From a tidy glass office in Midtown Manhattan, Darren Walker gives away US$650 million ($970m) a year of other people's money, and is paid nicely to do so. When he got this job in 2013, as president of the Ford Foundation, he set his sights on tackling inequality.
There were complications.
Charities like Ford, he realized, owe their existence to inequality, and they reproduce it: they extend rich people's influence, with no accountability, and they take money from the public tax rolls to do so. If a foundation gives a million dollars to a donor's favorite pet cause, part of that gift is whatever tax the donor or foundation would have paid on that million — and neither you nor your elected officials has any say in the matter.
Perhaps people should be able to give away their money as they see fit, but this is not the full story: because of tax breaks, they are also giving away your money. By one estimate, these subsidies cost US taxpayers more than $50 billion a year.
Things nagged at Walker. He'd attend conferences where plutocrats who opposed tax reforms or labor unions earnestly trumpeted their efforts to reduce poverty. Often he was the only African-American speaker at a conference, or the only one who had ever been poor. And often his presence was used as proof of the group's bona fides — "Look," he described the reaction, "Darren's here, so we've done diversity."
As Ford funded indigenous people trying to reclaim their lands from developers, its biggest resource — an endowment of $13b — invested in industries that mined or logged that land.
On the other hand — what?
Walker, who will turn 60 next month, is also one of the best-connected people in New York, a city that runs on connections. Why, he wondered, were there so many more foundations for clean rivers or cancer cures than for prison reform or sickle-cell disease?
He spent two years considering how a philanthropy could do better. He was, he said, "a man who sets out to save the world."
Think about how power moves in New York. There are the blunt forces like Wall Street, real estate, government and the arts, each operating in its own sphere — each under scrutiny, and contested. Then there is another channel of power, where philanthropies operate, moving billions of dollars around the city, functioning as connectors. Foundations connect billionaires on Wall Street with food banks in East New York, Hollywood celebrities with inner-city literacy programs, starving artists in Jackson Heights with the Whitney Museum.
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Darren Walker, a gay black man from Texas in a realm created by old-money elites, is the connector of connectors. In a new Gilded Age, he believes that wealth can be made to do more good.
In 2015, he wrote an essay called "Toward a New Gospel of Wealth," calling out "a system that perpetuates vast differences in privilege and then tasks the privileged with improving the system" — foxes minding the henhouse. The old gospel of wealth, as articulated by Andrew Carnegie in 1889, took inequality as a mark of progress, and called for its winners to give back in charity. Walker argued that this formula no longer worked.
At Ford, he made changes. He sold the foundation's blue chip art collection and used the money to buy 320 newer works, many by female artists or artists of color. He integrated two sides of Ford's work: its support for the arts and its grants for social justice. Declaring himself a proud capitalist, he called for a capitalism that spread its wealth rather than concentrating it. In place of charity, he promised a push for justice.
Putting that into practice has been a challenge.
On a recent morning in his office, Walker teased out some of the contradictions of this job. Ford's offices, renovated last year, reflected his vision: where past Ford leaders had occupied a suite big enough to seat 40, he converted this to three conference rooms, moving his desk into a smaller glass-walled room visible to anyone.
In the building lobby, the first thing visitors see is a regal portrait by Kehinde Wiley of an African-American woman named Wanda Crichlow, from the public housing projects of East New York, Brooklyn.
"Are there contradictions?" Walker asked of his work. "Let's start very explicitly with the fact that the Ford Foundation is a product of capitalism. Henry Ford never imagined that a black gay man would be president of this foundation, but that's what's great about American philanthropy, that it continues to evolve."
To spend time with Walker is to feel enveloped by his attention, which has been a factor in his success. Some sources make you think they find you interesting. It's a talent. Darren Walker greeted me as the most interesting person he had ever met. When I observed him among strangers, I saw a similar effect on them. We should all have this superpower.
"There are asymmetries in my life," he said. "When I get a call from my mother who says, 'Cousin Buster died and his wife doesn't have the money to bury him, and we're all pitching in,' I could be going to a black tie event that night at Lincoln Center, and probably I'm the only person in the room who's on the phone talking with his mother about her cousin whose family didn't have the money to bury him. I deal with those contradictions by trying to as candidly as I can call them out in those rooms. It's important when you're in the rooms, bringing that perspective to the room and asserting it."
Walker's focus changed the conversation among his peers, said Ben Soskis, a historian of philanthropy at the Urban Institute. "It's hard to overemphasise how little inequality had been a philanthropic concern over the last half-century," Soskis said. "He took on a huge challenge. There's been no figure with greater influence in the sector than Darren Walker."
At the heart of this is the unlikely character of Walker himself, a serious man and demanding chief executive who can whip up blender drinks and gumbo for 50, and says things like, "If the roux does not smell like burnt tires, you haven't cooked it enough."
Something else about him: "Darren Walker knows more people than anyone we know," said Thelma Golden, director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, who has known Walker since the 1990s. "Darren is the ultimate connector. He's at the center of this vision of the world as he sees it and the world he makes possible. Without it I don't know how I or many of us would have the broad communities that we have."
Walker grew up in Louisiana and East Texas, with a single mother who worked as a nurse's aide. His life changed when he was recruited in 1965 for the first preschool class of Head Start, a new federal program aimed at reducing poverty. It set him on what he calls a publicly funded "mobility escalator" that continued through state college and state law school, and that he fears no longer exists for young people trying to get out of poverty.
At the University of Texas, he thrived both academically and socially: head of the student union and the elite Friar Society, where a university regent once mistook him for a server. "Even then, as a college kid, he was polished, polite, brilliant, warm, really kind," said Paul Begala, a former adviser to Bill Clinton, who was a class behind Walker at UT. "People were really drawn to Darren." He engaged frat guys and student government nerds and arty types, and "could bring them together," Begala said.
He was also willing to challenge them. At the student union, he brought the Pilobolus dance company to campus, without telling anyone that they performed naked. "People were scandalized," Begala said.
When New York beckoned, Walker worked as a corporate lawyer and then as a bond trader, but quickly jumped off to volunteer full-time at the Children's Storefront school in Harlem. Around that time, in 1992, he met a downtown art dealer named David Beitzel, and soon they were living together, with the first of two English bulldogs, named Beulah, after Walker's mother. (Beulah's successor, Mary Lou, is named for Beitzel's mother; when Walker wants to leave one of the nightly events he attends, he sometimes says, "Mary Lou is calling.")
He traveled uptown and downtown, collecting bankers, lawyers, activists, pastors, art patrons and bureaucrats, building alliances as he went. He was doing what he did in college and would later do at Ford: connecting traditional power brokers with less obvious players, extending his influence by force of his personality.
He was intersectional before his time.
"My theory in life right now is that there are all kinds of gifts," said Anna Deavere Smith, the actor and playwright, who is both Walker's friend and a recipient of Ford grants. "He has the gift of being able to make friends and keep them."
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