Marian Wright Edelman, Founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, Stepping Aside After 45 Years

Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, who will become President Emerita

Marian Wright Edelman, one of the nation’s most famous advocates for vulnerable children and families, is transitioning to president emerita status after nearly five decades at the helm of the Washington, D.C.-based Children’s Defense Fund (CDF).

“I will step away from CDF’s day-to-day responsibilities and will focus all my energies towards building a lasting movement for children to end child poverty and inequality,” said Edelman, in a message posted on the organization’s website.  through servant leadership development at key spiritual retreats and convenings at CDF’s Haley Farm and continue to provide a moral compass for CDF.

Chief of Staff Max Lesko will become the national executive director of the organization in 2019, a position that has not been filled since the departure of Richard Hooks Wayman this year. The board will begin a search for Edelman’s successor.

“I look forward to supporting the Board of Directors in the search for a new President to lead CDF into its next chapter,” Edelman wrote, “someone who is committed to taking on the challenges children face today and those that will emerge in the future.”

Edelman has called CDF, which was founded in 1973, the “grandchild of the Poor People’s Campaign,” the movement organized by Martin Luther King, Jr., for which she served as policy director. She built the nonprofit to advocate for increased investments in low-income and vulnerable children. Early policy wins for CDF came with the passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act, and increased spending on the Head Start pre-school program, which began in 1965.

“If Martin Luther King, Jr. could come back and see what Marian Wright Edelman is doing, he’d be very proud,” said civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), in a video produced by CDF.

Edelman with Hillary Clinton, who served as a staff attorney for CDF in its early years

The future leadership of CDF will have big decisions to make about its financial future. The organization held $40 million in net assets a decade ago, and is now down below $14 million. Its 2017 financial audit found that “CDF did not have sufficient liquid assets to cover the needed liquid amounts for the line of credit collateral, current liabilities, current maturities of debt, permanently restricted net assets, and temporarily restricted net assets.”

Last August, CDF sold its national headquarters building for nearly $24 million to hotelier Jetset Hospitality.

Edelman is married to Peter Edelman, a former advisor for Presidents John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton. Their son Ezra recently won an Oscar for his documentary, O.J.: Made in America.

Lesko, a graduate of Georgetown Law, joined CDF last year after two years in the Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Education. He is the son of Matthew Lesko – an author of books on finding federal funds known as the “Question Mark Guy” for his quirky suits – and Wendy Lesko, founder and longtime executive director of Youth Activism Project.

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John Kelly, Editor in Chief, The Chronicle of Social Change
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