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From the President

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A Lifelong Connection

September 6, 2013

This month we welcome Darren Walker as the foundation’s 10th president. An experienced social change leader who is guided by a deep passion for justice, Darren brings to his new role a nuanced understanding of the challenges facing our world and the unique role philanthropy can play in addressing them.

As he prepared to assume leadership of the foundation, Darren took some time to reflect on how philanthropy can fuel social change and the experiences that brought him to this moment.

You’ve said that your life’s story is inseparable from the Ford Foundation’s story. How so?

When I was a little boy in Ames, Texas—population 1,800—in 1965, a volunteer from the Head Start program walked up the road and onto our porch and asked my mother if she would enroll me. That program—I don’t think it was even called Head Start yet—was designed in part by a group of early childhood development researchers at Yale University, who were pursuing interventions to reduce poverty. The Ford Foundation funded their work. Then, when I got older, the Pell grant was an important part of financing college for me. Ford also supported research on that program.

Later, when I became interested in coming to Harlem, I met the Reverend Calvin Butts and Karen Phillips at the Abbysinian Baptist Church. They had an ambitious vision to revitalize Harlem in the early 1990s, when most people had given up on Harlem. With a grant from the Local Initiative Support Corporation, a program that was started by the Ford Foundation, the Abbysinian Development Corporation was able to hire new senior-level staff. I was one of those staff members. And eventually, we received a grant from the Ford Foundation itself.

So the Ford Foundation has been a part of my life for a very long time, sometimes in ways I didn’t even realize until later.

How have those experiences informed your thinking as a philanthropic leader?

I have a personal understanding of the issues we work on, and that gives me a perspective. Issues like the criminal justice system, which I’ve had to deal with in my own family. I understand personally how insidious predatory lending can be. As the son of a single mother, I certainly understand the challenges low-wage workers and women face in this country.

And your early experiences working in Harlem?

My experiences in the nonprofit sector have helped me to be grounded in my thinking—to realize the importance of marrying good theory with good practice. They’ve helped me understand the importance of having an authentic voice and an inclusive process.

The foundation works on such a wide range of issues. What do you think unites all of this work?

What unites our work is a deep and abiding belief in human dignity. We believe every individual has a right to dream, and then to have the opportunity for those dreams to be realized—particularly the dreams and aspirations of poor people, of women, of people who are often left out and left behind. We have a commitment to those people, to those communities, and we hold ourselves accountable for that commitment.

Our work is also grounded in an understanding of how injustices are connected. For instance, we believe that development and social justice are not mutually exclusive, that prosperity can and must be shared. The foundation works to tackle specific problems, and at the same time to change the underlying structures and systems that perpetuate injustice. We’re not just fighting against injustice, we’re fighting for justice; against inequality and for fairness. For meaningful, sustainable change in people’s lives.

What is the responsibility of philanthropy as we confront the next generation of challenges?

There was a day when there were many more public figures and public institutions that spoke out on issues of injustice in society, but many of those voices are constrained today. In philanthropy, we continue to have the opportunity to speak out about injustice and demand more of others and of ourselves. We need to thoughtfully use that voice, and leverage and support the voices of our grantees.

No single philanthropy has the resources to solve the problems that its mission requires it to work on. So we need to genuinely seek partners who are like-minded and have similar areas of programming. It’s very hard to do effective partnership in philanthropy—much harder than one would think. I’m interested in understanding why that is, and if it’s possible for it to be easier.

As you step into this new role, what are you most excited about?

I am excited about our ability to take risks and do bold work that really puts a mirror up to ourselves as a society—to support the idea that young girls should not be forced into marriage, to support powerful documentary films that bring urgent issues to a wide audience, to support LGBT rights. I’m excited about the immense challenge this represents, and the very real potential for change. I am exhilarated by the chance to serve this institution; being the president of the Ford Foundation is such a privilege. Every day, I pinch myself.

Learn more about the foundation’s new president, and read coverage of his appointment from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Nonprofit Quarterly and the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

Darren Walker

“We’re not just fighting against injustice, we’re fighting for justice; against inequality and for fairness. For meaningful, sustainable change in people’s lives.”


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