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Darren Walker knows philanthropy. After a lengthy tenure at the Rockefeller Foundation, he is currently the president of the Ford Foundation. Walker is actively working on fighting urban poverty on a national level, while examining the root causes of it.
He sat down with Errol Louis for a discussion about his career thus far and what he still hopes to accomplish. Along the way, they talked about how the outcomes of our criminal justice system are completely predictable, and how he still maintains a belief in the “goodness” of American people.
They also touched on his time as commander of France’s Order of Arts and Letters, and a recent piece he wrote about respecting the rules of civil discourse.
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Join the conversation, weigh in on Twitter using the hashtag #NY1YouDecide or give us a call at 212-379-3440 and leave a message. Or send an email to YourStoryNY1@charter.com
ABOUT THE SHOW
NY1’s Errol Louis has been interviewing powerful politicians and cultural icons for years, but it’s when the TV cameras are turned off that things really get interesting. From career highlights, to personal moments, to stories that have never been told, join Errol each week for intimate conversations with the people who are shaping the future of New York and beyond. Listen to "You Decide with Errol Louis" every Wednesday, wherever you listen to podcasts.
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Note: Below is a full transcipt of the episode. The following is a transcription from a third-party service. Although the transcription is largely accurate, in some cases, it is incomplete or inaccurate due to inaudible passages or transcription errors.
Errol Louis:
Welcome to You Decide. I’m your host, Errol Louis. With rising inflation affecting the cost of everything from food to fuel to rental prices, inequity is more pervasive than ever across the five boroughs. The average market rent in Manhattan is now over $5,000 a month. In Brooklyn, it’s $3,800 a month. Northwest Queens, $3,300 a month. Those are the highest prices in history. There are many organizations based here in the city that are trying to reduce poverty and social injustice. The largest of them is the Ford Foundation, which doles out millions of dollars in grants each year. Darren Walker is its current president, but Walker has been in the philanthropic world for many years. First, he was at the Rockefeller Foundation and long ago he was at the Abyssinian Development Corporation, which is Harlem’s largest community organization.
Errol Louis:
While he is focused on global issues, Walker also has his hand in several local affairs. He was a co-chair of the New York City Census 2020 and has co-chaired several city commissions. He’s also developed a special focus on freedom and democracy, one of the issues that the foundation considers a priority. So we had a lot to talk about. We get into how the organization is making an impact and talk about what else should be done. Here’s our conversation. Darren Walker, thank you so much for spending some time with me,
Darren Walker:
Errol, I’m happy to be here. I’m a big fan of your show, your podcast and honored to be your guest.
Errol Louis:
Oh, well thank you for saying that. I feel like we either know or should know each other. We know a lot of the same people. As I looked at my notes for this, I realized we were proceeding on parallel tracks in some ways. I’ll give you my short history with the Ford Foundation was in the late eighties, like 1986, ’87, I was a consultant to the foundation. They paid me to go visit the nation. I was trying to acquaint them with community development credit union, these low-income banking institutions in all of the little cracks and crevices of the urban and rural landscape. So I went to Colorado Springs. I went to Chinatown in San Francisco. I went to eastern North Carolina, a whole bunch of credit unions down there. I visited Philadelphia. I visited Chicago, and what I found at the time was new to me.
Errol Louis:
I didn’t know anything about anything. I was just trying to make a couple of bucks and would find some things out. It was a really strong culture, a really strong foundation culture. I know that you come from a different place and have gone in with eyes wide open and have talked about philanthropy and what it does. So fast forward to now, I think the foundation had maybe three billion at the time. You’ve got 16 billion. Now you’re in charge of it now. You were doing community development that I’ll ask you about in a minute up in Harlem and have now moved on, but first to urban poverty work at the national level with Ford. And now you’re in charge of the whole operation. Where, generally, do large foundations like Ford, one of the world’s largest, fit into the questions of how we change and improve society? I mean, structural things like poverty. What do you do every day? What are you up to?
