Michael Bryan was 18 years old, a recent high school graduate, who was headed off into technical school within weeks. And these were millennials, the most educated generation in American history and they looked down at him and looked around at one another and saw that the idea of America which has built into it, social mobility had broken down.
This is For People with Bishop Rob Wright.
Rob: Hello, everyone, Bishop Rob Wright here, and this is For People. We’ve got a great treat today. We’ve got the Reverend Dr. Starsky Wilson, CEO and President of the Children’s Defense Fund. Reverend Dr., good morning.
Dr. Wilson: Good morning. It is great to be with you, Bishop. Thank you for having me and glad to be with the people.
Rob: Yeah, this is wonderful, a great treat. And as we’ll say in just a bit, you know, I owe so much to the Children’s Defense Fund. So, it’s great to meet its next CEO and President over this medium.
A little bit about Dr. Starsky Wilson, he is educated at Xavier University in Louisiana, Eden Theological Seminary, and Duke University. He is a Pastor, and some would call him a civil rights activist. And he is married to Dr. Latoya Smith. And they are the proud parents of four children.
And so, one of the things we’d like to get going on here, For People, how do you come to the work of caring for America and even the world’s children? How did you get here? How did God get you here?
Dr. Wilson: Yeah, God’s got away, indeed. My journey has really been always in service. I tell people who knew me in college, the only for-profit job I ever had was working at an overnight gas station for a period to put my way through school at Xavier. But other than that, come from a home with a mom that was our Youth Director, our Vacation Bible School director, and the Baptist Training Union Leader at my Church. And so, at Beth Eden Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas and Oakcliff parts of Dallas, Texas, we really kind of raised up in service in the church and formed for this work and set forth from it.
I point to particularly my mom’s service as a Youth Director, because for me, I see a lot of my work now as an enlargement of one of my earliest jobs, which was as a youth pastor, at the Missionary Baptist Church in St. Louis. So, in many ways, I tell people, yes, I’ve been by vocational much of my career. But the reality is, I think I’m just a youth pastor, again. I just got a really large congregation of about 74-million young people that I now have care to attend to.
Rob: Well, say a little bit about that. The Children’s Defense Fund is an organization and meant the world to me. When I graduated from Howard University, another HBCU, like Xavier, I took up an internship there to become a part of the Freedom School, the rebirth of the Freedom Schools, and the Ella Baker Child Policy Institute, which really put young college kids in contact with serving their community, particularly serving youth at what we would call marginalized communities. And that thing has just exploded over the years. And so, why don’t we slow up a minute and tell folks what Children’s Defense Fund actually does and why does it exist?
Dr. Wilson: Yeah, founded by Marian Wright Edelman in 1973, which is, just to date me and kind of talk about the work, which is three-years before I was born. The Children’s Defense Fund was built to become the only multi-issue child advocate, national child advocacy organization that works really at the intersection of racial justice and child well-being and is informed by direct service and community organizing to do public policy advocacy. I tell people all the time, this is the brilliance of Mrs. Edelman. She didn’t choose one lane. She understand that strong public policy work was grounded in direct service and community. That is what our freedom schools are. But that’s also organizing in leadership training which is a critical piece for sustaining movements. We are excited to be doing this work in 100-cities, 30-states across the U.S. from 10-different offices. And we’re pleased that, between the movement building, community organizing, the public policy work, and the CDF freedom schools that we’ve been able to touch lives for two generations. And next year will be our 50th anniversary. So, we’re really looking at the next generation of impact for the Children’s Defense Fund, training, sending fourth, nurturing leaders, there I say like yourself, who will transform the world. So, we’re really excited about that for America’s children. And I’m immensely honored, frankly, to be serving in this moment following Mrs. Edelman’s legacy.
