Ford Foundation's Darren Walker: ‘We Have to Get Uncomfortable'
Bloomberg Markets|October - November 2021
DARREN WALKER, 62, disrupted his Wall Street life more than 25 years ago when he left what is now UBS Group AG to volunteer at a school and eventually pursue a career in community development and philanthropy. Since 2013 he’s been at the pinnacle of the philanthropic world as president of the Ford Foundation, created by the family of automaker Henry Ford during the Great Depression to advance human welfare.
KAREN TOULON

The past year and a half has featured a challenging set of social disruptions: the Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting economic damage, a racial reckoning in the U.S., and climate-related destruction. Walker has tackled these in inventive ways, including issuing $1 billion of 30-year and 50-year “social bonds” that enabled the foundation to boost its giving to meet needs created by the pandemic. Since then, rising markets have lifted the foundation’s endowment to more than $17 billion. Walker spoke with Bloomberg Markets in July. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

KAREN TOULON: Explain, for those who do not know, how does the Ford Foundation disburse some of those funds?

DARREN WALKER: The Ford Foundation works in the U.S. and 10 regions around the world. We disburse about $650 million a year, and our primary areas of focus are racial and gender justice; technology and the public interest; the arts, creativity, and free expression. And we work on labor policy and the future of workers. Those are our primary areas, along with civic engagement in the U.S. We support through investing in individuals, ideas, and institutions.

KT: Front and center on the website is the phrase “Justice Begins Where Inequality Ends.” What does that mean?

DW: When I became president, as I looked for words that inspired me, I turned to the words of [Thomas] Jefferson, of [Dr. Martin Luther] King [Jr.], of [James] Baldwin—and of course the 1968 speech that Dr. King gave to philanthropists. He said the following: “Philanthropy is commendable, but it should not allow the philanthropist to overlook the economic injustice which makes philanthropy necessary.”

What Dr. King was saying was that philanthropy needs to take up the cause of justice. Not just charity and generosity but justice and inequality.

So what we have been seeking to do is to raise in the public consciousness that intersection between those of us who are creating wealth and the recipients. The beneficiaries of some of the inequality are the very philanthropists who are now seeking to address poverty, injustice, inequality. That tension is real, and it means—in the words of the late, great John Lewis—we have to get uncomfortable as philanthropists. So that message on our website, on our home page, is about that: Don’t be so sure of ourselves, that because we have been successful that we have the answers. There is some degree of humility that is needed to be a good philanthropist today.

KT: One of my favorite John Lewis expressions is you have to get into “good trouble.” That’s a little bit of what you’ve been doing, when you look at moving from generosity to justice and the Art for Justice Fund.

DW: The point that we try to make is that solutions to many of these problems are systems reforms. Whether it’s our education system, or our housing system, or our justice system, these are design failures. A system of criminal justice in this country that was designed to lock up more Black and Brown and poor White people—this is not a political statement or conjecture. There is first-person evidence from the actual architects of the war on drugs with President Nixon [that] the creation of the Drug Enforcement Agency was part of a scheme that actually named as its objective to criminalize African Americans.

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