Darren Walker:
Well, thank you, Errol. As you said, I’ve been at Rockefeller and at Ford, and philanthropy as it has practiced over the last century and certainly since Andrew Carnegie wrote his seminal new gospel of wealth, that really was the foundational document for American philanthropy. I have been inspired and learned on that journey, but I think we have to in this country … philanthropy as a sector has to move from just focusing on generosity and charity to fundamental structural solutions. Dr. King said the following of philanthropy. "Philanthropy is commendable, but it should not allow the philanthropist to overlook the economic injustice, which makes philanthropy necessary."
Darren Walker:
So what Dr. King was saying about philanthropy was something different than Carnegie and Rockefeller and Ford said, because they accepted inequality. They accepted some of the structural barriers to opportunity racism, gender discrimination, and bias, and other forms of isms were completely acceptable in their time. But today, they’re no longer acceptable. Philanthropy has a role to play in ensuring that we really get to the root causes. Rockefeller talked about the root causes, but he wasn’t willing to go to the real fundamental root causes of some of the problems he was working on lack poverty, which was racism, the forms of bias that held some people back and propelled others forward.
Darren Walker:
So today, we’re working on issues of structural inequality and how that manifests in the systems that create and manage for us to navigate our society. So whether that be the system of criminal justice or the system of housing or the system of technology development. All of these fundamental foundational ways in which we operate as a society are designed, and they are designed as systems to get us the outcomes. So if you look at our criminal justice system, the outcomes are completely predictable. If you look at the design of the system, it should be no surprise that in America, we are the most over incarcerated country in the world, and that primarily in our prison populations are black and brown and poor white Americans. We have designed a system to get us that outcome. So we shouldn’t be surprised.
Errol Louis:
Right. In fact, that triggers for me a really interesting and scary question that I often ask myself, which is we can identify problems, the source of social problems. We can describe them in great detail. We can find 20 brilliant solutions to lead us away from it, a fast solution, a medium solution, a radical solution, whatever it may be. But then the scary question behind all of it is that what if it was not only by design, but what if people with eyes wide open, if asked to vote on it and literally vote on it, would say, you know what? We’re going to keep the inequality. We’re going to keep the prisons. We’re going to keep the solitary confinement. We’re going to keep the broken health system. We’re going to keep the descendants of slaves in a subordinate position because that’s what we choose to do. What happens then?
Darren Walker:
There is something called, what I still believe in, and it may be a quaint and outdated idea, but I believe in the goodness of the American people. I know that there are many people, unfortunately far too many people in this country, who would vote to keep the status quo. There are stakeholders in this status quo who are the winners. The winners in the system of inequality have no incentive to change the systems that privilege them and so you’re right. But I do believe that when presented with the evidence and with living the lived experience of more inequality as it permeates our society, not just black and brown folks, but we have a lot of white folks in this country, white Americans, who also are being impacted by the system of inequality, the economic system that marginalizes their labor, their communities. I’m talking about rural America, parts of America that I grew up in, in rural Texas and rural Louisiana, where you see people, all people. Not just black folks and brown folks, really hurting from an economic system that has marginalized their labor, their livelihoods, and their opportunity.
Errol Louis:
You’re reminding me, you mentioned rural poverty. Part of my journeys for the Ford Foundation included a trip to a place called Apopka, Florida in the middle of Florida. As migrant workers who … and there were all kinds of different things. I was there to study credit unions, and they would, both in English and in Spanish translation – this was run by some radical nuns, actually, who were just kind of quietly doing this – they went out of their way not to mention the word union because they knew that would call down a lot of negative attention that they did not want. So in Spanish, it was cooperatives, and it was real interesting. There are limits, real or perceived. I’d like you to talk about what foundations can do to take the magnificent findings. I’ve always been struck by the amazing work that your foundation and others do.
