Darren Walker: The Business of Hope

Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation, joined Dov Seidman, Founder of The HOW Institute, on a new episode of HOW Conversations to discuss Mr. Walker’s new book, From Generosity to Justice: A New Gospel of Wealth. “I was born into an America that believed in my promise.” Mr. Walker tells Dov, “I had hope, hope is the oxygen of democracy. And philanthropy is, in some ways, the business of hope.”

Watch the full episode to learn why Mr. Walker, who is also on the Board of Directors of The HOW Institute, believes philanthropy must harness hope and move beyond charity to address both dignity and justice.

From Generosity to Justice: A Conversation with Darren Walker

In a special conversation, Dov had the pleasure of sitting down with his dear friend and esteemed colleague, Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation. Darren, known for his visionary leadership and commitment to social justice, shared profound insights that resonate with the urgency of our times.
This dialogue was not just an exchange between two individuals but a testament to the power of hope, the essence of philanthropy, and the critical shift from generosity to justice.

The Genesis of a New Gospel in Philanthropy

At the heart of their conversation was Darren’s latest work, which he describes as a manifesto for reimagining wealth and philanthropy through the lens of justice.

Darren’s life story, marked by humble beginnings in rural Texas and Louisiana, embodies the American promise — a belief that one’s circumstances should not dictate their potential. It’s this narrative of hope and resilience that has shaped his approach to philanthropy, viewing it as a conduit for systemic change and individual empowerment.

Darren eloquently defines hope as the belief in what may seem elusive and the aspiration for a future that appears distant.

Recounting his childhood, he shared how figures like Mrs. Majors, his fourth-grade teacher, played pivotal roles in instilling the value of self-control and the power of hope. This foundation of hope is crucial not only for personal growth but for inspiring others to envision and strive for a better tomorrow.

The Journey from Generosity to Justice

One of the most compelling parts of their discussion revolved around the transition from generosity to justice in philanthropy.

Drawing from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s insights, Darren highlighted the necessity for philanthropists to recognize their role in the systemic injustices they aim to address. True philanthropy, according to Darren, is not just about charity but about fostering dignity and justice, challenging the status quo, and reevaluating one’s contributions to societal inequities.

Then, Darren and the interviewer delved into the concept of shared values as the foundation for shared prosperity. In a society increasingly divided, the importance of engaging with diverse perspectives and fostering a collective identity cannot be overstated.

Darren emphasized the critical role of dialogue, humility, and understanding in bridging divides and building a more inclusive future.

As their conversation unfolded, Darren underscored the importance of love for humankind, humility, and genuine engagement as cornerstones of effective philanthropy. By embracing these values, philanthropists can create more authentic, sustainable, and impactful initiatives that truly resonate with the communities they aim to serve.

Navigating Capitalism and Championing Justice

Reflecting on the current state of capitalism and its implications for social justice, Darren shared his perspective on the need for a moral and equitable approach to economic systems. He stressed the significance of stakeholder capitalism and the responsibility of privileged individuals to use their platforms for the betterment of society.

Conclusion: A Call to Moral Leadership

In closing, Darren reminded Dov of the essence of moral leadership — the balance between righteousness and humility, and the imperative to act from a place of love and hope.

His insights not only challenge us to rethink the role of philanthropy in addressing systemic injustices but also inspire us to contribute to a more equitable and just society through our actions and commitments.

As the conversation concluded, the interviewer was reminded of the profound impact that heartfelt dialogue can have on our understanding of the world and our place within it.

Darren’s journey from generosity to justice serves as a beacon for all of us striving to make a difference, reminding us that at the core of meaningful change lies the power of hope, the spirit of generosity, and the pursuit of justice.

