Season 3, Epsiode 9: President of the Ford Foundation Darren Walker Talks Black Lives Matter Movement and Social Activism 
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Season 3, Epsiode 9: President of the Ford Foundation Darren Walker Talks Black Lives Matter Movement and Social Activism

Sunday August 2nd, 2020

Image of Darren walker in a suit next to the words with featured guest Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation. Under is the All Inclusive logo

On the new episode of All Inclusive, Jay speaks with special guest, Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation, one of the largest philanthropic organizations in the world. Jay and Darren discuss the lack of minority representation in corporate America, the Black Lives Matter movement and the importance of social activism in today’s world.

Transcription:

Jay Ruderman (00:05):

Philanthropy has been the ability to make a huge change for the better in society. The Ford Foundation is one of the largest philanthropy organizations in the world. One that is also made one of the greatest impacts in social justice.

Speaker 3 (00:27):

All Inclusive, a podcast on inclusion, innovation, and social justice with Jay Ruderman.

Jay Ruderman (00:39):

Hi, I’m Jay Ruderman and this is All Inclusive. Our guest today is the president of the Ford Foundation and a very outspoken advocate for social justice, Darren Walker. Darren, thank you for joining us today.

Darren Walker (00:52):

Thank you, Jay, for this wonderful invitation.

Jay Ruderman (00:54):

How are you doing?

Darren Walker (00:56):

I am doing very well, all things considered.

Jay Ruderman (01:00):

Great. I heard an interview that you recently did on CNN, where you talk about the privilege that most white people in the country have and that is a barrier to the advancement of African American people to the executive levels of businesses and organizations. Can you talk about the change we would see in America with more African American people in executive positions and on the boards of major American companies?

Darren Walker (01:26):

I think we would see a reflection of America and the talent that is distributed across America within the highest ranks of corporate America, which we do not see today.

Darren Walker (01:39):

And I think the effect of that would be a more impactful, profitable, and inclusive corporate America, which unfortunately we have not yet achieved.

Jay Ruderman (01:52):

And do you feel that that is because of systematic racism in corporate America, that we’ve not seen the advancement of more qualified African-American candidates into the C office or onto boards of organizations?

Darren Walker (02:08):

I certainly believe, Jay, that we have an unfortunate and regrettable history in our country. As someone who loves America and knows that my own personal journey would only be possible in a country like America, I still understand that America has not fulfilled its responsibilities and obligations to all of its citizens, most prominently, the indigenous Americans, the natives, and the enslaved Americans, the enslaved Africans. The legacy of that history remains with us today in our society, and therefore it remains as a part of our history in our corporate community and in the cultures of our companies.

Jay Ruderman (02:57):

And since you came out and very strongly took a leadership position and made that statement, have you heard back from corporate America, are they open to addressing the change within their culture that is obviously being called for very loudly in America, on the streets?

Darren Walker (03:15):

Jay, I have been incredibly inspired by the conversations I’ve had with CEOs. I have spoken to at least 20 fortune 200 CEOs in the last month, and everyone is deeply troubled by what they saw in Minneapolis. I think what is most impactful with this group of leaders is what they are hearing from their African American employees, and customers, and suppliers that the personal stories and narratives of things that are a part of their everyday life, that their white colleagues don’t have to experience and the even troubling experiences in the workplace. Jay, when you look at the Business Roundtable, which is traditionally not become involved in major social issues under Doug McMillan’s leadership, the organization has established a set of working groups who are looking at everything from policing and the justice system, to education and employment and access to healthcare. This is a pretty bold step by the BRT and I hope that it’s followed on with concrete action.

Jay Ruderman (04:34):

You’re running the Ford Foundation, which is one of the most prestigious foundations in the world. And people have the utmost respect for you, but life in general, walking through your city, is racism part of what you experience in life?

Darren Walker (04:49):

Well, I don’t think that I live the life of an average African-American man in America. I live with a great amount of privilege. I live in a city that is progressive. So a Black gay man, I do not feel that it is been an impairment, generally, to my advancement, to be president of the Ford Foundation. I certainly have experienced inadvertently or with intent racism. I have economic security, I have a vast network, and so what I worry about is what is the experience of the average Black man living in the Bronx or in Brooklyn, who isn’t the president of the Ford Foundation, but who has to navigate systems that can feel like walls. And so that’s what I worry about

Jay Ruderman (05:44):

The murder of George Floyd, which was caught on video and obviously traumatized the country. We’ve seen protests and the national discussion has changed in this country. The injustices touched a deep cord in America, but do you feel that these protests, which were massive, can lead to more racial equality in our country?