Errol Louis:
You come up with these books, tomes, shelves of studies that get into the roots of different problems and different kind of policy solutions. Then there’s always, it seems to me, you’re going to launch the goal line and then you kind of stop at the 10-yard line somehow, that there’s a real or perceived limit to converting your findings into public policy, a perception that there’s either a tax requirement or your tax status requires you to not be too "political," or just in a very practical sense, not wanting to be targeted the way the Open Society Institute has been.
Darren Walker:
So Errol, there is no doubt that there are people who do not like the work of the Ford Foundation and other progressive philanthropies. We are not a political organization. We are a nonpartisan organization working to support those organizations, nonprofits who are advancing justice in America and in many parts of the world. We do not see ourselves as partisan. It is regrettable that, because we support organizations whose mission it is, for example, to ensure that every American can vote, that is a partisan issue. It should not be. There is nothing more patriotic, no form of love of country more, an idea more conservative than voting. So you’re right. It’s unfortunate, but you are also right in pointing out the kinds of work that we do around research policy development, ideas and innovation.
Darren Walker:
One example goes back to when you were doing your consultancy at the Ford Foundation. In the eighties and nineties, we supported early work in identifying the issue of the black/white wealth gap and ways in which we could have policies that would narrow that gap. One of many ideas that we invested in was a demonstration on what is known as baby bonds. This is at birth, the government or a public-private partnership of philanthropy and government putting funds aside in an account for that newborn child that would be available to him or her upon adulthood.
Darren Walker:
That idea really, as you said, sat on a shelf for a while, Errol. But most recently, a number of politicians, both Republicans and Democrats, have gotten behind some kind of public policy around baby bonds. We supported that early research to demonstrate the efficacy of the idea. Now it potentially will be public policy. It’s not up to the Ford Foundation to make it public policy, but we have to invest in what I call the ideas, the innovation, the institutions, the individuals who are in the business of advancing opportunity and justice for all, which is a fundamental issue.
Errol Louis:
Darren, you got to find that frustrating. You read the newspapers, you watch TV. If you watch my show, you got to be at least as frustrated as I get where there’ll be some kind of either an election or a public policy dispute that’s heading to basically a dead end. You kind of have to sit there and say, look, I know five different ways to get out of this, and I’ve written about it and I’ve talked about it and I’ve researched it. And it’s laying right here at hand. Why can’t we just do it? You’ve got to find this frustrating. Yes, great that we’re going to have baby bonds, but it took, what, 20, 30 years for the idea to ripen?
Darren Walker:
I think every idea will ripen at the speed in which public policy and the apparatus for change is in place. You’re right. It can be very frustrating to see some policymakers’ behavior, but at the end of the day, the American experiment requires both the urgency of now and a commitment to the long game. So we have to play both of those roles and support people who are marching on the front lines, in the streets, demanding change now. But then we have to support the institutions, the researchers, the people who are generating ideas, generating evidence that those same advocates can use for change. Errol, we black folks in this country understand that democracy making is fraught and require some patience. I’m reminded of that when I think about we’re getting ready to do a Fannie Lou Hamer birthday conference. But I’m reminding and preparing for that how patient she was, but how demanding she was of urgent action and how she had to hold both of those because Mrs. Hamer was marching every day. But she knew that in her lifetime, she would never see full justice, but she did not give up. So it makes it possible for people like you and me who stand on her shoulders to hopefully be able to do both of those things, demand urgent change, but also play the long game.
Errol Louis:
OK. Let’s talk a little bit about you. A lot of my listeners, I think, are not familiar with you. They see you pop up here and there. This thing, this kind of blew my mind to see that you were named Commander of France’s Order of Arts and Letters, the highest cultural honor that France bestows. How much of that was about your work at Ford and how much of that was just you personally?
