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Darren Walker accepts an award from WOLA on behalf of the Ford Foundation

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

October 24, 2017

The Washington Office of Latin America
Human Rights Awards Ceremony and Benefit Gala
Mayflower Renaissance, Washington, D.C.

Remarks as Prepared

Thank you, Matt for that warm introduction, and for having me here tonight. Not only do you lead WOLA with integrity, but you have spent over a decade advocating for the people our society underserves and overlooks. I am honored to accept this award on behalf of the Ford Foundation, and to be recognized by WOLA —a remarkable organization that values human dignity and promotes human rights throughout Latin America.

For more than 50 years, the Ford Foundation has been committed to the people and progress of Latin America. And we have continually invested in the region’s individuals, institutions, and ideas. Our work in Latin America began in 1962. At the time, our grantmaking was aimed at growing Latin America’s next generation of leaders. We began investing in university training for indigenous populations, and provided research grants for studying development, health, and social sciences. Then, during the 1970s and 80s, when much of the region struggled under oppressive regimes. We worked to protect human rights defenders, and supported the institutions that helped them organize and mobilize. And we championed advocates for women’s rights, reproductive health, racial justice, and public security in places like Brazil. In the process, governments became more accountable, local organizations became stronger, and more people gained a voice in the political decisions that shaped their lives.

When democracies finally overtook dictatorships in the 1990s, our focus shifted towards justice—economic justice, and transitional justice.  By investing in microfinance programs and financial services, we helped communities throughout the region find opportunities to thrive. Meanwhile, in countries like Argentina, Chile, and Peru, truth commissions gathered facts and testimony about the human rights abuses of previous decades.

More recently, we’ve celebrated enormous gains—like the peace process in Colombia—and continued to empower marginalized communities to be a part of those achievements. In places like Brazil, we invest decisively in building civil society and infrastructure, and promoting rights-based philanthropy. And together, we’ve struggled against new crises: like organized crime and mass migration; rising violence, corruption, and impunity in places like Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala.

But no matter the challenges the region has faced, no matter the affronts to human dignity, or the opportunities for sustainable development, the Ford Foundation has always stood with, behind, and for the people of Latin America. And that great tradition—our decades long relationship—continues today. Right now, we support the on-going efforts to lift up women, Afrodescendants, and indigenous people. We invest in equitable management of natural resources so that those who actually live on these lands have their rights recognized, and have a voice in decisions made about their territories.

We stand up to protect human rights and social activists who live under constant threat throughout the region. We continue to fund litigation, advocacy, research and analysis in order to defend and cultivate democracies that work for everyone, and protect and realize the human rights of everyone. And we support innovation in the fight against inequality, such as consensus-building spaces, alternative media, and new networks and alliances.

Because beyond our commitment to any particular region, the Ford Foundation is deeply committed to advancing and protecting equality, democratic values, and human rights. When we look around the world—these ideas are deeply connected, and all under threat. So, for as many decades as we’ve been committed to Latin America, we’ve been fighting for human rights.  From our dedication to intellectual freedom during the Cold War hysteria of the 50s and 60s, to our early support of human rights organizations in the 70s, to our support of the movement for Civil Rights in the United States… or against Apartheid in South Africa. What’s more, we know that human rights violations do not happen in a vacuum. They are deeply linked to the persistent, systematic inequalities found in our society.

Therefore, in order to protect human rights both now and in the future, we must disrupt the structures that reinforce inequality and create the conditions which devalue human rights.

And when we look beyond specific acts of abuse, we can see larger trends at work—like rising authoritarianism—throughout the region. For example, the mounting attacks on defenders of the environment in Latin America are a human rights issue, but they are tied to an economic system which allows companies to exploit natural resources without careful planning, regulation, or participation. It’s no coincidence, either, that women, Afrodescendants, and indigenous people are targeted more often than most—and that sad truth has deep roots in racism and sexism.

So, in order to do productive and effective human rights work, we cannot ignore these underlying structures. And we need to invest in strengthening and engaging new social actors—particularly young people—to defend democratic values. Ultimately, protecting human rights is impossible without fighting inequality. And disrupting inequality will be impossible without protecting human rights.

That’s why we are so committed to human rights in Latin America. And why, for the last four decades, there has been no better partner in this work than WOLA. We are so proud to be among your first foundation funders, and thrilled to deepen our partnership and count you among our BUILD grantees. Because your unwavering commitment to the human rights movement in Latin America has been, and continues to be, a source of inspiration and motivation for us as a foundation—and for me, personally.

You amplify the voices of underserved communities and activists and you share the experiences of women, children, indigenous people, and Afrodescendants to policymakers here in Washington. You consistently raise the voices of migrants on this side of the border and you enact cross-border solutions so the rights and dignity of all people—no matter where they come from—are protected. Over the years, you’ve cultivated a meaningful, productive, and fair relationship between the people of Latin America and policymakers in the US. Whether it is on the ground or on the Hill your work has never been more important. And we must continue to build momentum, and carry it forward. 

It probably goes without saying that the US-Latin America relationship has become increasingly strained. And at a time when we can no longer count on leaders in government to stand up for human rights, the responsibility falls to all of us—to civil society, committed congress people, and leaders from the private sector— to ensure our progress continues.

We need to show the moral leadership and courage that this work demands. We need to build bridges across the border—and around the region—even as some propose walls. We need to deepen our relationships and our commitments even as others would pull away.

That’s why, despite the tension here in Washington, I remain hopeful. Because when I look around this room, I see the leaders we need, that Latin America needs, and that the world needs. Together, we can continue defending human rights, protecting democracy, and fighting for equality. I am so proud to stand with you in this work. So, on behalf of all of us at the Ford Foundation, thank you for this award.