Darren Walker (06:06):

I do believe that the potential for this moment in American history, Jay, is transformational. And what is so inspiring and gives me hope is, as you point out, the movement is far bigger than a onetime march on the Mall. As we saw in the ’60s, I am seeing and hearing about in small town America, from Montana to Maine organizations coming together to support the idea of Black Lives Matter. And I believe that for the first time in my lifetime, I can imagine true genuine reconciliation because we are having a reckoning now. And I think we have to move from reckoning to reconciliation, because what I don’t want is for this to become about recrimination, we need to agree and I think you’re framing this as a nation that is experiencing trauma and heartbreak and grief over what Americans saw and especially white Americans saw, because I believe that for many white Americans, racism remained deniable.

Darren Walker (07:23):

There was always the benefit of the doubt given, there was always the idea that well there’s another side to this story, and I think the murder of George Floyd was so craven and cruel and deprived him of any level of dignity, that Americans were just appalled. And so I think deniability is no longer an option. And with that comes an opportunity for a collective acknowledgement, that it is real and therefore, there needs to be concrete steps taken to reconcile and to come together as a nation to heal from this horrific history.

Jay Ruderman (08:09):

I’m a little bit concerned, and I don’t know how you feel, that a situation like this in a political year, instead of everyone saying there’s an injustice and we all need to react and we need to understand and dive deep and make real changes in American society, that there is a politicalization of the issue. And I see that as destructive.

Darren Walker (08:30):

I would agree with you that it is being politicized by some, and it is destructive. We have always, in America, had a strain of racism, of antisemitism that has been with our nation from its founding. And I don’t think we will ever be able to fully rid our nation of this phenomenon. But I do believe that most Americans are people who deeply believe in the ideas of our founding documents. And while we may have individual identities, there is an identity that binds our future. And that is that we are Americans and we have a responsibility to each other to ensure that those ideals are actually fulfilled and, and are fully a part of our culture. And the idea of who we are.

Jay Ruderman (09:27):

Darren, I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about the importance of the recent Supreme Court ruling that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 also applies to discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity. It’s a recent decision, but I’m sure you’ve looked into it. And can you just talk about the impact of that is having on the United States?

Darren Walker (09:46):

Well, I think it is a landmark case, every legal scholar and civil libertarian argues that it is a landmark case, that the fact that we, until this case, lived in a nation where if you were gay, you could be fired from your job for being gay. And that is no longer a part of our society is a great thing. And I think for some people, it feels like a crossing the finish line around the policy change that’s that has been needed to ensure the full rights and engagement and participation of LGBTQ Americans in our society, I think it’s a phenomenal advance, and I think the marriage equality policy, the employment policy now as part of, and beyond not just employment, but having it included in the interpretation of the ’64 Civil Rights Act is a huge win for all Americans, not just LGBTQ Americans. So I’m very excited about the prospects that we can live in a society where you can love who you want, marry, and enjoy the rights that all other citizens enjoy under our laws and Constitution.

Jay Ruderman (11:20):

It’s amazing how much America has changed from the time that you and I grew up regarding public attitudes towards people who are LBGTQ and how much more accepted that community is as part of our society, which is a major advancement. And I just reflect on that often about how quickly society can change when activism works with government to really change our society.

Darren Walker (11:49):

Absolutely, and make no mistake about it, this was an effort that required grassroots organizing by activists. It required big investments in what I called narrative change. The media is a primary way in which we understand who we are. And when LGBTQ Americans are represented in the media as “normal” and the fact that we began to see narratives of LGBTQ people who were our neighbors, our friends, and even our children and grandchildren, it started to change. And as we saw in the media characters like Ellen, someone who was beloved as the girl next door for her to say, “Mom and Dad I’m gay,” there was no way you could not accept her in her fullness and marvel at her courage and doing that. And that was sometime ago, Jay, as you remember, but it had a huge impact and other media like that had a huge impact.

Darren Walker (13:03):

And of course, today we have seen, as you say when you and I were growing up the way gays were depicted would no longer be tolerated in the media today. And that’s how social change works over time, because ultimately it’s the hearts and minds that change how people think about what they want their society to be. And it’s through reaching hearts and minds that we evolve. We evolve in our thinking from, “Oh, this person is Black and I’m white and there must be something wrong, or lower status because he’s Black.” We evolve our thinking over time because we progress as a society. And we have people who are enlightened thinkers who help us through media, through what we learn in college and the continuing learning that we experience, or just in our own personal interactions.

Speaker 3 (14:01):

You’re listening to All Inclusive with Jay Ruderman, you can learn more view the show notes and transcripts at rudermanfoundation.org/allinclusive.

Jay Ruderman (14:15):

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Jay Ruderman (14:22):

During the pandemic that we’re all living through, there’s been much research done with regards to COVID-19 that shows that African American communities and other minority communities have been affected at a much higher rate than the white community. And I believe this further demonstrates racial inequalities in America. What do you believe is the cause of this and how do we change our healthcare system to address such large discrepancies?

