For nearly 50 years, the advocacy work of the Children’s Defense Fund has been closely tied to its legendary founder, civil rights leader Marian Wright Edelman, 81. But that will soon change: In December, Presidential Medal of Freedom winner Edelman will be replaced by the Rev. Starsky Wilson, 43, who will become the national nonprofit’s second-ever president and CEO.
Wilson, a Dallas native who has spent the past 18 years in St. Louis, has emerged from a new wave of civil rights leaders spurred by protests against police killings of Black Americans. When Michael Brown Jr. was killed in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014, Wilson was a pastor at a church just a short drive away and president of the St. Louis-based Deaconess Foundation, a $50 million fund promoting child health and well-being.
Wilson was soon appointed to co-chair the Ferguson Commission, a group charged with engaging local residents and identifying steps to repair the “social and economic conditions that impede progress, equality and safety.” That work inspired him to make racial equity an explicit part of the Deaconess Foundation’s mission and sparked a collaboration with Edelman to establish local Freedom Schools, the Children’s Defense Fund’s signature summer literacy and cultural enrichment program.
As Wilson prepares to move to the nation’s capital – along with his wife and four children, ages 5, 10, 12 and 15 – he spoke with The Imprint about his vision for schools without police, youth offenders kept close to their homes and communities, and leaders who are willing to risk their own comfort to authentically engage with young people. He sees the fight for racial equity as “generational work” that will require decades of commitment and investment. The Ferguson protests may have catalyzed the modern civil rights movement, Wilson said, “but even so, we’re not halfway done.”
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity and length.
Good morning Dr. Wilson. We’re speaking in the run-up to a historic election. How are you feeling about the direction of things?
We’re at a point of great potential and a lot of stress. It’s also a unique intersection of child well-being and racial justice: This year, for the first time, amid this conversation about racial reckoning, the majority of children under 18 in America are non-white. We’ve got to do the work to push through the realities of a multiracial democracy. If we see it through, there’s remarkable potential on the other side for our children.
It’s been seven months since the coronavirus upended our society and began claiming too many lives across the country. Who are the children that you’re most worried about during the pandemic, and what needs to be done to protect them?
I’m very concerned about all of our children, and the reports are showing the majority of children impacted by COVID-19, as far as infection and deaths, have been Black and brown children specifically. I live in a city where for the first full month of the pandemic, the only people to die were Black people. I’m deeply concerned about children with comorbidities, and I also have great concern for poor children who don’t have high-speed internet, whose families don’t have access to care for them or someone at home to coach them through virtual learning.
Much of your work as the head of the Deaconess Foundation was about improving the lives of children. What lessons about child well-being does St. Louis hold that can be applied to the rest of the country?
St. Louis has been a remarkable innovator: The first publicly supported kindergarten was started here, and so was the home visiting program Parents as Teachers, which actually began in Ferguson and was replicated across the country. Both of those teach us that – especially in this pandemic – the infrastructure for child well-being is the responsibility of the public trust, and we’ve got to build public will for that kind of investment. We’ve come to realize that, frankly, we don’t have an early childhood system.
Today, providers are going out of business, and the demographics of the kids in those programs are changing, because our white families have more capacity to work from home, so we’ve seen early childhood centers go from very diverse to all Black. If we were swinging for the fences, we would say we need national publicly supported early childhood education for every child in America – and universal broadband access for every household in America.
You mentioned that you’re sending your kids outside to play, but I also know that gun violence is a serious issue in St. Louis – last year, 30 children were killed by gun violence across the region. What does gun violence tell you about a community?
That’s a tough one. When I was a teen, I lost my older brother to gun violence and my youngest uncle. When you ask children about their well-being, one of the most significant indicators is whether they have experienced acts of violence in their neighborhood. So when I see gun violence, it tells me that the children are not well. It tells me that the community is like most major American cities that have dramatically reduced investments in public health and human services.
This summer we’ve seen advocates for Black Lives Matter making themselves visible on major stages around the country. How do you think the national conversation around racial equity has evolved since Michael Brown Jr. was killed in Ferguson six years ago?