Rob: Yeah, and for those who don’t know, Marian Wright Edelman, I mean, you really got to get to know who she has been. You know, one could argue that she is one of the last few lieutenants of Dr. King, still on the battlefield, that initial cohort, that have really helped to bend things in this country towards what we might call the beloved community. And I can say that the Children’s Defense Fund and certainly the Freedom School movement, changed me, helped me to understand how to bring out all this sort of what we call highfalutin God talk down into the cracks and crevices. It was my first glimpse of what community mobilization actually looks like, how to go into communities that are not your own, or even if they are your own, and begin to generate goodwill, and begin to identify gifts and strengths that already exist in the community, to begin to address the gaps in the community, particularly in service to the vulnerable, our young folks. And so, you know, one of the things I’ve been very proud about in my 10-years here in the Diocese of Atlanta is that we gave Georgia its first two Freedom Schools, one in Atlanta, a place called People’s Town and one in Macon, Georgia. I believe so much in that program. And it’s been exciting to watch those things flourish.
Some would say we are out of COVID, some would say we are not quite out of COVID, I think we are not quite out of COVID. But we know that a lot of groups have really had a difficult time in COVID, specifically our elderly and our children. What is your sense of how America’s children are doing right now?
Dr. Wilson: Yeah, COVID-19, the pandemic has been absolutely devastating. And I think we’ll have a decade’s long, if not generational impact, on America’s children. First and foremost, we saw the impact of the dislocation, displacement of children from the social networks in schools. Early on, we wrestled with the idea of whether they would be physically impacted by COVID-19, came quickly to the understanding that they would, but more so than anything else, we understand them to be socially impacted and educationally so. We recognize that taking young people out of routine had a critical effect and impact, especially for that first year. But also, we recognize the need to catch up with the contact time and classroom that has been lost. And really just this school year, our schools beginning to unpack the impacts thereof and the need for out of school time supports, like freedom schools, for additional summertime support.
But finally, I mean, we also have to identify this issue of the work that CBF has done for years from a policy standpoint has impacted child welfare. And there have been upwards of 120,000-children who have lost primary caregivers to COVID-19. And this will have an impact on the child welfare system, the Foster and Adoptive Care system in our kinship networks across the county as we seek to provide for these young people and help them to understand what this moment has meant in a next normal level, not including many cases their mothers, fathers, grandmothers, or grandfathers. So, here we have the work of community being called together again, to see how we care for those children’s specifically, but also again, a generation of children who will be marked by the social, emotional impact of at least two full years of mourning and loss.
Rob: It’s really amazing to think about and that we’re just starting, I mean at the very beginning of getting some sense of the impact of all of this. And we won’t know the full impact for some time because part of the work that you do is about policy. What policies are we working on right now that are beginning to get drafted and sort of generate some buzz about? What is going before Congress? What are we lobbying for?
Dr. Wilson: Yeah, there are a few things. And what has been interesting in this moment, the emergency, the crisis has called us to test to engage, to innovate, and to advance policies that we have known frankly that work in other settings but we have not built the will to do so. Things like the American Rescue Plan, where for the first time we fully expanded and made refundable and advance child tax credit, so that millions of Americans children have access to a monthly support for their families, when the bills came, when the grocery bill came due. We had a child tax credit that allowed people to claim it during tax season. But in this time, we were able to expand it to make it larger per child in a family and able to get it on a monthly basis.
I’ve got three boys in my house, the youngest is 12. The other two are teenage boys, I know how they eat. If you have those in your house, you can’t wait until April. You can’t wait until tax time to feed them. So, that a remarkable piece. We were able to get that, and it started last July. Distributors when through December on an emergency basis. But what’s interesting there is that other English speaking industrialized nations have a child allowance that is akin to what we had for those eight months here in America on a regular basis as a part of common public policy. And so, this is something where we’re working to expand it, we’re working to extend it, really pleased to have champions in the Senate, like Senator Warnock, Senator Brown, Senator Booker, and Senator Bennett, who are working on this to try to advance this cause. So, this is one.
