The Rev. Dr. Starsky Wilson of St. Louis Tapped to Lead Children’s Defense Fund
New President and CEO Inherits Role from Founder Marian Wright Edelman
By Cindy George
There’s been a passing of the torch for the next era of leadership at the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF).
The Rev. Dr. Starsky Wilson, an activist, minister and philanthropist in St. Louis, Mo., has been named CDF’s new president and CEO, taking the reins from Marian Wright Edelman, who founded the national child advocacy organization nearly 50 years ago. The organization grew out of the Civil Rights Movement, namely Edelman’s work during the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer Project and as counsel for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1968 Poor People’s Campaign.
Wilson, a native of Dallas, Texas, is the president and CEO of Deaconess Foundation, a faith-based and grant-making organization devoted to making child well-being a civic priority in the St. Louis region. As a teen, Wilson competed in the NAACP’s ACT-SO oratorical competitions at Xavier University in New Orleans, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in political science. He went on to earn a master’s degree in divinity from Eden Theological Seminary in the St. Louis region and a doctoral degree in ministry from Duke University in Durham, N.C.
After the 2014 police killing of teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., Wilson co-chaired the Ferguson Commission, which released a racial equity report calling for sweeping changes in policing, the criminal justice system, child well-being and economic mobility. From 2008 to 2018, he also served as pastor of Saint John’s Church (The Beloved Community), an interracial congregation in North St. Louis which hosted the #BlackLivesMatter Freedom Ride to Ferguson and served as the welcome center for #FergusonOctober. Today, Wilson chairs the board of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, is vice-chair of the board for the Forum for Theological Exploration based in Atlanta and serves on the board of the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations.
The 43-year-old Wilson has four children with his wife, Dr. LaToya Smith Wilson, a dentist.
CDF’s historic leadership shift will be complete in December when Wilson officially begins his tenure as president and CEO. Edelman is now president emerita in the Office of the Founder.
In this interview with The Crisis, Wilson discusses his development in children’s advocacy, community organizing and movement building.
Q | How are you introducing yourself to people now that you have a national platform?
Wilson: I just tell my story. I grew up in Dallas, Texas. I am a son of the church and the community. My mother was very active as a youth director and the Parent-Teacher Association president. So, between the church and the PTA I was raised in a wider community. I was also impacted by the realities of life and challenges for young people. I lost my older brother and my youngest uncle to community violence in the same neighborhood and I committed pretty early to a life of service. At Xavier University in my undergraduate studies in Louisiana, I discerned this commitment to both political science and theology and ultimately accepted my call to ministry. That’s been my path ever since. I’ve always worked in the social sector and most of that time bi-vocationally – leading in church settings while also leading in the social sector, which has included the United Way, the Urban League, a Black professional theater company and, for the last 10 years, in philanthropy with the Deaconess Foundation, a faith-related philanthropy here in the St. Louis region.
Q | How would you encapsulate your philosophy about the nation’s children?
Wilson: Among all the things that 2020 will be known for, its lesser known that – according to the U.S. Census Bureau – [this is] the first year in American history where the majority of children under the age of 18 are children of color. What we are projecting about America hits children first. In 2011, the number of children under the age of 4 were children of color. So, for the last nine years, if you’ve been talking about early childhood education, you should have been talking about cultural competency. When I think now that Hispanic and Latina children are 10 times more likely to live in food-insecure homes than their white counterparts and the fact that they’re a rising and growing population of America’s children, then we can’t talk about Hispanic children separate from Black children or talk about Black children separate from white children. To speak of Hispanic children and Black children is to speak of America’s children. We’ve got to own that everything we do for them, we are doing for ourselves, our own kin and our country. The instability of Black children and brown children is the instability of America’s future.
Q | You’re also a father. Tell me about experiencing the realities of modern childhood in your own home.
Wilson: I have four beautiful children – three boys, 15, 12 and 10 – and my baby girl is 5. My work at Deaconess focuses on children and child well-being. Of course, my life experience over the past 15 years is the awesome responsibility of having other lives dependent on yours. My children – especially my oldest son – helped to round out the process of growth and maturation. It hit me very clearly what needed to happen in my own life when I saw his dependence on me. A lot of what we need to grow up to in our civic and public life in America is that there are lives that are wholly dependent on our engagement, on our citizenship and on our advocacy that don’t get voice in the places where we get voice – and I don’t think that we take that seriously enough, which means that we have some growing up to do as a country.
Q | Growing up, what was your vision of your adult battlefield?
Wilson: I really thought it was going to be the law or government where I would have to contend for equity for our people. I didn’t have real clarity about what the world of organizing to make policy happen looked like back then. In the time I had working at Deaconess and specifically the proximity I’ve been allowed in the last six years with the Ferguson Uprising and the Movement for Black Lives and its leaders has given me the sense of how we connect and build an ecosystem and a constellation of actors that make policy possible. I have since learned that the church is much more the space for respite and restoration from a struggle even as the church itself is a space of struggle.
Q | How do you describe your battlefield now?
