September 21, 2015
In September, Darren Walker became the tenth president of the Ford Foundation. Before coming to Ford, where he was vice president of the foundation's Education, Creativity, and Freedom of Expression program, Walker served as vice president for foundation initiatives at the Rockefeller Foundation and as chief operating officer of the Abyssinian Development Corporation, where he guided the organization's efforts to develop housing for low and moderate-income families in Harlem.
Recently, Michael Seltzer, a frequent contributor to PhilanTopic, spoke with Walker about the current social change environment, the influence of the foundation's activities on his life, and his hopes for the foundation going forward. Seltzer is a distinguished lecturer at the Baruch College School of Public Affairs and an affiliated faculty member of its Center for Nonprofit Strategy & Management.
Philanthropy News Digest: What is it like to be president of the Ford Foundation?
Darren Walker: Although I've been at the foundation for more than three years, in many ways I still have a lot to learn. I certainly didn't arrive here with any idea I would end up as president. When I walked through the doors of this institution for the first time, it was a transformational experience, because the Ford Foundation represents the ways in which my own life has been changed by philanthropy.
I'm a graduate of public schools. I attended public school in a small town in Texas, and I am also a graduate of the first Head Start cohort, a program that was developed out of Ford Foundation-supported research on early child development at Yale University. After high school, I attended a large land grant university -- thanks to Pell grants, another Ford Foundation-supported intervention -- so I know all about Ford's commitment to public education in this country.
After college, I worked on Wall Street and one day found myself at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, which was hosting a representative of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, a creation of -- you guessed it -- the Ford Foundation. LISC had awarded a grant to the Abyssinian Development Corporation for capacity-building initiatives that would allow it to realize the aspirations of the organization's founders, who had a dream in the mid-'80s that Harlem could be a community that could regenerate itself from within. And the Ford Foundation, through LISC, believed in that dream and invested in it. And that capacity-building grant made it possible for ADC to hire me. So my journey, like the journeys of so many others, has been deeply influenced by the Ford Foundation.
I was thrilled to receive a call from the foundation's board chair, Irene Hirano-Inouye, and have her tell me that the board had voted to appoint me president. Actually, I wasn't sure how to respond, beyond saying, "Yes!" because I know that with this job comes huge responsibility, and that I stand on the shoulders of some extraordinary people.
PND: The Ford Foundation has been a long-distance runner when it comes to addressing social issues like poverty. Today, we face some of the most serious social challenges we've seen since the 1960s -- both in terms of holding the line on the progress we've made and in putting forward new solutions designed to help low-income individuals and communities build assets and resilience. Are you discouraged by the magnitude of the challenges we face?
DW: It's easy to be dismayed by the current state of social justice in our country and around the world. But it is important to remember the remarkable progress we have made. There was a time, not too long ago, when every indicator of social mobility for low-income and marginalized communities was improving -- employment among urban black males in the 1990s saw tremendous gains, we saw significant reductions in the level of homelessness, and more African-Americans and Latinos were matriculating to institutions of higher education. Although it wasn't always even, for almost forty years, from the early 1960s through the 1990s, we saw progress. We've fallen back some, so it's particularly important we remember that history and not be discouraged. A certain set of circumstances contributed to the conditions which prevail today. That said, we have faced these problems before and made huge progress in addressing them, and we can do so again.
I am actually hopeful and quite excited about what the Ford Foundation can do to address some of these challenges. There are thousands of new foundations out there, and together we have an opportunity and the potential to make a tremendous difference in the lives of poor and vulnerable people. That is very exciting. So, no, I am not discouraged. I am energized. We have work to do, but as Martin Luther King, Jr. asserted, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice." The journey toward justice is a two-steps-forward, one-step-back affair. That process will always be with us.