Child Advocates Prepare to Rally in Cincinnati

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CINCINNATI - Marian Wright Edelman sees this as a “do or die” moment for American democracy. 

The first black woman to join the Mississippi bar, Edelman led the NAACP’s legal defense fund in Jackson in the 1960s. She’s seen her share of social injustice. But rising incarceration, poverty and social disparity in the United States is increasingly harming children and poor people, she says – the country’s most vulnerable groups -- while special interests and money control the political system. 

Children's Defense FundIt’s time for citizens to roll up their sleeves, she says. 

Starting Sunday, about 3,000 researchers, educators, lawyers, community leaders and young people from around the country will congregate for four days in Cincinnati for the first conference in nine years organized by Edelman and the advocacy organization she founded in 1973, the Children’s Defense Fund. Edelman and her staff have spent the last year planning the gathering, with the hope of galvanizing grassroots action when participants return to their communities. 

“This is not a problem-wallowing or hand-wringing conference. It is a strategic, problem-solving conference,” Edelman said in a video inviting people to attend. “It is a conference for those who will stay the course until our children are set on a trajectory toward a hopeful future and are rescued from the pervasive poverty and illiteracy, racial disparities and incarceration that is destroying their futures. It is a conference for sharing and learning about effective community-building models, and steps you can take to implement them in your community, and your schools and congregations, and your cities and states.” 

Half the participants will be young people aged 18 to 30, handpicked for their engagement in their communities, their commitment to leadership and social change, and for their diverse perspectives, said Wendy Shenefelt, head of CDF’s national youth leadership and development outreach. They’ll follow a special training track in nonviolent direct action, voter empowerment and community organizing skills, and attend daily wrap-up sessions to discuss what they have learned. In some sessions, youth will meet with civil-rights-era icons to directly learn strategies to implement change, Shenefelt said. 

“We’ve tried to invite people of different viewpoints,” Shenefelt said, “We look for people who are already out there doing amazing work and who are seen as leaders in the young advocate world, but then we also look for young people who have gone through challenges, challenges that would have knocked anyone else off their feet but they have worked through them: children of incarcerated parents, young parents, teen parents, who have different opinions of how to fix the problem as well as what the problem really is.” 

Youth Today and JJIE.org will be covering the conference with photos, video and stories on Twitter, Facebook and on this home page. Follow us @youthtoday or @JJIEga or search for tweets from the conference with the hashtag “CDFcon2012.” 

CDF New YorkSpeakers include poet Maya Angelou, who will deliver the keynote, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, who will present a video keynote on the economic importance of a quality early childhood education, and lawyer Bryan Stevenson of the Montgomery-Ala.,-based Equal Justice Initiative, who successfully argued the case against sentencing juveniles to mandatory life without parole before the U.S. Supreme Court this spring. 

The Children’s Defense Fund, on Twitter as @childdefender, is already anticipating a lot of Twitter activity by attendees. 

“Dear Twitter: Get ready for next week. We're gonna blow you up...,” it tweeted on Thursday.  

Photo from @CDFNewYork