Calling the plight of minority and poor children America's “greatest national security problem,” children's rights activist Marian Wright Edelman last night lambasted deficit-conscious politicians who put educational and literacy programs such as Head Start on the budgetary chopping block.
“There are 15.5 million poor children in America and we're giving tax cuts (to the rich),” Edelman said after receiving a 2011 John Jay Justice Award recognizing her four-decades-long career as a prominent educator and lawyer .
Unless attention is paid to their education and safety, those children will be unable to cope with the structural changes in the global economy—and neither will America, warned Edelman, founder and president of the Children's Defense Fund, a national nonprofit advocacy group.
“It is going to kill us unless we wake up and find our moral bearings,” she said.
African-American children in particular face a “toxic cocktail” of illiteracy, imprisonment and impoverishment that represent the “worst crisis since slavery,” Edelman told an applauding audience at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York. “We've made some huge progress… but we have to answer
those who want to take us back 50 years.”
She was introduced by long-time friend and fellow civil rights activist entertainer Harry Belafonte, who said Edelman's commitment to help the disenfranchised stood out “in an America which has lost its moral vision.”
Edelman was one of the three honorees to receive this year's medals , which are awarded by John Jay College to individuals who have demonstrated extraordinary accomplishment in the field of justice.
“They are all champions of justice,” said John Jay College President Jeremy Travis.
Sunitha Krishnan, founder of a shelter for sex trafficking victims in the Indian city of Hyderabad, won the award for international leadership. Thomas j. Dart, sheriff of Cook County IL received the community leadership medal for his defense of foreclosed homeowners .
Both winners made similar appeals for restoring a sense of morality to public policy.
Protecting Foreclosure Victims
“You can't fully appreciate what goes on (in foreclosures) until you're out there in the streets as people are being torn from the largest investment of their lives,” said Dart, who won international attention in 2008 for his refusal to conduct evictions unless banks and social service agencies provided greater safeguards.
“Too often, the case involved a single mother with young children who was left in the streets with her children,” he said. ” I'd tell these children it was going to be all right, but it wasn't all right.”
Dart, who also led a successful campaign to force Craigslist to prevent its site from being used as an advertising network for prostitution, said “we put ourselves in a cocoon in this country” by refusing to acknowledge the plight of those worse off.
Similarly, Krishnan said her work in rehabilitating Indian prostitutes, including young children sold as sex chattels, taught her that “we need to break the culture of tolerance.”
“We tolerate war, corruption, and a man buying a two-and-a-half year- old child,” complained. Krishnan, a dimunitive woman dressed in an elegant turquoise sari. “I look forward to the day when we will not tolerate any form of violence .”
The award presenters at last night's ceremonies also included Tina Brown, editor in chief of Newsweek and The Daily Beast; and Len Cariou, the Canadian-born, Emmy-nominated actor.
Stephen Handelman is editor-in-chief of The Crime Report.