Wilson: We’ve got an obligation and responsibility to keep children at the center of our conversations whether those are policy conversations, whether those are conversations about the economy or whether those are conversations about the future of our religious or other structured communities. The reality is that none of these things has a future if the children don’t thrive.
Q | What made you think you were the person for this role?
Wilson: I’ve gone through the discernment process before. The discernment process for the call to preach is probably the most humbling thing. I have been working at the intersection of faith and policy on behalf of children in the St. Louis region for the last 10 years. I believe discernment happens in community. I saw the process of selection as a spiritual discernment process whereby God would work in me, the search committee, the board, the staff and the search firm to see what God wanted – and that wasn’t about me or me deciding that I could do all the things on that list. It was me saying ‘Yes, I’m open and I believe that there are things in my past that will be valuable and I believe if the community wills it and God wills it, we will be successful because the mission is so righteous.’
Q | What is your vision as the new president and CEO of the Children’s Defense Fund?
Wilson: Early on, it’s important for me to have an ear versus an eye. Right now, I’m spending a good amount of time listening to people I know love children, love this mission and have its best interest at heart. The process of discernment, through that listening process, will be able to cast a really clear vision about what we can be for our children, knowing that we cannot be all things. My commitment at this moment where racial justice and child well-being intersect in the demographics of America is that we must be faithful to that. I am very clear that child well-being and racial justice have to be more intimately linked in our work, in our conversation about children. This moment calls for it and our history means that we are perfectly positioned to serve this moment. The vision will come forth from that.
Q | Tell me about the first time you met Mrs. Edelman.
Wilson: I met [civil rights leader] Dr. C.T. Vivian who came to visit us in the midst of the Ferguson Uprising. I had the opportunity to sit with him, just to learn and listen about the experiences of the Civil Rights Movement. Shortly after that visit, I sponsored a delegation of young people in June 2015 to come to Washington, D.C., to a summit, Sojourners, to share with a community of faith leaders across the country about their experiences from the Ferguson Uprising and I moderated. Near the end of the day, Mrs. Edelman was the keynote talk. Following the session, [the Rev. Vivian] went up to greet her and she invited him to dinner. She was hugging him and then she leaned back with a big smile and said, ‘Let’s go have fish.’ And, he turned around to the table, and said ‘Come on, let’s go have fish.’ And so, we all went to dinner. At the end of dinner, Mrs. Edelman said, ‘What are y’all doing tomorrow?’ And, of course, we knew she was about to tell us what we were doing tomorrow. She told us to come down to the office. She gathered all of the summer interns and staff that worked in the headquarters building to talk and to hear from me about the Ferguson Uprising and to hear from Dr. Vivian about the Civil Rights Movement and to hear from Dr. Obery Hendricks, who is a New Testament scholar, about the politics and how these things come together. After that meeting, she asked about our response institutionally and programmatically. We began to talk about what was going on on the ground and she began to offer ways we could respond that were connected to the CDF portfolio including replanting Freedom Schools in the St. Louis region and connecting with the religious organizing work that CDF was doing through its Proctor Institutes. Three to four weeks later, I was headed down to Alex Haley Farm where CDF convenes 500 to 600 faith leaders every summer. Now, we have six Freedom Schools in the St. Louis region and we had one at the time. She was building out marching orders.
Q | How is the Deaconess Center for Child Well-Being knitted with your new role?
Wilson: In 2014, Deaconess Foundation was rolling out its new strategic direction for child well-being in the St. Louis region and Michael Brown was killed by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson. He was 18 years old and he had just graduated from high school weeks before. He died on the dividing line between an unaccredited school district and an accredited school district. He graduated from what was called a nonaccredited school district. It is one of the great and grave expressions of our care of children and the systems that we create for them. At the same time, I was pastoring Saint John’s Church (The Beloved Community) in North St. Louis. We kept getting requests at the church for space. Movement folks needed places to be. They needed places to escape from the streets. They needed places to strategize. The church wasn’t the best place for that because the church has a history of discrimination against gay people, women, people who are developmentally disabled – all of these things – but the church was the space that wasn’t owned by the empire. So, we kept opening our doors. The lesson there was that the movement needed infrastructure. As Deaconess was trying to figure out where its offices should be and how it could get more proximate to the need it was seeking to fill, we decided that we would build a Center for Child Well-Being – a place community members could come together to build power in order to build the world that our children need. We developed a conference center with lots of meeting space for movement groups. We opened it in 2018 and, appropriately, we invited Marian [Edelman] to give the first opening talk. Every year, more than 15,000 folks come through there who are working on things that are aligned with our public policy agenda for children that includes youth justice, increased investment in early childhood education, family economic mobility and access to health care. We’ve got to build power to build the world we want for our kids.
Q | How has the NAACP impacted your life?
Wilson: I am an undergrad NAACP oratorical competition winner and was the president of the NAACP college chapter at Eden Theological Seminary. I have two sons with life memberships to the NAACP. These institutions are critical to the life-course development for all our children. That’s been the case for me and my sons. The work that volunteers do day-to-day in branches and in ACT-SO creates the pipeline with the conditions for all our children to thrive.
Cindy George is a Houston-based freelance writer.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.