Darren Walker (14:49):

Well, I certainly believe that what data shows is disparities and health outcome, the outcomes of individual Americans and Black and LatinX, especially is rooted in our history of exclusion, lack of access, and poverty. I think the challenge for the country is to understand how the social determinants of health are informed by beings like geography. We know that your zip code is the primary indicator of your health status, your access to decent healthcare, education, jobs, et cetera.

Darren Walker (15:33):

And so I believe we are going to have to grapple with that issue. I think your question about healthcare writ large is one of the great policy issues of our day. And I believe we are going to have to craft some kind of healthcare scheme in America that makes it possible for some Americans to have access to a single payer system that is not required or compulsory, but that we are going to have to grapple with the millions of Americans who do not have access to healthcare. I just remember, Jay, growing up and visiting my cousins in rural Louisiana and just the diets that we had were so absolutely terrible. I remember once being at my great aunt’s house and the kids we’d all drink because we were poor and we had bologna, we had a sandwich and bologna and bread, and then we would drink water with sugar in it.

Darren Walker (16:43):

So this was a precursor to Kool-Aid, but without the cost of Kool-Aid, it just had this sugar. And I remember thinking at the time, “you know this tastes really good,” but what did I know I was just a kid? But we all ate like that are our habits. And I remember walking around this rural community and there were a lot of dirt roads and people sitting on shotgun houses or whatever, but the number of people who had limbs that had been amputated was just shocking. It was just a disease, diabetes, that afflicted African-Americans for a very long time. And I just think that we have never fully grappled with the legacy of racism specifically as it relates to our healthcare huge issue. And I think Jay, this is, you and I are both capitalists. This is one of the ways in which capitalism has failed.

Darren Walker (17:37):

I remember being in Harlem, in the ’90s, working there doing community development and a community that had a population larger than the city of Atlanta, without any access to healthy foods, there was no supermarket, there was no farmer’s market or any such thing. And the number of conversations we had with supermarket chains, who simply were unwilling to come to the “inner city”, there was data, but there was always an excuse. Why not? Because the view was, “Well, they’re going to burn the store down at some point,” or, “We’re going to have huge amounts of shrinkage.” There was just all kinds of reasons. None of which turned out to be true in fact, the Pathmark in Harlem was one of the most successful in its chain. And even in 2020 and America, we have food deserts.

Jay Ruderman (18:34):

So Darren, you are not just running a major philanthropic organization, but you’re also an advocate and you don’t shy away from speaking out. We’re seeing more and more philanthropists who believe that it’s not enough just to be donating to worthy causes, but they’re also involved as advocates. What do you attribute this trend to?

Darren Walker (18:57):

I, in my own way, my own journey on this has been, as you know, I wrote a book called from Generosity to Justice, which chronicles the legacy of philanthropy in the United States in the 20th century, actually beginning in 1889 with Andrew Carnegie’s seminole essay, The Gospel of Wealth, where he talked about charity and generosity and Carnegie accepted inequality and the kinds of injustice that we are troubled by today, he accepted those as simply the natural phenomenon that happen and the focus on inequality was not his interest. His interest was saying, ‘How do we give away this money in a way that ameliorates, that helps our fellow citizens and immigrants and et cetera?” In 1968, Martin Luther King said the following, “Philanthropy is commendable, but it should not allow the philanthropist to overlook the economic injustice, which makes philanthropy necessary.” And Dr. King’s view of philanthropy was that you had to take on the very injustice that often yields so much philanthropy.

Darren Walker (20:15):

Why is it? And how can it be in a society that seeks equality and opportunity to have so much inequality and so little opportunity? And I think today philanthropists are heeding the words of Dr. King. I think more than Carnegie. I think they are questioning some of the systems, whether those systems are our justice system, our economic system, our education system, that these systems actually produce the bad outcomes that then philanthropy has to address. So you see people like Agnes Gund, the ARS and arts philanthropists, who is traditionally been focused on the arts and education, coming to understand how the justice system has a separate track for poor Black and Brown and poor white men and women too, and how that manifest and driving her philanthropy in a different way. And so we’re seeing amongst, particularly, a group of younger philanthropists, a deep concerned about issues of social justice. And I know I had a foundation president say to me recently, “Well, I know you talk about justice at Ford, but my board would never be comfortable with a frame of social justice.” We want to talk about opportunity, and I think that’s fine, but I don’t think you’re going to figure inefficiently advance your mission of solving poverty without taking on justice.

Jay Ruderman (21:46):

Darren, you’re, and the Ford Foundation is involved in so many different injustices in the United States and around the world recently, you and I, and other foundation heads, cofounded the President’s Council on Disability, Inclusion, and Philanthropy. Can you talk about how your journey to understanding that disability is part of social justice and part of our community that’s generally been overlooked?

