about this diary that prompted this book is how much time young people spent with adult mentors like Dr. King and Dr. Mays in changing the world around them.
DAVID GERGEN: Can you tell us about the diary?
MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN: I lived with William Sloan Coffin when I was a Yale law student, and I left that diary and a lot of other things in the basement of his house, or the attic of his house. And the successor to him, his chaplain, his wife, discovered this book, couldn't read my writing, took it with them and kept it for a number of decades, but then one day sat down, figured out who it was, sent it to me, and what a gift of memories it was.
DAVID GERGEN: And that became the basis of this book?
MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN: That became the basis of this book. And I hope other young people will keep journals because it was a wonderful outlet, and you forget so much that you want to remember and need to remember.
DAVID GERGEN: How do you think about mentoring today?
MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN: Well, I hope that there are enough adults of faith and in our homes who will remember the sense of what's important in this world that now tells young people that it is about money, it is about power, it is about extrinsic measures. And we've got to go back and say, well, there are some enduring values that come out of our Judeo-Christian, Muslim, Islamic traditions, that what's important is really what's inside. I think that we have, and hope we can stop and think about the spiritual anchors our children need, because so many are struggling with all the violence around them, all of the incessant focus on materialism. They don't know that life can be more than an appetite for more and more things. I think that that lack of a sense of purpose to something beyond self is why so many young people are committing suicide, so many Americans are alienated. And so because of the depersonalization, all of the external changes, the more we need to reweave the fabric of family and spirituality and community.
DAVID GERGEN: You've undertaken an effort on your own part to help mentor young people today. Can you tell us about that?
MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN: Well, the Children's Defense Fund is really concerned about training a successor generation of leaders. We have got to create the same kind of opportunities for service, for advocacy, to give them a sense that they can change things. You know, life seemed rather impossible back then in terms of changing segregation, but again leaders struggled with us, our parents struggled with us. And so we've got to do that today. And through the Haley Farm, which the Children's Defense Fund bought, we are training hundreds of young leaders, connecting them to each other, and they are in turn going out to serve children in disadvantaged areas every summer in freedom schools.
DAVID GERGEN: Now, the Haley Farm is about 150 acres in Tennessee.
MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN: Uh-huh.
DAVID GERGEN: And people come there during the summer.
MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN: People come there year-round, thousands, and we are trying to connect all of these people who are doing good all over this country, but who need to form a community with other people who are doing good. We bring young people, we bring people of faith, divinity students, we bring juvenile court judges. And we try to bring them all together so that we can begin to sow the seeds for, I hope, the next movement of the 20th century, which is to leave no child behind and to see that all of our children get the healthcare and education that they need.
DAVID GERGEN: Now, you went back and looked at your diary 40 years later, and you said how striking it was that people like Martin Luther King spent as much time with you, and personal time inspiring you. Now, here's Marian Wright Edelman, head of the Children's Defense Fund, and she's in demand all over the country, indeed all over the world. How do you spend time with... how do you make time to nurture young people today?
MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN: Well, we try to be accessible through Haley. We bring Andy Young, I go down, Fred Shuttlesworth, other great leaders of the Civil Rights Movement come, and we spend time. Howard Zen, my old mentor, and John Eggerton, we come and we have workshops and spend weekends telling stories. I've been bringing back a lot of the great mentors here-- Ms. May Bertha Carter-- so that children can hear those stories. They don't know their history, they don't know all the things that went before them, and so we are bringing adults and young people together to learn from the past. And I try to engage in that, and we have many interns at the Children's Defense Fund, so that they can be engaged with us in change.
DAVID GERGEN: Do you have any counsel for those people who don't have the opportunity to start up a place like that, who are out in a...you know, living out in a mid-sized town in America and would like to be...you know, have a relationship with young people, would like to nurture someone? How should they go about it?
MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN: Well, I think the first thing is that everybody should understand that the most important mentoring role is as a parent, and we need to live what we preach. And we need to be good neighbors, because children watch us, and if we're people of faith, we need to practice that faith in action. And so being a good moral example is the first thing, because I think that the number one problem in America is adult hypocrisy. Children are confused because we adults, in our homes and our churches and synagogues, tell them one thing and then we do another. Secondly, I think that we can try to figure out a way to take responsibility for one child not our own. Some of us can mentor for an hour a week. That's good. But if you can't, then support a mentoring program. Support youth development programs, support those folks who are working. Sponsor a child to come to a freedom school, to buy the books for that freedom school. Everybody can find a way to make the life of a child different. I also hope that we will all think, whether we run a corporation or we are a lawyer or we are in public life, whether the decisions that we make every day in our professional roles, if we've taken care of our personal example, is going to make it easier for an eight-year-old or nine-year-old to grow up healthier or educated or not...or less well so. And we've got to learn how to begin to say that voting for our children and making sure that we are providing the things that they need to carry on the values and institutions of this country are being put into place. Let's value our children by our actions.
DAVID GERGEN: Marian Wright Edelman, thank you.