But we’re also learning about the need to expand early childhood education. The President was very intentional about supports on both sides of the K-12 system, to say we need to reach down and expand support for early childhood education, down to ages four and three in our communities across the country. But we also need to reach up and recognize that through an associate degree or some type of credentialing beyond 12th grade, through community college systems, we also need to be expanding access to education, not just for the workforce and the workplace to get its appropriate development. But also, to make sure that we are caring for whole humanity throughout the development of human minds and brains. I tell people all the time, the human brain is forming, talking about young people, they are still forming through age 24. So, we ought to be educating up and through that point. So, we’ve also gotten to the point in the CDF where we have endorsed bills and continue to advance an agenda around comprehensive access to bachelor’s degrees.
So, this is a time where we’ve been able to take things that we have been working on for some time, get implementation, get a sense of evidence with things like the child tax credit, but also continue to push the envelope. Because we have known that these kinds of supports are necessary to make sure that children are well in our community.
Rob: You know, it’s something that I go back to often is the genesis if you will of CDF, which came out of, in part, you know, Marian Wright Edelman being in contact with a young kid, you know, in the midst of the riots. And she had an exchange with that kid and the kid just had no hope for tomorrow. And I think that just sent– Well, I know it sent just lightning down her spine. And CDF was like I said, at least in part, born of that exchange, that our country should and can do better for her children. So, it used to be a healthy start, a moral start, what am I forgetting?
Dr. Wilson: Yeah, a healthy start, a moral start, a safe start. Making sure that young people get off to the beginnings that they need to be whole in life and in community. So, as much as we continue to talk about those things, they have also informed public conversation. So, when you hear people talking about, of course, head start, you’re hearing the popularization of ideas that were not just catch phrases, right? But you’re talking about the ability to sustain an effort to mobilize people around strong concepts of care over two now generations. And so, that mission for us, continues to be about making sure that every child has a healthy start, a head start, a fair start, a safe start, and a moral start in life. But also, in the passage to adulthood, with the help of caring families and communities. Because we recognize that, you know, children don’t grow up in programs. They don’t even grow up in classrooms. They grew up in homes, with families, and communities. So more and more we’re being thoughtful about those in the public health world talk about social determinants of health, right? So, what’s the environment around children? How might we support and advance them? And you can’t help a child out of poverty unless you help to get resources to the parents. For the children to be sustainable, unless you’re investing deeply in the schools. And those schools are not going to be well resourced, unless you got a tax, and a revenue analysis. So, Mrs. Edelman really champion that being thoughtful about that whole child approach. But the whole child and a whole family and a whole community, is the way we can sustain, the only way frankly, we can sustain the wellbeing and thriving of our children.
Rob: You know, what you’re talking about really, for me at least, is the center piece of what real patriotism means in this country. And real patriotism has got to mean, and it should be a bipartisan issue, has got to mean that we raise the floor height for our children. I was talking to Ambassador Young about all of this, and he was saying, you know, this should not be fodder for partisan debate. Because, you know, we really are talking about the future of this democracy. And if we don’t give all these kids a shot, you know, at a good life, a better life, a moral life, a fair life, etc., a healthy life. Then I’m not sure exactly how much, you know, Republic we’re going to have left for anybody. And so, you know, this is the work of now but it also the work of the future.
I also think about CDF in the context, you and I being both Preachers at our core, I think about Jesus pausing his busy enterprise, his busy ministry enterprise, and situating the child on his lap, pausing his work for the child, and helping the disciples understand that this is the work. That this is the work. We are not too busy to stop and care for the child. And so, you know, your work is emblematic of that.
You come to CDF from your work in Ferguson, Missouri. And of course, for those that don’t remember, that work really got ignited with the killing of Michael Brown. You began to link up with folks and began to do some work there. Say a little bit about that work that got started for you in Ferguson? And what is the status of that work now?
