Starsky Wilson, President and CEO, Children's Defense Fund

Starsky Wilson, President and CEO, Children's Defense Fund

In September, the Rev. Dr. Starsky D. Wilson was named president and CEO of the Children's Defense Fund (CDF), succeeding Marian Wright Edelman, who in late 2018 transitioned into the role of president emerita of the organization she founded almost fifty years earlier. Wilson started his tenure as president and CEO of CDF on December 7.

Wilson previously served as president and CEO of the Deaconess Foundation, a faith-based philanthropy focused on child well-being in St. Louis, and as pastor of Saint John's Church, an interracial, inner-city congregation. In the wake of the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown, Wilson was asked to co-chair the Ferguson Commission, convened by then-Missouri governor Jay Nixon; the report issued by the commission, Forward Through Ferguson: A Path Toward Racial Equity, called for sweeping reforms to policing and the criminal justice system as well as a renewed commitment to child well-being and economic opportunity for all.

Earlier this month, PND spoke with Wilson, who serves as board chair of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy and as vice chair of the Forum for Theological Exploration, about the intersection of faith, racial justice, and philanthropy; the rising generation of racial justice activists; and Marian Wright Edelman's legacy.

Philanthropy News Digest: As the former co-chair of the Ferguson Commission, what was your reaction to the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer and the nationwide protests that followed? And have we made any progress toward racial justice since Michael Brown was shot dead by a Ferguson police officer?

Starsky Wilson: The video of the eight minutes and forty-six seconds in which George Floyd was killed by Officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on his neck in Minneapolis was a triggering reminder of the four hours Michael Brown, Jr. lay in the street in Ferguson, Missouri, after being killed by Darren Wilson. Six years passed between those tragedies, and yet so much was the same: the days waiting for the responsible police officers to be arrested, the outpouring of pent-up rage and pain from decades of oppression and brutality.

Six years have passed and little has changed in the response of these systems. On the other hand, much progress has been made in the activation and mobilization of community leaders on the ground, and in building the capacity to change narratives and organize people for long-term impact.

The only way to stop police violence is to address the root cause directly and deeply. Racist oppression and myths of criminality lead to public lynchings of Black people by those sworn to protect them. We need effective leaders who are not afraid to stand up and speak out about racial injustice. We must lift up and listen to the voices of impacted communities that for decades have been crying out about police brutality, violence that endangers our children and youth. We must take meaningful action on a systemic level: removing the police presence from our schools, ending the cradle-to-prison pipeline, and investing in programs that allow marginalized children and their families to thrive.

PND: As an early supporter of and participant in the Black Lives Matter movement, you're seen by many as a bridge between Marian Wright Edelman's generation of 1960s civil rights-era activists and a new generation of millennial and Gen-Z racial justice activists. As the new president and CEO of the Children's Defense Fund, how do you see your role in the movement for racial justice?

SW: Child well-being and racial justice are intimately and forever interconnected. Many people don't realize that 2020 is the first year in American history where the majority of children in this country are children of color. This makes the civil rights legacy and child advocacy vision that the Children's Defense Fund has woven together for nearly fifty years even more vital.

That's also why I am honored to join the organization built by Marian Wright Edelman. She has understood since she founded the Children's Defense Fund in 1973 that it is essential to weave together the struggle for civil rights and the fight for children in order for both movements to succeed. That means any action we can take toward providing opportunity, relieving social and economic burdens, and expanding healthcare access for the nation's children helps build a safer and more equitable society for people of color. At the same time, any action we can take to dismantle the policies and structures that uphold systems of racism in this country creates a better nation for our children.

Holding and earning the trust of leaders within the Movement for Black Lives is just as high an honor. I have been pleased to stand with, beside, and behind them on the streets and the public square, to invest in their work, and to strategize with them. At CDF, I look forward to working with these same leaders to extend the movement for justice that so many are inheriting at about the same age that Mrs. Edeleman was when she planted the flag of her work for justice.

PND: CDF recently was awarded a $1 million grant by the Thriving Congregations Initiative at the Lilly Endowment. As a pastor and a nonprofit leader, how do you see the relationship between faith and social justice advocacy? And how will the organization use the grant?

SW: Only faith in some idea, expression, or being greater than ourselves gives us the capacity to see justice in the face of injustice and to sustain strength to pursue it. Faith leaders like Rev. James Lawson and the late Rev. C.T. Vivian taught me that, at critical moments, we must win locally with spiritually grounded activism before we can win globally with on-the-ground activism. My job as a faith leader is to stir our collective imagination, encourage moral action, and pursue justice and righteousness as I encounter those themes in sacred texts and communities. When we bring our beliefs and bold action into the public square, we nurture the change that can transform a nation and help children flourish.

The Children's Defense Fund has a long history of working with faith leaders and communities to activate champions for our children through programs like the Proctor Institute for Child Advocacy Ministry and the annual National Children's Sabbath. The generous grant from the Lilly Endowment will take that work to new heights by allowing us to pursue a focused partnership with a small group of congregations to help strengthen the connections between the teachings and actions of their places of worship with the challenges facing children in their communities and across the country.

PND: Over the course of your career you've been focused on the well-being of children, and that includes your work on the CDF Freedom Schools summer literacy program and the Proctor Institute for Child Advocacy Ministry. Have you had time to determine what your top priorities for CDF are over the short to immediate term?

SW: There was already so much work to be done to make sure our most marginalized children can flourish — and that was before the COVID pandemic set those children back even further in their learning, their development, and their safety and well-being. The top priority at CDF will always be to be a strong, effective voice for the more than seventy-four million children who cannot vote, lobby, or make campaign donations to the lawmakers with the power to help them. Our immediate focus right now is urging Congress to pass robust COVID relief that will help our children and their families stay housed, fed, and safe in the difficult weeks ahead.

More broadly, we will continue to push those in power to take a holistic view of our children. They are not just students and future employees; they are entire human beings who need to be supported mentally and physically to lead joyful lives. We must be proactive in supporting children in all aspects of their life, not just working on the back end to dilute the damage after they have experienced a traumatic experience. We will not solve the complex, interconnected set of challenges facing our most vulnerable children unless we as a society adopt that kind of approach to serving them.

PND: Many foundations have come to the realization that they need to do more to address systemic racism and support efforts to advance racial justice. What are the one or two things foundations could do in 2021 to really accelerate progress toward a racially just society?

SW: First, foundations must make good on their public statements and commitments made in response to the reckoning we saw in 2020, from COVID-19 to racial uprisings to the presidential election. To truly and faithfully advance racial justice, they must invest in an equitable recovery from the pandemic, including supporting responses designed to correct the disproportionate health and economic impacts on Black and brown children and families. That will require higher payouts, the application of a racial equity lens to their grantmaking, and the adoption of a systems-change approach to everything they do.

Philanthropies must invest in Black-led social change and listen closely to leaders and organizations in impacted communities. Just before coming to CDF, I led the Deaconess Foundation's work to invest $4 million into Black-led pandemic response and racial healing initiatives. That type of deliberate, focused action is what is needed to produce the results foundations say they want in their mission statements and theories of change.

Finally, leaders of foundations can lift their own voices to amplify the demands of those whose voices are too often drowned out or ignored. The freedom to advocate afforded to foundations and their leaders is a powerful tool when it's used to shift narratives and educate the public. And I am truly glad to hear some of these leaders already speaking out loudly and forcefully.

— Kyoko Uchida