Raymonde Charles' life changed after a one-on-one meeting with a civil rights legend.
What does Black history mean to Raymonde Charles ‘10?
“As a Haitian woman, it’s a rich legacy that challenges and encourages me,” she says. “When I think of the people whose shoulders I stand on, that legacy tells me that I need to fight for justice. We can’t shape a future without Black history.”
Aside from her parents, Charles says she has had an opportunity to stand on the shoulders of iconic civil and children’s rights champion, Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president emerita of the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF). While working for Rhode Island KIDS Count and attending RIC, Charles met Edelman after planning a KIDS Count luncheon honoring her.
“After the luncheon, I got a chance to spend one-on-one time with Marian,” Charles recalls. “And that was life-changing.”
Edelman, known as a close advisor to leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and former first lady Hillary Clinton, invited Charles to attend an annual CDF conference in Tennessee at the ranch of “Roots” author Alex Haley.
“At the conference I was sitting at the feet of living legends, many of whom worked with Dr. King,” Charles recalls. “Being in that atmosphere opened my eyes to what I could be and do regarding public policy, advocacy and organizing. For a 19-year-old, it was a transformational experience to be around such thought leaders.”
Charles, 38, would go on to hold press secretary positions in the U.S. House of Representatives, U.S. Department of Education and former President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign in 2012. Charles, who now works as vice-president of communications, education and venture for the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, also spent a year working with Edelman as a press secretary for the CDF in 2013-14.
“Marian has had her hand in every piece of the federal safety net for children and families that exists today, including Medicaid, the Child Care Tax Credit Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families and more,” Charles says. “I’m amazed by the people she has mentored and the number of CEO’s and executive directors who have come through the halls of the CDF. She has raised a generation of leaders.”
While working side by side with Edelman, the first African-American female lawyer admitted to the Mississippi bar in 1964, Charles says she learned several valuable lessons she uses to this day.
“Marian exemplifies dedication, passion and diligence,” Charles says. “From her I learned to always do my homework and never wing it on anything. I also learned to show up with kindness and empathy but still stick to my morals and rights. And finally, she taught me that life is not just about how much money or influence I can garner, but it’s important how I serve people. Will anybody be any better off because I was here?”
Charles poses that very question during her conversations with several mentees.
“I tell them that they have the responsibility to reach back and help people,” she says. “I encourage them to advocate for social justice and to leverage their experience to have an impact on communities. Whether it’s working for an elected official or a public relations firm, I can’t think of one of my mentees whose work isn’t in public service.”
For every high-level position that Charles has filled, public service has been the common thread.
“I’ve always been in pursuit of justice for communities at all levels,” she says. “I credit RIC for being the launching pad for fostering my ability to serve and do the work I’m doing today.”