Darren Walker:
That was all about my work at Ford. That recognition came about because I have supported a group of black curators and one in particular, Denise Morell, who created a radical show that demonstrated for the first time, the power and centrality of people of African descent in French art. For example, in the foundational painting of modern art. This is Mane’s Olympia, which has in the picture, a black woman standing behind the subject of Mane. The black woman was invisible throughout art history, very little written about her. She was almost anonymous. This curator said, "Let’s not make her anonymous, let’s center her in this."
Darren Walker:
What came out of that exploration was how throughout French painting and the history of modern art as it is taught, black folks have been erased, have been overlooked. So I, and Denise Morell and others, have sought to elevate and center black subjects, black artists in the narrative arc of Western art history and, in doing so, it has challenged the gatekeepers of what is fine arts to reconsider. That, of course, is a somewhat radical intervention. It’s sad that it took that to make them reconsider, but in doing so, the sort of cultural folks in France thought it was worthy of recognition.
Errol Louis:
OK. It sounds absolutely fascinating. I want to hear more about that at another time, but I did want to ask you about something. I know you’ve heard this before, probably drives people at Ford crazy, but you have global reach. You’ve got offices all over the world. You’ve got concerns and investments all over the world. Yet, a couple of miles up town in your old stomping grounds of Harlem, there’s dire need. Throughout New York City, there are 275,000, I think, is the estimate of so-called disconnected youth, mostly black and Latino, who are of college age, 16 to 24, but they’re not in school and they’re not working. They are a powder keg in a lot of ways, waiting to explode. What’s the connection? What can or should the foundation do for its hometown, I guess, for lack of a better way of putting it?
Darren Walker:
Sure. Errol, that’s a great question. First, we were founded, Henry Ford and Henry Ford II, when the foundation came into its wealth in the 1950s, established the foundation as an international foundation. So we are following our donor’s intent that we would focus on issues of democracy and poverty and international relations, not only in the US. So that was the way we were established. Secondly, we have two hometowns, Detroit and New York. Until the last few years, we had not been as focused on Detroit as we should have been. So we really increased our commitment to Detroit on the heels of the bankruptcy there.
Darren Walker:
In terms of New York, we are deeply engaged in this city, working on myriad of issues from issues of housing and community development, to the arts and culture, to technology and the lived environment. And of course the future of workers and labor policy, as it relates to low-income and low-wage workers. So we’re very involved in New York. There would be no Ford Foundation without New York, and for me personally, New York is my anchor. There is no city that is more innovative, more enterprising than New York. So there is a lot we can learn from making investments in New York and having real impact on people’s lives.
Errol Louis:
Your career path, which is, of course, a long, long way from Texas, where I know you did your college and your law degree and your graduate degree. You end up at Union Bank of Switzerland. You end up at Cleary Gottlieb, the white shoe law firm. You certainly had a path clear to just become part of New York’s commercial elite and get a house in the Hamptons and live happily ever after. But yet, you ended up, and this is where I first heard of you, at the Abyssinian Development Corporation, a development corporation connected with Abyssinian Baptist Church up in Harlem, doing what should not have been controversial, but was controversial, bringing a supermarket to a food desert in Harlem, doing some real estate and other commercial development. Was that a turning point for you or was that kind of always the plan?
Darren Walker:
Yeah, Errol, that is when we met, when I was working for Rev. Butts and Karen Phillips at the Abyssinian Development Corporation. It was an important turn for me because I spent 10 years on Wall Street. I think one of the things that happens when you grow up poor is that the trauma leaves you very clear that you are not going to be poor as an adult. So for me, Wall Street beckoned, and I am happy I spent the period of time I did, but I also needed to get out of that golden handcuff situation because I could see the long-term effect. I was lucky to meet Rev. Butts and the folks at Abyssinian, and it’s hard to believe, but there was a time when you couldn’t get folks to move to Harlem, when we had to really work hard to find buyers for some of the brownstones that we were selling.