The test of history will be: Will we use this moment to transform how we legislate, how we guide and guard our safety and community? I appreciate folks who are paying attention this year, but the reality is they could have paid attention in 2014. It wasn’t just Ferguson – there was national action at that time. I think people thought they could run out the clock on it.
We’ve heard from many youth who are protesting and organizing, particularly Black youth, express that they don’t feel safe, valued and supported in their communities. What can leaders do to show that they care about youth and try to heal those relationships?
Proximity is everything: showing up among, with and supportive of young people. There’s much to be learned from reciprocal relationships with young people. I have been both braced and blessed by folks I’ve met in the movement and in the streets. I believe relationships are built at the point of risk, and some of my deepest relationships are with people who understood me to be risking my life, or my job, or my reputation, just by being with them.
Elders have to be willing to risk something on behalf of young people. Even in her 80’s, Marian Wright Edelman has been in the streets in Washington, D.C., every day this summer. The first credential for building relationships is a willingness to get close to where young people are.
One area where we’re seeing a particularly dramatic rethinking is juvenile justice. What are the most urgent priorities going forward for youth justice?
We’ve got to do work to keep kids in the community rather than behind closed doors or locked up. If for no other reason, they’ve got to do it for the sustainability of the systems, because the system can’t afford it. We also have to keep kids in the classroom. I grew up in a day when the police didn’t belong at school. The more we institutionalize schools by having kids go through metal detectors and having police be a part of the ecosystem, the more we are preparing young people for prison. I think interrogating the use of school resource officers and purifying the educational environment will go a long way to reduce out-of-school suspensions.
With regard to the child welfare system, there are active discussions about everything from finally tackling the tremendous racial disproportionality to outright abolishing the system. What kinds of structural changes need to be immediately considered within child welfare?
Before you even get to reform, let’s talk about quality oversight of the system that we’ve got – one of the reasons we’re having such dramatic conversations is that we don’t even have that. In Missouri, our partner Children’s Rights found the state was negligent in its oversight in the use of psychotropic drugs for young people who were in the foster and adoptive care system, particularly Black and brown young people. Families would take them in and use chemical straitjackets to control them rather than trying to support them. If states are going to have responsibility, they’ve got to demonstrate the capacity to provide quality oversight and care for children, and if they can’t, then the state needs to look at the alternatives.
My own family has been impacted by a valuable use of kinship programs, and in my wider circle, my nieces and nephews have been able to be taken in by other family members in times of need. It’s critical to elevate these options to keep children with family members and make sure that there’s support and quality resources for the family members who take that on.
With regards to child well-being, is there one recent statistic or number that you’ve been thinking about or keep coming back to?
It’s actually a number I don’t have. We know that pre-pandemic, 1 in 5 children lived in poverty and 2 in 5 Black and brown children in America lived in poverty. Now, we’re facing the highest unemployment of my lifetime and a housing displacement that’s still yet to come, once we pass the moratorium on evictions. How many children are living in poverty now?
What one policy change would have the greatest impact on children and families today?
Increasing the federal minimum wage. When I first met Mrs. Edelman in 2015, this was actually one of our tensions. CDF was calling for increasing the federal minimum wage to $10.10, which we said was not enough. This year, I was pleased that CDF changed it to $15 an hour.
The reality is, children don’t grow up in our programs – they don’t even grow up in schools. They grow up in homes, and if you really want to impact the life of a child, you’ve got to increase the economic mobility of the family that they’re growing up in. By increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour, we give their families more opportunities to care for them and provide for them.
Lastly, you’ve spoken about how difficult it can be to find the good news in troubled times. So, what’s the good news today?
The good news is the child I just held in my lap. The good news is that children are looking to us and believe in us, but the even better news is, the future is really dependent on them. They still show up with curiosity, with joy, with expectation, with love that, in many cases, we seem like we’ve lost. So the good news is that they are coming, and they still have light in their eyes and are still bouncing around. And we’ve got the opportunity to keep a little bounce in our step.