Darren Walker (22:13):

Well, Jay I’m really happy you asked that question. And of course, I wouldn’t know you, but for the fact that you’ve been a mentor and a role model, as I saw it to understand this issue of disability justice and how for a foundation focused on any quality and solving the challenge of inequality, reducing inequality in America, that experiences and status of people with disabilities. It’s fundamental to understand that, if we are to address inequality in America and the world, because people with disabilities are more likely to be in poverty, are more likely to be marginalized from employment opportunities. And as we think about our fundamental mission at the Ford Foundation, which is to ensure that every person lives with dignity, there is nothing more undignified than arriving at the Ford Foundation headquarters, not being able to access the building because you are in a wheelchair, which is what a person in a wheelchair would have experienced if they came to the Ford Foundation seven or eight years ago.

Darren Walker (23:26):

And so how can we be a foundation with that mission written on the walls of our lobby and have that kind of injustice manifest? So I learned as I started to talk about inequality, when I wasn’t including disability, how inadequate and insufficient I was really taking on the larger issue of inequality, because I wasn’t taking on the issue of disability inclusion and disability justice. And so with your help and the help of many others who have been on the front lines of the fight for disability justice for years, I really had my own awakening and reckoning and education. And that education has yielded, for me, a commitment to prioritize this. And I think when you and I, and the other philanthropy leaders came together to create the new initiative on disability inclusion and philanthropy, the President’s Council serve as a vehicle for leadership of foundations to come together and to compare notes, to talk about best practices, to understand the landscape of policy of the nonprofits working in this space, and to more effectively plan and coordinate our grantmaking, our strategies, how we’ll work around policy change, et cetera.

Darren Walker (24:58):

And it’s been, I believe, a very impactful effort and there is just huge hunger for it. As you know, Jay, the number of foundations that have signed up since we’ve had that first meeting has been pretty remarkable. We’ve got a long way to go. But when you think about three years ago this thing didn’t exist, and today we’ve got a room full, a big room full, of foundation leaders, and our staff who are all working. We have this amazing a website that has now seven or 800 members who have signed up and who all use it and have it intermediate information. And it’s just really exciting. And I can’t thank you enough because without the Ruderman Family Foundation, we absolutely would not have been able to have that kind of a lift off.

Jay Ruderman (25:47):

Thank you, Darren. And I want to thank you and others for helping elevate the issue within the world of philanthropy. You recently mentioned in a New York Times opinion piece, that social mobility, the ability for person to climb from poverty to security as you did all but disappeared. What do we need to do to make a meaningful change in regards to income inequalities and social inequalities in general? I know that’s a big question, but how do you see us going forward?

Darren Walker (26:14):

Absolutely. I believe we’re going to have to reconsider the way in which our economy is organized. The kind of capitalism we are seeing today is producing far too much inequality that people are working full time and still need public benefits. We have to reconsider the allocation of capital and labor. We need to put to bed the ideology of Milton Friedman about the role of the Firm as simply a vehicle to maximize return for shareholders. And think about a stakeholder paradigm that includes shareholders, but employees, communities, customers all have a stake in firm. And we have to have a tax policy that seeks to promote opportunity and to promote the chance to get on the mobility escalator, as I did. And so those are just a few of the things I think we’re going to have to do in order to have that kind of country where opportunity is our signature feature, as I think we once had, but unfortunately we have lost.

Jay Ruderman (27:29):

Darren, what advice would you have for young people as they start their careers and have an interest in being involved in social justice?

Darren Walker (27:36):

I think there is no more noble and valiant calling for a young person than to be engaged in social justice. Now that does not mean, necessarily, that you have to work for a social justice organization. I think it’s very important if you have a passion and a desire to commit yourself to a career of working on behalf of low income workers or low income children around education, there are literally thousands of organizations and career tracks that I think are exciting, promising, fulfilling, and gratifying. I also think that one can do social justice from the private sector as well, even as a software engineer at a tech company, one can both do the work of designing products and apps, and also think about how those can be designed to advance justice. The important thing is to be on the journey and to commit oneself from wherever you sit in society to building a more just, fair, and equitable world.

Jay Ruderman (28:46):

Thank you so much, Darren, for joining us today. It was a pleasure speaking to you. I want to thank you for your leadership. I want to wish you good health and safety is as we move through COVID-19 and I look forward to seeing you in person soon.

Darren Walker (29:00):

I do too, Jay, you have a great day.

Jay Ruderman (29:02):

Thank you.

Speaker 3 (29:08):

All Inclusive is a production of the Ruderman Family Foundation. Our key mission is the full inclusion of people with disabilities in all aspects of society. You can find All Inclusive on Apple Podcast, Google Play, Spotify, and Stitcher. To view the show notes, transcripts, or to learn more, go to rudermanfoundation.org/allinclusive. Have an idea for a podcast? Be sure to tweet @JayRuderman.

 

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