Library | Speeches

Darren Walker, incoming president of the Ford Foundation, addresses staff

Darren, Walker, New York 2014-2015. Photo Credit: Simon Luethi ©Ford Foundation.

Good morning, everyone.

First, I must thank the inimitable, indefatigable Irene Hirano Inouye. Irene, you are treasured because of your unwavering dedication to this institution. We’re all in your debt. And we all offer our deep gratitude.

I also must acknowledge the remarkable leadership of Kofi Appenteng, who chaired the search process. It was extensive, and thoughtful, and let’s hope there’s no recount!

Truly, to all of the members of our extraordinary board: I am humbled by the trust you have placed in me. I pledge to work with energy and integrity; to lead while listening and learning; and to give my everything in service of our mission: to build a world that is fairer and more just.

It’s been said that our journeys are neither marathons nor sprints, but relays. In that spirit, I have the honor of taking up the baton carried by my venerable predecessors, legends in the field of philanthropy.

To Franklin Thomas—a trailblazer, a visionary and a mentor to me and so many—thank you. It is not possible to overstate the influence you’ve had on me—and on this singular institution. Your voice still echoes in the halls here, and your shadow looms large over our ways of being and our ways of seeing.

To Susan Berresford, thank you for your decades of good works, strong leadership, and great example. During my years at the Rockefeller Foundation, I always admired you from afar—and found great inspiration in your decency and integrity. I must say that today, I appreciate your counsel and your friendship more than ever.

To Kathryn Fuller, thank you for your consummate stewardship over many years. Your low-key, but high-impact style of leadership has set the stage for great things at the Ford Foundation.

To Luis Ubiñas, thank you for so much—for supporting me, for encouraging me, and for bringing me here. I, quite literally, would not be here had you not called and invited me to talk on a beautiful, New York spring day in 2010.

And, of course, to my colleagues in this building and around the world: I cannot express the depth of my appreciation and admiration for each of you. You have nurtured me, inspired me, sometimes indulged me, and always cheered me on. Our friends and colleagues in Delhi, Cairo, Nairobi, and Johannesburg were particularly generous and welcoming on my recent visits with them. Vincent and Roy have shared so many words of encouragement—as have Erdine and Nolan in the lunch line, and Charlie and Angel and all of the guards who keep us safe.

I must say, the first time I walked into our iconic headquarters as an employee of the Ford Foundation, I not only knew that my life had changed; I knew that I had found my way home.

Almost 50 years ago, my mother was raising my sister Renee and me in the rural, east Texas town of Ames, population 1,800. We lived in a narrow, shotgun house. We had just enough, but not a lot.

Sometime around my fifth birthday, a clipboard-carrying young woman knocked on our door—and began a conversation with my mom on our porch. As it turned out, this woman worked for a brand new education program—the leading edge of President Johnson’s War on Poverty—and she asked my mother if she would enroll me.

My mother said yes, of course. And not long thereafter, I began attending a makeshift preschool at a church not far from our home. It was not until years later that I learned that the idea for this particular program was funded with an investment from the Ford Foundation.

The program was called Head Start. And it gave me mine.

During the years and decades that followed, the Ford Foundation indirectly—and sometimes directly—altered my life’s course.

I often remind people that I’ve never attended a day of private school in my life. I attended the Goose Creek, Texas Public Schools—and the Ford Foundation has been, and remains, a passionate advocate for public education.

I’m also a proud alum of the University of Texas, where I went to college and law school, and because my family was low-income, my education was financed in part by a Pell Grant, another Ford Foundation policy innovation.

During and after school, I benefited, I’m certain, from affirmative action and diversity policies—policies that the Ford Foundation’s courageous grantees like the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund have championed for a half-century. Given my background, there were gaps in my college readiness no doubt, but my potential was recognized, and I think most who look at my record in college would agree that it was a successful one.

I started my career in New York, working at a Wall Street law firm and investment bank, where I learned countless, invaluable lessons. But I knew a job in finance wasn’t my fate. And after a decade, there it was again...the Ford Foundation was back in my life!

