Honoring MaryLee Allen: Reflections from the Celebration of Life

Last week the Children’s Defense Fund held a Celebration of Life to honor the life and legacy of MaryLee Allen, a bold leader and advocate for children, and a dear friend to our organization. Some of her closest colleagues, mentees, friends, and family members shared reflections about MaryLee’s fervent passion for tackling injustice, her kind leadership, and the lasting impact she has made on numerous people throughout her lifetime.

Dorothy S. Lansberg spoke about the fulfilling, life-long friendship she had with MaryLee Allen, and how their journey began as roommates:

“MaryLee had a deep commitment to making the world a better place. Not just in her enduring work in civil rights and children rights over the decades, but also in her daily interactions with those around her. Each of us will miss this precious friend who so enriched our lives,” said Lansberg.

Mary Bissell, a colleague and one of MaryLee’s many mentees, shared about MaryLee’s humbling and just demeanor to everyone she met.

“In this city of elephantine egos, MaryLee grounded her life in humility, in her love of family and friends, and in her relentless pursuit of social justice. She didn’t care about her title or connections, and frankly, she didn’t care about anyone else’s either. With regard to position or politics, she extended the same hopeful invitation to everyone. ‘How do we work together to make life better for children and families?’”

Bissell also reflected on how MaryLee became a “powerful D.C. broker for the most powerless”—because she created and followed her own rules. Here are MaryLee’s rules, according to Bissell:

  • Rule #1: Everyone is important. People matter simply because they exist. There is innate potential in every heart and every mind, and when those gifts are threatened by injustice or cruelty we fail as a people, we fail as a society, we fail as a government.
  • Rule #2: True integrity follows no shortcuts. MaryLee showed up every day with her best self, ready to find the upside in everything—even the most painful meeting was “useful.” The most obnoxious person was “troubled”. Honesty and plain dealing are the foundations of lasting progress she said, and dishonesty and disrespect undermine are most deeply-held values.
  • Rule #3: Fighting injustice is the work of life and the life in work. MaryLee learned from a young age that life is precious and sometimes fleeting. She brought her ferocious intellect, uncompromising work ethic, and supportive leadership to everything she did, and those abilities fueled and fired the work she loved.

To hear more of the beautiful words MaryLee’s friends and family had to say, you can watch the video from her Celebration of Life here. To read our words on MaryLee and the tireless, inspiration work she has done in the past decades, please find the reflection here.