Dr. Wilson: Yeah. I appreciate this opportunity. In my ways these stories connect on the personal narrative piece. So, when Michael Brown was killed, August 9, 2014, I was serving as both the Pastor of St. John’s Church, the beloved community, UCC congregation in St. Louis, and as the CEO of the Deaconess Foundation, a church related health conversion focused on advancing child wellbeing through advocacy in the St. Louis metropolitan community. And I like to remind people that Michael Brown was 18 years old, a recent high school graduate, who was headed off into technical school within weeks, and that those who gathered around him, who arrested our attention, made us pay attention to yet another black body lying in the middle of the street, were young people themselves. Who saw themselves, who saw the idea of what they had been sold about America lying on the ground, this idea that if you defer gratification, you get an education, and you work hard, you can do better than your parents. And these were millennials, the most educated generation in American history. But also growing up in the context of and the responses to the Great Recession, 911, fissures, fractures, and disruptions, and they looked down at him and looked around at one another and saw that the idea of America which has built into it, social mobility had broken down. That they had been sold, in many cases, a bill of goods. And what one of them said that day was that we are going to the Ferguson Police Department, and we’re going to stand outside until somebody gives us some answers. And they stayed in the streets for over a year.
So, I began that narrative with those young people because this is indeed a youth movement that inspired and created enough space for many of us to find our way in, including clergy and faith leaders from across the country. And it became the first sustained early mobilization of what has come to be called the Black Lives Matter Movement. And so, I think that those are critical pieces for us to remember. And for me, it was a call to the streets.
Unfortunately, Bishop, when I saw Michael Brown’s body lying in the middle of his own life force, I was directly connected to images from a Courtroom where I saw my brother who was killed by community violence, lying in the same way. And so, I felt the need to bring whatever I had to bear to it and called by those young people. And so, you know, frankly, our church began to mobilize and served open up space to the Black Lives Matter Freedom Riots of Ferguson, the Foundation began to try to engage in philanthropic organizing to create spaces for folks across the country to invest in the movement that young people were leading. And ultimately, I was called by the Governor to Co-Chair the Ferguson Commission, to try to bring people together, to learn, to explore pathways forward, including public policies that could get us to a more just, a fair, a more equitable region, to develop a community plan for racial equity in this moment that addressed child well-being in the Courts and access for people to thrive economically. And to do that public work over the course of the year with thousands of citizens committing their time to it, to develop a vision for the future for our community.
And so, I’ve been really pleased to work with partners on that in St. Louis. And to be able to say that, I think I can sustainably say, that the work of organizing the community and the community’s response to it, has created the political will and a policy environment in the region to advance an equitable future that became because of the community organizing of partners around that table. It became the prevailing policy agenda to govern the election of every mayor since in the city, county executives in the county, especially prosecutors, including one who refused to bring charges against the officer who has now been deposed after 25-years in office. And so, I think it created a rallying cry.
But for me, what it also created was an opportunity to have these young people tell their stories. And so, I was given the opportunity to bring a group of young people to a Sojourner Summit in Washington, D.C. in 2015. So, they could tell leaders from across the country what was really going on and what was really motivating them. And it was at that Summit, that I met Mrs. Edelman. And got marching orders, as you’ve been around her enough.
Rob: She is very clear.
Dr. Wilson: She was very, very clear. And in that moment, frankly, not only did she meet those young people, she invited me to speak to some of the policy interns at CBS headquarters. And then she, after that meeting, began to map for me what my marching orders were. And assess how many freedom schools we had in St. Louis. We had had so many at one time, if we could rebuild that as a programmatic response, and guess what, I began to go back into St. Louis, sponsor build out a network of freedom schools. We built up five in our community. Oh yeah, you can connect with this scholar over at Washington University where the Henry Hampton archives are. “He is one of ours,” she said about Dr. Shawn Joe, because he had been active in the Black Student Leadership Network. So, I hooked up with Shawn and we started to figure out ways to help young people in our community, particularly black boys as a community response.
So, Ferguson has everything to do with my connection, story, and sending me forth in many ways into the work at the Children’s Defense Fund, including that very direct connection of listening to young people, creating space for them to be heard, and then responding. That’s how I got here. That was the story from Ferguson to CDF. And some of that is through Mrs. Edelman’s direct work.
