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New Ford Foundation head Darren Walker talks about social justice

Khalil Abdullah
New Ford Foundation head Darren Walker talks about social justice
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.

You have to listen. Our programs have to be informed by those affected and whom we seek to empower.

The foundation world is enraptured by metrics. How do you measure effectiveness?

Many great movements and societal transformations would not have been achieved if we started with “Can we measure it?” Not all that needs to be done is “metricable.” Putting everything through a standardized metrics approach would squelch innovation and new ideas.

But knowing what works is important and necessary. We’ve known situations where things that are not working still get funded and things that are working get underfunded. I’m sensitive to this issue of balance.

An example of how you address that balance?

There’s thinking that says, with respect to black men and boys, single-sex education is better. I would like to know if this works. That takes a rigorously designed program to actually know. Here, I like metrics. If you tell me this is better, in terms of achievement and success, that’s where I want policy to be directed.

But who is to say that litigation and public interest law, which are having a hard time, should be defunded because a metric would tell us, oh, well, they’re not succeeding right now? That doesn’t mean we should stop funding public interest and legal work.

Where do arts and culture fit in the social justice agenda?

There are aspects of cultural programming, like arts education, where you can measure impact on student achievement, particularly for low-income students.

But there is a more profound idea of understanding the human condition that comes from exploring our culture and all its forms and vibrancy … Engaging in ideas and self-examination is what great art does, whether it’s James Baldwin holding up the mirror to us about racism and homophobia, or Diego Rivera challenging our notions of economy and industry.

I know from my own experience that culture and the arts nurture the soul and allow us to have dignity. Inequality and poverty rob one, particularly children, of their dignity and aspirations. Culture encourages the imagination. My imagination saved my life — my ability to believe, beyond the experience I was having on any given day, in what the future could be.