Jonah Edelman was thinking about heading to Costa Rica to fine-tune his Spanish early last year. Then his mother, well-known child advocate Marian Wright Edelman, asked him to help her organization, the Children’s Defense Fund, plan a national rally here for children.
At 26, he had just completed his doctorate at Oxford University, where he majored in politics.
“I got drafted, frankly,” he recalled recently.
But Stand for Children, the June 1 gathering that attracted more than a quarter of a million supporters and was endorsed by almost 4,000 organizations, turned out to be much more than just a summer project for Mr. Edelman. It helped shape his current career as a public speaker and grassroots organizer. (“Children’s Rally Spurs Plans for Action, Draws Partisan Attacks,” June 12, 1996.)
“I couldn’t think of a better thing to do than to interact every day with people who are new activists for children,” he said. And that’s exactly what he’s doing, hitting the road from his home in Washington almost weekly to speak with members of the Children’s Action Teams, or CATs, that have sprung up across the country.
The rally occurred during the national debate over welfare reform. Marian Wright Edelman sharply criticized President Clinton for his support of the measure that ended the federal Aid to Families with Dependent Children program, and passage of the law prompted Peter Edelman, Mr. Edelman’s father, to resign from his post as a counselor to Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna E. Shalala. The stance of the two elder Edelmans reverberated nationally; both are longtime friends and political allies of the president and Hillary Rodham Clinton.
“We’ve just had some significant national setbacks,” Jonah Edelman said recently. “I think the welfare bill shows that there is a real need for people who care about children and who care about their futures.”
The intent of Stand for Children--the name of the organization Mr. Edelman now directs--was to transfer the energy and the commitment demonstrated in the rally last June back into neighborhoods throughout the country.
So far, 170 CATs have formed in 38 states. “It’s exactly what we wanted to have happen,” he said.
In North Carolina, a statewide Stand Network involving representatives from 85 counties is generating support for more child-care subsidies.
At an Episcopal Church in Centre County, Pa., CAT members are working with other local groups to create a club where teenagers can socialize and participate in after-school activities and mentoring programs.
Across the nation, Mr. Edelman has encountered a mix of experienced activists and those who have never been a part of such efforts.
Some of the more interesting initiatives, he said, include a weekly, one-hour Stand for Children radio show in San Jose, Calif., and a student-run CAT in Miami, made up of National Honor Society members who mentor disadvantaged preschool-age children in after-school programs.
“These are the future leaders of tomorrow, but this is really shaping them for becoming community conscious,” said Margie Zeskind, an early-childhood specialist who works at the nonprofit Central Agency for Jewish Education in Miami and helped the students organize their group. Mr. Edelman, she said, has made an impression on her two sons.
“Jonah is outstanding. He is dynamic and passionate,” Ms. Zeskind said. “As young as he is, and as involved as he is, he is an inspiration for a lot of young people out there.”
Getting children involved in helping others was also the goal of Chesire, Conn., resident Pina Jaroslow, a mother of two who works in an elementary school lunchroom. She plans to organize a CAT this spring, integrating the activities of a student volunteer group she works with at Dolittle Elementary School in Chesire.
Even though she didn’t join the rally in Washington last year, Ms. Jaroslow said she was attracted to the no-pressure message she received from Stand for Children.
“Basically, if you want to do something with kids that is positive, they will support you,” she said, adding that the organization doesn’t force anyone to take a particular political point of view. “I’m not somebody who is in Washington. I’m not into that. I’m just a mom who wants to make the world a better place for my kids.”
‘It’s a Struggle’
What Mr. Edelman describes as a “small, young, and energetic” staff works at Stand for Children’s Washington office to help CAT members and disseminate materials throughout the country.
While an affiliate of the CDF, Stand for Children operates independently, and fund raising takes a good deal of Mr. Edelman’s time. The group received a startup grant from one foundation, and now has nine employees. “It’s a struggle,” he said. “We’re small.”
The organization’s sophisticated World Wide Web site, at www.stand.org, is also an important information source for those already involved with the group and those discovering it for the first time.
Indeed, this year’s event, the Virtual Stand for Children, is likely to draw more participants than last year’s rally because of the far-reaching capabilities of the Internet. The “virtual” rally will be between May 25 and June 7 and will focus on children’s health. In addition to locally organized activities throughout the country, the on-line event will include chat sessions, virtual pledge forms, and information about local CAT programs.