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New Ford Foundation head Darren Walker talks about social justice

Khalil Abdullah | 12/20/2013, 6 a.m.
Darren Walker

In September, Darren Walker became the second African American and tenth president of the Ford Foundation, America’s second largest philanthropy organization with $500 million in annual giving. After a stint in international law and banking, Walker served as the chief operating officer of a nonprofit agency in New York before moving to the foundation world, first arriving at the Rockefeller Foundation before being tapped to fill a vice president slot at Ford in 2010. Here he speaks about his new role at Ford and the organization’s overall efforts.

What excites you most about taking on the presidency of the Ford Foundation?

I have a chance to make a difference by leading a remarkable institution committed to social justice when the very notion of social justice is being contested. Our country’s policies and discourse sometimes feel retrograde, taking us back to when justice was more rationed ... particularly for low-income people and people of color. I have a huge opportunity to fortify those voices.

We made great progress ... in poverty reduction, employment for low income and low skill workers, in increased participation in higher education and high school graduate rates ... When I hear, “Oh, the War on Poverty was a waste of time,” I don’t accept that. You have a hard time convincing me that investments in human capacity and in the potential of people like me to advance in society have somehow been for naught.

How would you describe youth unemployment as a social justice issue?

This is not only a phenomenon in the United States, it’s a global phenomenon. If there are no job and career opportunities for young people, you’re going to have social unrest and instability. This is part of the broader challenge around inequality because it reduces opportunities for many while accreting huge benefits to a few. So, there is a global struggle around justice. Faces may look different, but the social features in a given society are similar.

How do you explain Ford’s role to newcomers trying to learn how America works?

The nonprofit sector is a somewhat uniquely American phenomenon. It’s understandable for some immigrants to be unable to contextualize it when they arrive.

Immigrants experience the Ford Foundation through organizations and people who look like them ... If you are Hmong from Vietnam, Cambodia or Laos, and you turn up in Minneapolis, you learn that Ford is supporting a local Hmong-run organization to help immigrants transition or with legal advocacy. We don’t say, “Hmong community, we’re the Ford Foundation; you need to know who we are.” Our job is to fund those organizations. They give us legitimacy. We don’t give them legitimacy. This is not about our brand.

How do you answer a community organization when its leaders say they want to go in a different direction from your top-down mandate?

I ran a community organization and have been on the receiving end of top-down dictates. When I worked in Harlem, people said, “Here’s what we think you need.” That experience has informed my posture more than anything.