As America finds itself immersed in a new movement to end racial and economic injustice, the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) has announced the appointment of the Rev. Starsky Wilson as the next president and CEO of the nation’s leading child advocacy organization.
Wilson, a national thought leader in racial justice, community organizing, and movement building, has long championed children’s rights. As president and CEO of the UCC-related Deaconess Foundation, he led the effort to bring the CDF Freedom Schools literacy and empowerment program to serve children and families in the St. Louis area. Wilson has also served as a leader of the annual CDF Proctor Institute for Child Advocacy Ministry.
“Rev. Dr. Starsky D. Wilson and I have been close friends for over a decade now. Everything in his life has been guided with intention and purpose,” said the Rev. Traci Blackmon, a United Church of Christ national officer and pastor of Christ The King UCC in Florissant, Mo. “Long before becoming a pastor, Starsky has served in ministry with the express purpose of helping improve the life circumstances of others. Whether that was with the United Way, the Urban League, The St. Louis Black Rep, and eventually as pastor of Saint John’s United Church of Christ.”
In the wake of the 2014 shooting of teenager Michael Brown, Wilson co-chaired the Ferguson Commission, which released the “Forward Through Ferguson: A Path Toward Racial Equity” report calling for sweeping changes in policing, the criminal justice system, child well-being and economic mobility.
“I’m honored to extend the legacy of Marian Wright Edelman and serve young people through the Children’s Defense Fund at this critical time,” said Wilson. “As we wrestle with the politics of the pandemic, protests, and a presidential election, it’s a little too easy to forget about crafting policy for children who don’t get to vote, don’t have lobbyists and can’t make campaign contributions.”
This is the first change in leadership for the Children’s Defense Fund following 47 years of service from founder and civil rights leader Marian Wright Edelman. As the organization’s new leader, Wilson has vowed to continue Wright Edelman’s legacy by using his own experiences to help guarantee the rights of all children through servant leadership.
“Our mission to Leave No Child Behind® and ensure that every child has a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage into adulthood has never been more important than it is today during these perilous times for children and for our nation. Rev. Dr. Starsky Wilson is the right leader at the right time for the Children’s Defense Fund,” said Founder and President Emerita Marian Wright Edelman. “I’ve gotten to know him over the years and I have only grown more impressed. We’ve worked closely together on CDF Freedom Schools and he has a longstanding relationship with the CDF Proctor Institute. Dr. Wilson shares our sense of servant leadership and is committed to training the next generation of servant leaders. This is the right step forward for CDF at exactly the right moment.”
Wright Edelman founded the Children’s Defense Fund in 1973 to serve as a strong and independent voice for all children facing challenges in America by advocating for solutions to improve their lives. From its inception, the Children’s Defense Fund has challenged the United States to make children a national priority.
The organization has led efforts to enact meaningful policy changes, working with numerous organizations and policymakers on both sides of the aisle. Those policy changes have helped millions of children fulfill their potential and escape poverty by ensuring that they receive the health care, child care, familial support, proper nutrition, and quality education that all children need to thrive. Through its national headquarters in Washington, D.C. and six state offices, CDF continues to fight at every level and on behalf of every child in America to give them the opportunity to fulfill their potential.
“As the Children’s Defense Fund enters this new chapter, the CDF Board is confident that Rev. Dr. Starsky Wilson is the right leader for this moment and for the future. Just as Marian Wright Edelman created the nation’s premier child advocacy organization on the foundation of the Civil Rights movement, Wilson’s leadership carries CDF on to the foundation being laid by the Black Lives Matter movement,” said Board Chair Angela Glover Blackwell. “I look forward to working with Rev. Wilson and continuing this critical work under such an inspiring leader.”
In recent years, CDF has pursued a bold policy agenda to end child poverty in America, fought aggressively to meet the needs of children and families in the child welfare system, spoken out for children killed by the national gun violence epidemic, and worked to protect health care coverage for millions of children. CDF focuses especially on the needs of poor children, children of color, and those with disabilities.
“According to the U.S. Census Bureau estimates, 2020 is the first year in American history where the majority of children in this country are children of color,” said Wilson. “Child well-being and racial justice are intimately and forever intertwined. This makes the civil rights legacy and child advocacy vision the Children’s Defense Fund has woven together for nearly fifty years even more vital.”
Wilson has served as president and CEO of Deaconess Foundation — a faith-based grant-making organization supporting a movement for child well-being in St. Louis through philanthropy, advocacy and organizing for racial equity and public policy — since 2011. During his tenure there, Deaconess has invested nearly $90 million toward improving the lives of children. In response to the dual pandemics of COVID-19 and systemic racism, Deaconess launched collaborative funds earlier this year, investing in Black-led recovery efforts and racial healing totaling more than $4 million. Wilson also serves as board chair for the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP), and as vice-chair of the Forum for Theological Exploration (FTE).
“Starsky’s board appointments are intentional,” said Blackmon. “His deep commitment to being a wonderful husband and father is intentional, and the metamorphosis Deaconess Foundation has experienced as a direct result of Starsky’s unshakeable leadership and commitment to see Black children thrive is intentional.”
From 2008 through 2018, Wilson also pastored Saint John’s Church (The Beloved Community), an inter-racial, inner-city United Church of Christ congregation. As pastor, he led activism on a myriad of issues while more than quadrupling worship attendance and annual giving. He also established The Beloved Community Conference, resourcing social justice ministries, and Sojourner’s Truth: Celebration of Preaching Women. After the police killing of Michael Brown Jr., with Wilson’s leadership, the church hosted the #BlackLivesMatter Freedom Ride to Ferguson and served as the welcome center for the #FergusonOctober.
Wilson begins his tenure as president and CEO of the Children’s Defense Fund in December 2020.
“To walk in the path forged by Marian Wright Edelman at the Children’s Defense Fund for more than 45 years while learning to make one’s own imprint on the work is a daunting task. Starsky Wilson is up to that task,” Blackmon said. “I am incredibly proud and excited to see how the national landscape will be changed on behalf of our children by his intention and purpose. I wish he and his family more than well.”