Rob: You know, when we look at the Old Testament prophets, and even when we look at Jesus, what we see are men and women who refuse to look away from the facts on the ground. And too often, the Church wants to look away from the bodies on the ground, from the injustices on the ground, etc. But the prophet is not really that religious finger wagger, right? The prophet is someone who has an immense sensitivity for human suffering and just reuses to be bought off from talking about it.
Walter Brueggemann and I had a conversation about that one time and it reframed for me, this the sense of what prophetic ministry is. It’s not about being, you know, 24/7 angry, it’s not about any of those things. It’s just refusing to reduce God to some sort of private piety and it’s refusing to reduce neighbor from anything but my siblings. And, you know, I understand that some people, when they look at the work of places like Ferguson, or Black Lives Matter, they are shaken and concerned. And they wonder if this isn’t sort of, you know, rioting sort of gone mad. What do you say to those folks that don’t see, at a glance, see these as positive movements within our democracy? What do you say to folks who think these things are disruptions of another wise sort of orderly society?
Dr. Wilson: Yeah, I mean, one of the things I say is first and foremost, that it is the role, it is the responsibility of each generation to make democracy its own. And that requires than a questioning, an interrogation of that which has come before. What I say about eruptions, uprisings, in some cases, even not, I think appropriately note rebellions, like what people have seen in Baltimore and other places, is that these are first and foremost human emotion in response to tragedy. The first gatherings, the extended engagement in Ferguson was about mourning, it continues to be about mourning a loss. And then being thoughtful enough using, frankly, leaning into Walter Brueggemann, being thoughtful enough to create an alternative witness. And I invite people to look closely at these movements to see what is actually happening, right?
So, I love Walter Brueggemann. He made the move from Missouri, where he went to Eden Theological Seminary and taught there, of course, where I went to school and came down to Georgia to be closer you, maybe that was part of the attraction, I don’t know. But part of what he talks about in this prophetic word, work of prophetic imagination, in that critique of us noting that this old model of Prophet versus King, I think he says in one of the revised versions of prophetic imagination, is outmoded and increasingly difficult to pull off. That then the work is to creating an alternative witness. And what I have found in engagement with leaders in these movements is that they are creating a space of what king called the radical revolution of values to be lived out. And in many ways, whether it’s the creation and BLM of black joy celebrations, that look similar to ritual in the worship of the church, and it is about celebration. But it brings a different ethic, whether it is about the communal solidarity that is built. Here we have people who are critiquing the way the world is working out in their lives, the oppressions that they experience by creating a space, either for a moment in the midst of a protest, or for an extended place as they develop coops and homes where artists and activists live and work together. They’re creating an alternative witness to the systems of oppression. And those experiments, those creations of alternative space of innovation is how democracy comes to be. It is how the next social experiments come to be. It is what Paul is doing, in the early Jesus movement, in organizing people into communities because he believes that the empire will fall in his lifetime. And people need a way of living and organizing themselves. So, this is disruption in the way of the Acts of the Apostles. These movements are disruptions that evolve and advance society by giving us space to live out new ethics and values with one another. Frankly, in the way that we invite people every week when we preach.
Rob: Well, there it is. And you know, a text that has been very important, biblical text that has been really important for me recently, the Bible has a way of sneaking up on you, you know. The Holy Spirit, you know, as my mother used to say, something came to mind, something put me in the mind of is the way that the old folks say. I’ve been thinking a lot about Philippians, where Paul goes through this list of our foibles, our shame is in our glory, and our God is in our belly, and all of these sort of things. And then, he does this amazing thing, he reminds the community in Philippi, who they really are, where their primary citizenship lies. He says, “Your citizenship is in Heaven. You are a colony of heaven.” So, when I think about the mobilization of particularly young people to address social ills, justices, etc., historic injustices and begin to right those wrongs, give voices, shut up or shut out, I think in the best case scenario, we are trying to exert our heavenly citizenship. And that our American citizenship is really downstream for us, who happen to be baptized and followers of Jesus, it happens to be downstream of our heavenly citizenship.
