Ford Foundation President Darren Walker told faculty and students at American University on April 4 that addressing growing inequality in the world is his organization's top priority.
"Inequality correlates with hopelessness," said the head of the New York City-based foundation speaking at an event hosted by SPA. "Hope is the oxygen for democracy. As long as a society is hopeful, its democracy will be strong. When too many of its citizens become hopeless, that democracy is threatened."
"Closing the wealth gap is a complicated problem, as are the solutions," said Walker. "Making progress means being willing to move beyond extreme, 'black-and-white' positions to have courageous conversations. The problems get solved in the gray spaces."
Over time, the Ford Foundation, established in 1936, has discovered that interventions are most successful when leaders listen to the people they're serving.
"Often institutions and people who are wealthy and privileged think we have the answers, rather than honoring the wisdom and authentic knowledge of those closest to the problem," said Walker.
The foundation has learned, through partnering with institutions such as AU and others, that researchers need to respect communities and people rather than treat them as subjects to be fixed, he said. Culture matters, along with changing policy and working across disciplines.
Walker spoke on campus on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who he explained had been on a series of retreats for African-American ministers supported by the Ford Foundation at the time of his death in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968. He said that King believed philanthropy, while commendable, should not overshadow the need to get at the core causes of injustice.
"I am not interested in America being called great. I want to live in a just country. Our founding fathers never used the word 'great.' They used words like 'just,' 'free,' and 'fair,'" said Walker. "Those are the words that inspire me."
One of the event's two moderators, SPA Professor David Marcotte, said Walker was a "true inspiration" whose reflections on the mission of the foundation were particularly poignant, coming on the April 4 anniversary of King's death.
"I hope students took away the idea that change is possible in the world," said Marcotte. "Solving a problem is not easy and doing it alone is not likely to pay off." Foundations and universities can "lean in" together to address vacuums left by governments to support citizens, he added.
Shyheim Snead (SPA/BA'18), who also moderated the event, said he appreciated how candid Walker was in his comments.
"I think it's really hard in this political climate and context to have authentic conversations in the 'gray areas' that Walker talked about," said Snead. "He portrayed how those in the foundation world examine these issues that we talk about and study deeply here [at SPA] — and how they grapple and prioritize to target with their resources."