Read the Transcript

Dov: Hello, everyone, and welcome to our latest. And this is a special howl conversation with my dear friend and how Institute for society board member Darren Walker. Darren, as we all know, is the President of the Ford Foundation, and really embodying and manifesting at scale the kind of leadership that the world so desperately needs. So welcome there.
Darren: Thank you, Doug. And that’s a kind of introduction, I’m not sure I’m worthy of, of such accolades.
Dov: Well, I know you are, and so many others affirm that and all the ways in which they lean on you and, and look up to you. But I want to say that we are gathered for this whole conversation on the occasion of the recent publication of this important book, and from generosity to justice, a new gospel, I think it’s a manifesto. It’s a framework. It’s an approach, it’s a model for creating, but more importantly, sharing and making wealth go around by reframing wealth, as a matter of justice, being philanthropic as a matter of justice. So before we dive in a bit into your book, what animates you, and what inspired you to see, and therefore reframe, and reimagine philanthropy as a matter of justice?
Darren: Well, for me, what frames every day of my life is the history I have had in this great country. I was born and an America that believed in my promise, that did not believe because I was poor, born into a single headed household, living in rural Texas and Louisiana, that my opportunities should be in any way diminished by my geography, and background. And so I had hope, because hope is the oxygen of democracy. And so philanthropy, I like to say, in some ways, is about the business of hope. We do our work can make a difference in the lives of people and small ways, one at a time, and by systemic change at scale.
Dov: Darren – define hope.
Darren: Hope is believing and what you may not be able to see. It’s aspiring for something that feels very far away. Right? That is what I had I living in Ames, Texas as a little boy, when I would read in Ebony Magazine and see the lives and lifestyles of middle class African Americans. I couldn’t imagine an America that was a better place than the one I was in. And that is what gave me hope for a better future A Better Tomorrow,
Dov: I assume that there were those around you or something was happening in your context, to inspire hope in you so that you could imagine reaching higher and going farther. And
Darren: one of my most impactful experiences growing up was my experience with Mrs. majors in the fourth grade. Mrs. Major’s was an extraordinary educator. I got in a fight. One day, Mrs. Majors saw me fighting in the hall. I met with her and she said, You should be ashamed of yourself. I’m ashamed of you. I know you can do better. But let me make one thing clear to you. This was a white woman telling me this, she said little Negro boys who cannot control themselves, get into trouble. And you have to exercise self control. I’d never had anyone talk to me about self control, or how to contain my rage, or my anger, which was frequent at that time because I had a very chaotic home life. But that was a life lesson for me that continued To this day,
Dov: how are you going about inspiring hope in others. And then I do want to get back to Justice as your articulation of philanthropy, but just stay on this important topic of hope. Because you and I came of age also in the capitalistic sphere where people said, hope is not a strategy. Forget this hope stuff through planning, budgeting and control, we’re gonna superimpose a future and deep in your heart, you know that without hope there is no strategy. So I love the centrality of hope that that hope plays in your model of leadership, but talk about how do we inspire it and others in today’s age?
Darren: Well, I agree, it is about inspiration. And it is not about saying I have the answers. One of the things I find is how often people say to me, and I accept this with great humility, thank you for inspiring me. And I think what they mean is, I’m a black gay man, with a particular background, that in some ways, is, is not normal, in the elite circles, unfortunately, not normal that we find ourselves in. And I think that’s regrettable, but it does. It does embolden me to tell my story, to be proud of my background, and to speak, truth as I see it. I mean, these are the ways in which leaders have to communicate, but as you and I also know, from our work at how that communication has to be authentic, it has to be perceived as authentic, and you have to be perceived as authentic as a leader.
Dov: Tell us about the journey from generosity to justice, that journey, what is your conception of justice? What is the pandemic revealed about society to make justice, the central focus of your work?
Darren: I found in a rather obscure speech that Dr. King made in 1968, a few months before he was murdered. And he said the following about philanthropy, philanthropy is commendable. But it should not allow the philanthropist to overlook the economic injustice, which makes philanthropy necessary. And so what Dr. Kane was saying was something else, that philanthropy, yes, is about the idea of charity, and generosity. But it should also be about dignity and justice. And so what Cain was encouraging, demanding was that philanthropists interrogate our own complicity in the very problems we seek to solve. And so he was holding the mirror up and saying, it’s not enough to be generous, it’s not enough to give alms, you have to consider just how much you have contributed. And that’s a very different idea of philanthropy. For me, the fundamental idea of philanthropy, and justice, especially justice is the basic notion of dignity that every person should live with dignity, Doug, the number of people you and I know, I know, you are a graduate of a very prestigious Ivy League school, who are progressive, and who consider themselves generous people. But when confronted with the suggestion that we should do away with legacy programs and initiatives become silent, or, in fact, resist the idea that this privilege, which again compounds, their privilege, and the life opportunities for their children, who are already in a such a better place so much farther along, and yet, they want to hold on to something that even further accelerates the inequality in our system which they profess to want to address. So in small ways, and then large waves, this question of conversations about how do we think about what’s the difference is between giving back and giving up It is a very challenging conversation.
