Darren Walker is the first to acknowledge his own privilege. As president of the Ford Foundation, he oversees a $13 billion philanthropic giant. As a board member at PepsiCo, he has the ear of the business world’s elite. With a magnetic personality, he enjoys friendships with everyone from Elton John to Mark Zuckerberg.

Yet even with such success, Mr. Walker says he has not lost sight of his mission. In all he does, Mr. Walker says he is focused on trying to improve life for people who, in his words, are “invisible in our society.” That is, people like the child he once was.

Born in a charity hospital in Louisiana and raised in a rural town in Texas, Mr. Walker charted an unlikely course to the pinnacle of philanthropy. He grew up poor, black and gay in the South. He went to public schools, attended college on a scholarship, then came to New York City to practice law, eventually moving into investment banking.

Once he had made some money, Mr. Walker walked away from Wall Street to work for a nonprofit economic development organization in Harlem. From there, he took an executive role at the Rockefeller Foundation, then joined the Ford Foundation in 2010, becoming president in 2013.

Since then, he has reoriented the foundation’s work, which was already focused on social justice, to concentrate on reducing inequality. “Justice isn’t some left-wing idea that was concocted in the 1960s,” he said. “Justice is fundamental to the DNA of a successful America.”

This interview, which was condensed and edited for clarity, was conducted at the Ford Foundation’s newly renovated offices in New York City.

What was your childhood like?

My mother gave birth to me in a charity hospital, and it was in a segregated time. We lived in a little town outside of Lafayette called Rayne, La., the frog capital of America. I never knew my father and so I really can’t speak about him. But my mother took me and my sister to live with our great-aunt in a small town in rural Texas, called Ames, population 800. The county seat was the town of Liberty, which was white only. And the next town was Ames, which was the colored town, where we lived in a little shotgun house.

In 1965, I was sitting on the porch with my mother and a lady approached and told my mother about a new program called Head Start. And I was fortunate enough to be in the first class of Head Start, in the summer of 1965. I was one of the speakers at the 50th anniversary, and I remarked that I’m grateful to America, because I was a boy at a time when America believed in little poor black boys and girls living on dirt roads in shotgun houses in small towns across this country.

You say “believed.” Is that past tense intentional?

I think it is a question. We are at an inflection moment for America. We have some choices to make about the kind of America we want to have in the future. Is it one where people from my background have an opportunity to get on the mobility escalator I got on? The economic system then made it possible for my mother to never be on welfare. We were always on the edge, but my mother, even with just a high school diploma and a technical degree as a nurse’s assistant, was able to eke out a living. She could not do that today because the economic system for low-skilled workers produces a wage that does not allow for a worker to provide a decent standard of living for their family. That’s what I worry about.

I went to good public schools and was prepared when I arrived in college. And I went to a public university that had cheap tuition and I went on scholarship. The wind was behind me pushing me forward. Sometimes people say, “Oh, my gosh, it must have been so tough growing up poor and a gay kid in the south.” But I always felt that my country was cheering me on, that America believed in me. That’s why I feel both gratitude and rage at the same time. The gratitude I feel is deep and profound and unwavering. And the rage and the anger I feel is palpable, like that Langston Hughes idea of letting America be America again.

Was your social consciousness this developed when you came to New York as a young lawyer?

It was not so much top of mind. To be clear, I wanted to make sure I had some financial security. One of the things about growing up poor is that you never want to be poor again, and to have clarity on that is good. For me, it was always about working in a profession that allowed me to have some semblance of financial security. There was nothing romantic about it. But when you work on Wall Street, you realize a lot of people are passionate about piling up money. To really do that, you have to actually have a passion for it, and I don’t.

When did you realize that?

What happened is that in 1991, I was walking past the reception area on the trading floor at UBS, and there was a copy of The Economist sitting on the table with the headline “America’s Wasted Blacks.” It was just such a provocative headline, and this was right around the time that I met Calvin Butts at the Abyssinian Baptist Church, and he was starting this new development organization in Harlem.

I had some money, and I realized I wanted to work in Harlem. So I took a year to figure out what I was going to do. And eventually I was hired as chief operating officer at the Abyssinian Development Corporation. What got me excited was, “Oh my gosh, I can really add value to this idea of revitalizing Harlem, because I actually know something about financing projects.”

What was the transition from Abyssinian to Rockefeller like?

At Abyssinian we worked with a sense of urgency. Every day, more often than not, I was the first person to arrive in the office, and there were people lined up wanting to get into Head Start, looking for housing, looking for jobs. Every day you have to be accountable to those people in that line. When I went to Rockefeller, there was a more, I would say, deliberative approach to everything. Some of it felt academic.

For me, there is always a tension between the need to think and the need to do. Among my challenges is that I want to do, and doing without thinking things through is hazardous. I have had to temper my urgency with reflection. But on the other hand, I think, in philanthropy we have to have a sense of urgency, because we are enormously fortunate to have resources and networks and assets to have an impact.

There’s a school of thought that says philanthropy has not been nearly urgent enough. Has this informed your work at the Ford Foundation?

First of all, my lived experience gives me a perspective on the work of the Ford Foundation. The experience that most prepared me to be president of the Ford Foundation was working as a busboy when I was 13. When you work as a busboy, you are the lowest person in the organization, along with the dishwasher. You are invisible, and relevant only to the extent that you are cleaning up after people and taking away the things they discard. No one acknowledges you, no one speaks to you, no one recognizes your dignity. There was something about being rendered invisible and the perniciousness of the systems that render too many people invisible in our society that has informed how I think about our work here at Ford.

For me, this question of how I settled into philanthropy is one that I really struggle with, because there is an enormous amount of privilege. And so the question for me is, what are we doing with our privilege?

There’s a bit of a backlash against big philanthropy brewing. What’s changed?

Inequality has changed. The level of inequality that we see in our society is breeding greater cynicism and more hopelessness. And hopelessness is the greatest threat to American democracy. It is absolutely fair for the average American citizen to be more cynical about the idea of fairness in America today, because there is less fairness in America today. This is going to sound snarky, but if you want the American dream, move to Canada, because Canada has a higher level of social mobility and economic mobility than we do in this country.

In philanthropy, we’re in the business of hope. We should be builders of hope. We should be investing in the things that help create more hope. And one pathway to more hope is more justice. They are inextricably linked.

What are some reasonable changes you think could be made to our economic system that would reduce inequality?

We have had inclusive capitalism in this country. We have had shared prosperity in this country. These are not fanciful ideas. Part of the way we get back there is understanding that we can’t have an economy that produces flat wages for a decade and expect people to be able to live with dignity. We can’t have public systems that are woefully underperforming. Those are the things that contribute to the kind of inequality and the kind of capitalism that Adam Smith would be ashamed of.

There are solutions, but we capitalists don’t like to talk about two things: redistribution and regulation. If our capitalism is to be successful, we’ve got to talk about those two things. My belief in our capitalist democracy is unwavering. But if we continue to have a capitalism that produces higher and higher levels of inequality, our society is doomed.

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