First, in 1994, I met Reverend Calvin Butts and Karen Phillips, the dynamic duo who had founded the Abyssinian Development Corporation, one of many community development corporations across the country, as you know, brought to us all by the Ford Foundation.

People in Harlem didn’t appreciate the media’s repeated references to Harlem as a “ghetto.” So Calvin Butts, Karen Phillips, and other community residents decided that they should begin the heavy lifting of rebuilding their historic neighborhood and restoring its reputation.

But at the time, ADC was just getting going—and it needed funding. Fortunately, Ford had created the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, or LISC. With the support of LISC’s energetic leader Paul Grogan, it awarded ADC with a sizeable grant, more than enough to hire a younger, slimmer Darren Walker. And not long thereafter, we secured our first Ford Foundation grant—an imprimatur of excellence—courtesy of Ford’s Melvin Oliver and Fred Davie.

And thus began an unexpected adventure that later brought me to the Rockefeller Foundation. To the world of philanthropy, which, quite frankly, I knew absolutely nothing about! And eventually to my role with Judith Rodin, a brilliant agent of innovation and change. The rest, as they say, is history.

The point of all this is both simple and profound: In so many ways, my life’s story is inseparable from the Ford Foundation’s story. I am of this place. I am because of it.

And I share my story not because it somehow makes me unique. I share it because my story is not unique.

Around the world the Ford Foundation has touched and transformed the lives of millions of young boys and girls—who like those two children in the photograph—have hopes and dreams, aspirations that they have the right to pursue.

Around the globe, we and our grantees measure our accomplishments in wars for social justice won—and in battles for social justice we’re still waging. We are builders at the Ford Foundation. We build lasting institutions, human capital and capacity, transformative ideas.

So, our work remains as relevant as ever, perhaps more so. And that is precisely because what philanthropy can—and must—do has never been more important. This is why we are called to be here—all of us.

I’m reminded, in fact, of a message to philanthropists written by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., exactly 50 years ago, as he and so many others prepared for the Birmingham Campaign.

“Philanthropy is commendable,” he wrote. “But”—and I’m quoting here—“it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.”

Think about that. These words still challenge us today. They challenge us not to be smug in our privilege—nor comfortable in our abundance.

Maybe the way we should see it is that our most important job is to work ourselves out of a job—to toil against injustice until there is justice; to even out inequality until there is equality.

That means we will never be content to merely wait for “the long arc of history” to “bend toward justice.” Rather, we find and support those who are doing the bending—our valiant grantees.

And, finally, in everything we do, we cannot lose sight of the imperative for social innovation. We have to honestly ask and assess: “As an institution that has been on frontlines of social innovation for 75 years, how do we most effectively reimagine, reinvent, and retool today...to advance not only development, but justice?”

In the days and weeks ahead, I’m excited to spend as much time with as many of you as possible. I’ll ask this question and others, like “how can we better co-operate, and collaborate, and co-create with our peer and partner institutions?”

I pledge to listen—and I promise to learn.

Most of all, I give you my word: I will not forget where we started—where I started—and what we all stand for, and what we work for: The fight for human dignity wherever we are in the world. The unfettered expansion of human rights. The unrelenting pursuit of social justice. The conviction that all children—like those two kids on the stoop in east Texas—deserve a fair start in life, no matter where or how we begin.

For me, the board’s decision to appoint me as the Ford Foundation’s 10th president is the thrill of my life. As I said, I’m deeply humbled in so many ways.

But the greatest honor and privilege of all is that I can continue serving with you, my colleagues—from New Delhi to New York; from Jakarta to Johannesburg; from Cairo to Beijing; from Lagos to Rio de Janeiro, Santiago, and Mexico City. You are the foundation of this foundation. I will always, always remember that.

And so let’s embrace our future. Boldly. With ambition and humility. Mindful of our legacy. With the conviction of our ideals and values. But, most of all, together.

Thank you, from the bottom of my heart.