Dov: So Darren I I’m fond of saying that in order to create shared prosperity, or shared value, you actually need shared values without shared values, you can’t pursue shared value. What will allow you to do the sharing? What’s your theory of distributive justice? What if there’s not enough to go along, and you need some normative framework to make sacrifices and shared burdens? Where are we in terms of the shared values required to be on a journey of, of shared prosperity and shared value?
Dov: For many, we seem to have lost a sense and a commitment to our shared American identity. It is a dangerous place because you some feel ill equipped to engage in it, and some are fearful of engaging, because engaging might reveal that you are ignorant of a particular community, it might reveal that your background hasn’t prepared you for the more diverse world we live in. And therefore you may say something that can be misinterpreted, and the consequences of which could be material. And, and so if, if one is afraid of engaging, and the people who we need to be in the public square retreat from the public square, then the public square is left to the toxic fires, it is a business model. Hate is profitable. And so when you have a system where the public square needs to have everybody in it, but you find that the square seems to be filled, increasingly with haters, it’s hard to want to engage
Dov: the Greek root of philanthropy, as you know, Darren is a lover of people are a lovable lover of humankind. Is it fair to say that as you want to inspire a transition from generosity to justice, you’re actually making philanthropy not just for those who have a lot of means it’s everybody can be philanthropic, if dignity and justice is the ethos, right? So what can anybody do to be philanthropic and your conception of philanthropy?
Dov: Well, it is, it does begin with love, love of humankind, and a belief that love is possible. And that love can heal. There’s no doubt in my mind up that philanthropy has to be a mechanism by which people can demonstrate their love for each other. And it is why some of the most effective philanthropist in this country are people whose names you and I have never heard, because in their communities, in their small towns, in their villages, in their slums in parts of the world. They are demonstrating their love for humankind, their brothers and sisters, by offering very modest person to person help and assistance.
Dov: What is the role in your conception of philanthropy and justice of humility? So there’s hope. There’s love and I think the third prong or pillar is, is humility, right?
Darren: It is humility, but humility, and ego are critical ingredients. And what I mean by that is, there’s often an inverse relationship between a humility and the ego when it comes to effective philanthropy. I am reminded of a billionaire philanthropist who went to Eastern Africa, and I’ve met with him after the trip, and he said, My wife and I have decided we want to start with o ur foundation, a new program to help with rural health in Tanzania. And my question to him, was, Who asked you to do that? Who in Tanzania asked you to create a rural health program? There are dozens of rural health programs in Tanzania. Why don’t you ask some of the leaders of those organizations how You can help them rather than just immediately believing that what’s needed is for you and your wife, and your family to set up in your image, and in Your name, a program in Tanzania, that’s, unfortunately, not unusable. And so my point is, when you center the people and the communities you want to impact, you will often hear what you don’t know. And you will hear solutions that are more authentic, more likely to be sustained and owned.
Dov: You talk about engaging the other, through the five senses, paint that picture, because that’ll probably allow you to balance humility and ego, and get them in some form of equilibrium. Describe what you paint the picture what it means to engage in all with all five senses the way you put it?
Darren: Well, I think you have to, with your eyes, you have to be able to see, and you have to be able to see and believe things that you that may not be in front of you, but you have to see the people you have to see and believe and then you have to listen to them. You have to genuinely believe that they can help and that they have wisdom and knowledge that you don’t have. And that expertise is not found in just the the experts with PhDs in public policy, we have to speak in ways that reflect empathy, sympathy, a sense of generosity, a sense of a belief, that we want to be engaged in a real dialogue, not just me, wealthy person speaking to you speaking at you, but actually, in a dialogue hearing you
Dov: Where are we today with your conception of capitalism? How are you navigating the push and pulls of it? Especially right now, where there seems to be a pullback and economic impair, you know, challenges that are motivated to pull back when we should nonetheless transcend? Where are you on capitalism?
