MaryLee Allen was a brilliant, passionate, persevering, caring servant leader—not a self-serving leader—committed to helping build a world fit for children. When the Children’s Defense Fund was brand new, I was searching for smart, passionate people to help with our earliest work. One of the very first ones I found was MaryLee. Immediately after graduating from Marquette University with her degree in sociology MaryLee had come to Washington, D.C. to join the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, where she prepared research for lawsuits on school desegregation and discrimination in employment and jury selection, and received a special commendation for her work on Alabama school desegregation efforts.
Since then she’d continued working as a policy and law researcher, and she joined us to work on CDF’s first-ever policy report, Children Out of School in America. Soon after that she went on to earn her master’s degree in social work from Catholic University but as soon as her graduate studies were done I called again, asking her to work with CDF for just a month while she waited to hear about her next job. Forty-two years later, she was still here. As anyone familiar with CDF’s work knows, for more than four decades MaryLee’s heart, soul, and political and policy expertise have been behind some of the most enduring and successful efforts to help America’s children and families.
MaryLee Allen, CDF’s longest-serving staff member and the anchor of our policy work, passed away peacefully at home on June 13 a few short weeks after a diagnosis of advanced stage cancer. The entire CDF family and child advocacy community are sending all of our love and prayers to her son, Sean, her sister, Barbara, and the rest of her family. We are also celebrating her extraordinary legacy and impact and saying thank you.
Along with CDF’s late Director of Research Paul Smith, MaryLee was the co-creator of CDF as we know it. She will live on and on through the millions of children whose lives she touched and improved, especially some of our most vulnerable ones in the child welfare system. She also lives on in all the young (and not-so-young) current and former CDF staff who she trained by her example, in her meticulous work and publications and in her mentoring and outreach to the other child welfare and child advocacy networks she nurtured. She taught us that children do not come in pieces. She was a forger of laws, regulations and practices that will continue to endure as beacons of hope and protection for generations to come and guide those seeking to serve the most vulnerable families and children and families in our nation.
For that very first CDF report one of the colleagues MaryLee worked alongside was a young lawyer named Hillary Rodham—later First Lady and Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton. Together they knocked on doors to gather data on why school-age children were at home and not in school. Children Out of School in America became a major catalyst for the enactment of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (now the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA) and was the first of many major policy victories MaryLee helped achieve. For most of her professional life MaryLee took a lead role in shaping CDF’s advocacy for children’s welfare, health and safety, and from IDEA to the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act to the recent landmark Family First Prevention Services Act it is not an exaggeration to say every federal child welfare law enacted in the past four decades has been influenced by MaryLee and her unwavering commitment to improving the lives of children.
Just as important to her as the work itself was building the next generation of advocates and leaders and bringing new voices to the table to broaden the perspectives and impact of our collective work to improve outcomes for children. MaryLee was a strong believer that major policy reforms couldn’t be accomplished without a groundswell of support and advocacy from different stakeholders and partners at the national, state and local levels. She drafted, edited, and consulted, she testified before Congress more times than anyone can count, and colleagues inside and outside of CDF depended on her wise counsel for their policy decisions and campaigns. But beyond all of her expertise, we depended on her leadership as a person.
She was the consummate servant leader; as one of her policy team members put it, “she showed her leadership by helping others learn to lead.” Her former interns, staff, and colleagues have gone on to lead organizations at the state and national levels and are just one more way her fingerprints are left on our nation’s work for children. She was known for her unfailing kindness, calm steadfastness, grace, and her attention to other people’s needs. She never failed to ask about a child’s graduation or a sick parent. Her enduring example was in encouraging and reminding all of us always to keep moving forward. In the words of one of her favorite sign-offs: Go! Go! Go!
Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about MaryLee Allen’s life is that it exemplifies how one person can make a difference and leave the world better than they found it in profound and enduring ways. Millions of children and families have benefitted from this one woman’s passion to make change and create an equal opportunity for every child to succeed in America. Their futures are brighter because MaryLee Allen lived.
Following her example, all of us will strive every day to be as effective, as careful, and as committed to the most vulnerable children as MaryLee was. Her spirit, servant leadership, work ethic, and unwavering commitment to ensuring a chance for every child to fulfill their God-given potential through the highest quality work will live on and on. We will miss her beyond measure, but we will honor her by carrying on as she taught us. Thank you, MaryLee.
Marian Wright Edelman is Founder and President Emerita of the Children’s Defense Fund