Darren Walker:
It was a very different time 30 years ago in Harlem, and the controversy was intended. Some of it was really about community participation. So if you’re going to build a supermarket, the community ought to benefit more than just from fresh foods. What’s the economic benefit that’s coming to that community, its organizations? What’s the diversity of folks locally? Who will be included in workforce and construction jobs? All the things that we had to negotiate and fight for and fight against the way, again, the system was designed to benefit people who didn’t live in the community.
Darren Walker:
There are a lot of lessons from the Harlem experience, some good, some bad. There’s no doubt that we helped to accelerate the gentrification of Harlem, but there was also things that we supported. For example, the city set aside 30% of any affordable housing. Any housing at all that was built with city subsidy had to be set aside for local residents, incumbent residents. So that’s a policy example that came about in the nineties, through the city council, with advocacy from Abyssinian and others saying, if we know this gentrification is going to be happening, how do we get ahead of it? The question is, could we have done more? I’m sure many would say the answer is yes.
Errol Louis:
But before I let you go, you wrote a really interesting op-ed in the New York Times not that long ago, talking about civility and democracy and the need for us to talk to each other differently. Something that I think almost everybody who listens to this podcast would understand and agree with. I think the question I’d want to end on is, how do we make it real? When I’m moderating debates, I have the power to cut off microphones, and I have. I have the power to throw people out of the debate hall, which I have done. We generally don’t have that kind of control over public settings. So when you say we have to listen to each other with humility and curiosity and empathy, open hearts and open minds, what do you do with people who want to exploit that or who just don’t accept the premise?
Darren Walker:
As I say, in that same editorial, we cannot allow the extremes to distract us. So those people who are unwilling to play by the rules of civil discourse, those people who are there to simply insult, to debase the experience of civic engagement, we have to call them out and do what you did. Now, as you say, I’m one participant in a conversation, and there’s another participant who isn’t playing by the rules. My responsibility is to just remind him or her of that, but to also be very clear about my willingness to engage. We have to be prepared to simply say that to anybody, both sides, left, right, D, R, whatever. We’re not helped by this notion that it’s about how loud you can be, how rude and uncivil, undignified you can be to get attention. That really isn’t what helps make progress. Again, if you’re clear about what your north star is, we got to make progress, and it doesn’t mean we have to do kumbaya. We have to come together.
Darren Walker:
I’m not being Pollyannish here, but I do think we have to be willing to listen to well-intended people who do want to engage and who may have a different point of view. I’m not going to automatically say the person who disagrees with me on affirmative action is a racist. I will challenge him or her, but I’m not going to immediately impugn their integrity or impute to them some evil desire that is racist. I may get there in a conversation with them, but I’m not going to from the get go say, I know you are a racist and I don’t even know who you are, but I know you’re a racist because you just said you disagree with me on affirmative action.
Errol Louis:
This is why I don’t see you on Twitter, which is the home of uncivil discourse.
Darren Walker:
It doesn’t help you, it doesn’t help our country, our city to engage in that kind of foolishness.
Errol Louis:
Yeah. Well, listen, thank you for spending some time in discourse with me. I look forward to talking some more. We’re always at a turning point in the city, but this really is one of those times. With whatever resources you have, I would love to continue this conversation and make some progress just as you described. Thanks a whole lot for joining me.
Darren Walker:
Thank you, Errol.
Errol Louis:
All right. That’s going to do it for this episode of You Decide. As always, thanks for listening. I’d love to hear your thoughts about this conversation or any of the others. You can find me on Twitter @errollouis or leave a message for me at 212-379-3440. You can also email us at yourstoryNY1@charter.com. If you’re looking for more analysis of New York politics, you should subscribe to and listen to my colleagues’ podcast. It’s called Off Topic/On Politics, and it’s hosted by political reporters Zack Fink, Courtney Gross, and Juan Manuel Benitez. Those episodes come out every Friday. I’ll be back next week. Thanks so much for listening.

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