Darren: Well, there’s no doubt that I consider myself a disciple of Adam Smith and his moral sentiments, book, and yet most people do not know of I should say, most adherents to capitalism, who quote, Adam Smith, are unfamiliar, are ignorant of the full richness of his philosophy, which was a moral philosophy, not simply an economic philosophy. But your point about this moment, we’re in around ESG. And stakeholder capitalism is real. And it’s a shame that we these are not ideologies, and that audiologists have taken from, from many of us, these, these fundamental notions that are just about fairness are about long term sustainability, are about ensuring that the future, there can be hope. And that’s that, to my mind is where frameworks, the time that I’ve learned from you, and being a part of the Howe Institute is so important, because it allows us to have an understanding of how we make courageous principle based decisions.
Dov: How do we inspire courage besides just being examples of it?
Darren: Well, I think that being an example, hopefully, it cannot be underestimated. And I don’t particularly hold myself out as an example, dove. I truly don’t. I do, though, feel compelled to both acknowledge and act, act on my privilege. I have a I have a platform. I communicate. And I have to use those privileges, to contribute to bettering our society and expressing love for humankind and that can put one at risk when you are prepared to run I have an op ed for the New York Times, you are opening up yourself to receiving vitriolic messages as I do every time I write something, you absolutely have to be prepared to put something on the line. And I think that that’s only right, because we privileged people have so much to put on the line.
Dov: When we gathered at the Ford Foundation for the Howe Institute summit on moral leadership, and you spoke to those to the to our community of common cause, you offered a succinct definition of moral leadership and how moral leaders walk a fine line in the world that I think keeps you honest and allows you to walk that fine line you said, moral leadership is about being righteous, but not self righteous. feels to me that that distinction allows you to write in the New York Times and be out there, as long as you’re trying to be righteous, thoughtfully but not self righteous. Is that a fair way to play that back to you?
Darren: Yes it is. And it’s it’s understanding that this is not about lecturing people, or naming and shaming people or polarizing us. It’s about finding the common language that speaks to us all. But it does require a willingness to sometimes make people uncomfortable, not for the sort of perverse joy of making the privileged uncomfortable, but to actually engage with people in thoughtful ways. That recognizes that while there are some people who truly are not interested in bridge building, and working collectively, most people in this country would wish to do that.
Dov: So then I mentioned the New York, the New York Times. So you recently wrote a highly personal essay, it was an editorial in the New York Times, but you, you made an argument. But you also did it in personal terms, following the Supreme Court’s recent ruling on affirmative action. I’ll quote, a little bit of what really jumped out at me, where are you? You celebrated diversity by saying that diversity and you said that there are studies that prove this, but it was also your your truth. diversity enhances critical thinking, creativity and collaboration as well as productivity, profitability and performance is a national tragedy that diversity is now a contested issue, rather than have common interests. And we should tell the truth about why diversity is now controversial. Opponents of diversity are opponents of any racial consciousness. They want to prevent us from understanding the ways that the past informs the present, from wrestling with the fullness and richness and complexity of our history. What are you in touch with that made you say that besides the studies that empirically helped make your case?
Darren: Well first as I lay out, I am most definitely an affirmative action baby. There’s no doubt that without affirmative action, I would not be here. That is not to say that I am in any way an underperformer. It is to say that the institutions and the American society and most importantly, public policy recognized that people like me historically, have had the doors shut. We are not going as a society to erase the reality of the problems, the legacy of racism in our country by simply wishing it away, or legislating that we can’t talk about slavery, or we can’t talk about racism in ways that make some of us uncomfortable. This is not going to help our country. What’s going to help our country is if we are able to understand the fullness, the richness of this great country and hold that both things can be true, that we have a great history that it has inspired people around the globe and made us the envy of the world. And at the same time, we have a stain of racism and racial caste that has held back to many of us
Dov: you invoke Martin Luther King, a man of a great moral leader in him and have faith and he said the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice. And it’s a beautiful expression of faith to use the present tense events that might take five years, 50 years, 500 years. When I listened to you for the last hour, it feels like part of what you’re arguing is to have hope that it shall band that had bends. But there’s a lot of bending that we can do by putting our shoulder into the arc, right.
Dov: But we can all do the bend it is we dedicate ourselves to the American experiment, commit ourselves to in our own communities, speaking to people who we don’t always speak to finding places and spaces to be present with people who don’t always look like us or have our backgrounds, extending oneself in generous ways. And curious ways, being better active listeners in our communities are, in my view, essential to build a community
Dov: there and there’s an adage that when you come from the heart, you enter the heart. Thank you for sharing so much insight and wisdom, but doing it from the heart and touching us and it’s been a pleasure. Thank you Darren. Truly, thank you

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