Darren Walker on the Glory of Giving Away Billions

Darren Walker on the Glory of Giving Away Billions

By Joshua Eferighe


Because "billions" is a very large amount of money, no matter how you slice it.

By Joshua Eferighe

Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, a philanthropy responsible for giving away upward of $500 million a year, is possibly one of the more important thinkers in the country today—and yesterday, and probably over the last 30 or 40 years. His journey from son of a single mom to here? A thrill ride. You can find excerpts below or listen to the full interview on the show’s podcast feed.

A Class-Fueled Connection to Fashion

Carlos Watson: When did you get committed to style? Were you a stylish kid or did you get committed to style once you got to New York?

Darren Walker: When I was a kid, my grandmother worked for a family and that family was a wealthy family in Houston. The kids had amazing clothes. I was lucky enough to get the hand-me-downs of the boy and the family.

I have these wonderful photographs of me and my sister when we were younger and I was completely dressed up and looked like I was some Jack and Jill kid or belonged in Ebony Magazine. And of course, we were living in a little shotgun house in Liberty County, Texas, but through the acquisition of these hand-me-downs, I got to imagine myself wearing clothes. And I also understood how people responded to me when I wore those kinds of clothes. It was different.

Watson: So did you ever stay in touch with his family?

Walker: My Grandmother, she and that family have remained in touch. And in fact, we call her Big, we just had Big’s 96th birthday and members of the Crane family were on the Zoom. And absolutely, I’ve stayed in touch with them.

I just think it’s interesting when we think about how these experiences in childhood affect you and have a seminal impact on you as an adult. Because today, I know that the reason I love luxury is because I didn’t have it growing up, except when I got clothes from the Cranes in those brown paper bags.

In college, I, of course, was a scholarship kid and I didn’t have a lot of money, but I would go to the thrift shop because my grandmother sometimes would say, “Mrs. Crane is giving this to the Junior League Thrift Shop.

Keys to Philanthropy

Watson: Today you run one of the largest foundations, you manage billions of dollars. You give away billions of dollars. You sit on boards. People listen to you. You’re able to influence conversations, both private and public. Why do you think you ended up going from, as you called it, the shotgun shack to Wall Street, to the height of philanthropy?

Walker: It happened because I had the wind at my back. First, my country was cheering me on, and that manifests in investments in my human potential.

I attended good public schools. I went to a great public university and law school, all financed significantly by public investment. Low tuition. The state legislature made sure that it was affordable. The effort that my country, that private philanthropy, that helped to finance my education, invested in me, made it possible for me to be successful. And without that investment and belief in my potential, even though I started my life in the bottom 1 percent, I am now in the top 1 percent because of those investments.

What I worry about today, Carlos, is that young Black, brown boys and girls, working-class whites, rural people, do not feel that America is cheering them on, that their country wants them to succeed and is putting the wind at their back. That’s, to me, an existential crisis this nation faces.

The African American Leadership Piece

Watson: How do you look back on President Obama as a president and as a leader?

Walker: He was all of those things. He was transformational because he made manifest a fantasy almost for so many that it could in fact be possible for Americans to elect an African American as our leader.

It was so transformational for those Americans that it mobilized them in ways that we’ve never seen mobilization against a Black man, one Black man. The effort to discredit him, to delegitimize was unprecedented. That was transformational, both positively and negatively. I think it was very difficult for President Obama and his first administration to actually frontally acknowledge the depth of racism in this country. For him to speak about “Black issues,” because his pollsters, the political professional class that don’t do that because white Americans didn’t elect you to be the president of Black America. They elected you to be president of all America. So don’t talk about Black people and the need for policies, especially to protect Black people.

But there was no doubt that the fact that he was Black ironically really constrained him from fully addressing all of the dimensions of racism in this country.  The irony is that white Americans need to hear that race is a problem from white Americans before they actually believe it.

Watson: Darren, what have you learned in watching Donald Trump?

Walker: I have learned that people are vulnerable in this country and they are vulnerable for a number of reasons. Particularly working-class whites. They feel much less secure than past generations