So therefore, my American citizenship, something I take very seriously and that I am proud of, is then shaped by my baptismal identity. And not the other way. These are not competing issues. My American citizenship is not first and foremost, it is secondary to my heavenly citizenship. And it informs everything. It informs how I vote, how I share, the resources that I have, how I spend my time. But we have this America that is an unfolding, you know, sort of experiment.
So, you used a couple of words that I love. And one is the interrogation. We’ve got to interrogate, you know, what has become our status quo. And ask ourselves, “How are we doing?” And then, we have to run experiments across those gaps. And then lastly, I’ll just say, you know, it’s made all the difference in my own personal life and to be to be given marching orders by these Jim Lawson, Marian Wright Edelman, CT Vivian, Andy Young, and the list is too long, Otis Moss. To be given the baton, if you will, to now run your race, and make America live out her promise, and make sure that she takes care of all of children– This is one of the things that I love about CDF. CDF is not only about black and brown children. CDF is about America’s children. And, you know, I serve in Georgia, and so I’ve got rural white poverty all around. And so, you know, I always remind people, this is not just an urban conversation we’re having. We’re having a conversation about all the little cracks and crevices around this nation, where people are disaffected, where there’s gaps and services and education.
I guess we should wrap up. But you know, you’re a father of four. You and I are both fathers of three boys. And I can say, amen to how they assault the pantry in my house. I know about that personally. You and I both husbands, both graduates of HBCUs, both ordained ministers, both the products of public housing, as well as praying mothers. And I wonder, as you look at your family, look at our American family, with all you know and have seen, what is your prayer as you take on this heavy life of this work?
Dr. Wilson: Yeah. I speak a prayer all the time in a way of a poem. And I won’t say the whole poem. But I would invite listeners to find the words of Langston Huges, Let American Be America Again. Let it be the dream it used to be, let it be the pioneer on the plane seeking a home where he himself is free. I lean into that and opening stanza because of a refrain that comes up that I hear as an interruption and an interrogation of that prayer about America and its hopes. The refrain is, “America never was America to me.” And I hear a chorus of children, these 4-million children in American, now the majority of whom are black and brown, one in seven of whom live in poverty. 41% spike in poverty because we stopped that monthly allocation of the Child Tax Credit, right? 41% spike in child poverty in January. And so, I hear that poem as a prayer. The idea of America is not yet the reality of America to these children. And they are interrupting our religious practices, are indications of God about our hope for the future, and saying that this America never was America to them.
So, my prayer is that it will be, that ideas about economic mobility, and doing better than your parents can be. That I hope for healthy, hope filled futures can be. That neighborhoods where children can thrive and sing and dance as healthy hope field children do, can be. And that will only be with activated individuals and inspired institutions all over the country working to center children and youth and our public policy conversations. But also in our congregations, synagogues, and mosques. Also in our neighborhoods, centers, and communities. And so, that is my prayer, frankly, that we can prioritize children and then mobilize for them the will to invest in another generation long campaign. That is the way that I see the history of CDF. That first 25-years was largely animated, mobilized, by the inspiration of the Poor People’s Campaign. Mrs. Edelman’s work as the public policy director there. In the second generation was mobilized as you came around that table and innovation around CDF freedom schools, and what we call the black community Crusade for Children in the mid 90s, that serve kids like me, who was in high school at the time. And now, our challenge is to raise democracy through a new generation, investing in child wellbeing, and racial injustice, and citizenship education all at the same time, so that these children whom we have been protecting and providing for can fully participate, to live out the hope of that reframe, to make America, America for them.
This is my prayer and my hope, and frankly, my motivation for our time together for what I hope will be a significant impactful, or at least respectful to Mrs. Edelman’s legacy, tenure with the Children’s Defense Fund to raise democracy through this rising generation by investing deeply and changing the circumstances around their lives. This is my prayer.
Rob: Yeah, no, it’s clear to me that Mrs. Edelman’s work and legacy is in exactly the right hands. I just want to thank you for meeting us here and having this conversation. I wish you all of God’s blessings. Brothers and sisters, it’s been a delight. We’ve had the Reverend Dr. Starsky Wilson, CEO and President of the Children’s Defense.