Marian Wright Edelman’s “Lessons From Noah’s Ark”

On Saturday, October 2, an estimated 175,000 people joined together at the Lincoln Memorial for the One Nation Working Together rally for jobs, justice, and public education. Marian Wright Edelman is a lifelong advocate for disadvantaged Americans and is the president of the Children's Defense Fund. Following is the transcript of her speech. - Ed.

Everything our nation and all of us need to know about life can be learned from Noah’s Ark, according to an anonymous writer. Lesson one, don’t miss the boat. The United States is going to miss the boat to lead and compete in our globalizing world, because we are not preparing a majority of our children for the future. The greatest threat to America’s national security comes from no enemy without, but from our failure to invest in and educate all of our children. Yet every eleven seconds of the school day, a child drops out. A majority of children of all racial and income groups and over 80 percent of black and Hispanic children cannot read or compute at grade level in fourth, eighth or twelfth grade, if they have not already dropped out. Any nation that is failing to prepare all of its children for productive work and life is jeopardizing everything and needs to correct course right now. And all of us—all of us, parents, educators, community and religious and political leaders—need to be a part of the solution and not a part of the problem. God did not make two classes of children. Every single one deserves a quality education.

Noah’s lesson two, we are all in the same boat, which is the central message of today’s positive and inclusive rally. Many Americans may not like or think they have any self-interest in assuring a fair playing field for other people’s children, especially poor and minority children. But black, Hispanic and other minority children will be a majority of our child population in 2023. Isn’t it better to ensure that they are there to get—make sure that our Social Security and Medicare systems and productive workforce are in place, rather than us supporting them because we’ve neglected them in prisons? Our country, our states are spending on average three times more per prisoner that per public school pupil. I can’t think of a dumber investment policy, and we’ve got to change it.

Lesson three, plan ahead. It wasn’t raining when Noah built the Ark. Tomorrow is today, and children have only one childhood. They need to be healthy now. They need quality, early childhood experiences now. They need first-rate schools with first-rate teachers, and they need to know that there is a good-paying job after college in their future. We must plan ahead and resist this quick-fix, quarterly profit-driven culture. It’s gotten us into trouble.

Lesson four, don’t listen to the critics and naysayers. Just get on with what the job is that needs to be done to educate our children. And if you don’t want to be criticized, don’t do anything, don’t be anything, and don’t say anything. Stand up and fight for our children, all of them. 

Lesson five, for safety’s sake, travel in pairs. Better still, travel with your brothers and sisters and community leaders gathered here. We have got to turn back those who hijack Dr. King’s words but subvert his call to end poverty and excessive militarism and excessive individualism that’s killing our children. We must, particularly right now, make sure that we end those massive tax giveaways to the richest two percent, when fifteen-and-a-half million children are languishing in poverty. 

Lesson six—almost done—remember that the Ark was built by amateurs, the Titanic was built by professionals. Use your citizen power, your vote, to wrest our ship of state from that small group of experts and powerful and greedy corporate pirates who recklessly jeopardized all of our lives for personal gain. Feel your own power. Use your own power. Don’t rely on experts.

And last lesson, build your future, build our children’s future and our nation’s future on high ground. Let’s leave our nation and world better than we found it, more just, more hopeful, more peaceful, more productive, more unified. This may be the first time when our children and grandchildren will be worse off than their parents and grandparents, unless we correct course with urgency, with the power reflected in your witness today, to get them to safe harbor. 

Let me end with a brief prayer. God, we have pushed so many of our children into the tumultuous sea of life in small and leaky boats without survival gear and compass. Please forgive us and help our children to forgive us. And help us now to build that transforming movement, to give all of your children the anchors of faith and love, the rudder of hope, the sails of health and education, and the paddles of family and community, to keep them safe and strong when life’s sea gets worse. Thank you for your witness.

About the Author:
Marian Wright Edelman
is a lifelong advocate for disadvantaged Americans and is the President of the Children's Defense Fund (CDF). Under her leadership, CDF has become the nation's strongest voice for children and families.

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