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Darren Walker proposes shift in focus of giving in new book 'From Generosity to Justice'


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Geoff Bennett: In 1889, the industrialist Andrew Carnegie, one of the richest men of his age, wrote an essay titled "The Gospel of Wealth," calling on those with money to use it to promote the general good, and laying a foundation for philanthropy in this country.

Now comes "From Generosity to Justice: A New Gospel of Wealth" that proposes shifting the focus of giving, its author, Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, which, for the record, is a funder of the "NewsHour."

Jeffrey Brown spoke to Walker for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Darren Walker, President, Ford Foundation: This was the original office.

Jeffrey Brown: Darren Walker says the mission of the Ford Foundation is simple, hope. He's a true believer in that mission and the power of institutions like his to advance it.

But he also sees a problem.

Darren Walker: I wanted to say that, while philanthropy is good, and we should be proud of it, there is so much more we can do to move from the idea of generosity to the aspiration and a belief in justice for all.

Jeffrey Brown: Walker, now 63, became president of the $16 billion foundation in 2013. He's in the business of giving away money in this country and abroad. He's also part of a movement in recent years to shift philanthropy's focus, seen in the renaming of Ford's Manhattan headquarters to the Center for Social Justice, even in the art on its walls.

We spoke recently in the foundation's atrium garden.

What does justice mean, though, in the context of philanthropy?

Darren Walker: What we see in the world today is, too many people live without dignity, are stripped of their dignity. Their humanity is ignored, while we do charitable activities, which are commendable and we need.

But philanthropy needs to go deeper. And part of the aspiration of this book is to lift up the voices and the experiences of those philanthropists who are doing it here in America and around the world.

Jeffrey Brown: Walker is now part of the power elite. But his roots go back to small-town East Texas, where he was raised by a single mother who worked as a nurse's aide.

He says the opportunity to attend a then new publicly funded Head Start preschool program for lower-income children changed everything.

Darren Walker: It changed my life. It put me on a trajectory where I could go to public schools, a great public university, Texas, and then be off into the world.

But that was because, Jeff, I lived in a country that believed in my potential and the potential for me to have a life with dignity.

Jeffrey Brown: Do you still hold that past, that outsider, even though you are now a big player here in the world of philanthropy?

Darren Walker: I do see my role as an insider, as understanding the plight of those who are outside, who are left out and left behind.

And so, yes, I absolutely believe in it. But I have to say, I believe in this country,. I believe in the idea of America. And when I feel angry at this country or rage for some injustice, it's because my patriotism, my belief and the words of our founding fathers is unwavering.

Jeffrey Brown: One of the things you write in the book is, you say, wealthy people should ask themselves, where are my resources most needed?

Aren't they asking that question? Isn't that the question they normally ask?

Darren Walker: The reality is that most philanthropy in this country goes to wealthy institutions that often serve the wealthy and the privileged.

Jeffrey Brown: From wealth to wealth serving wealth.

Darren Walker: Well, when you look at the percentage of philanthropy that goes to wealthy colleges and universities, to hospitals, to independent private schools, these institutions primarily serve the wealthy or certainly people who have more privilege.

And I'm simply saying, we should ask ourselves, how do we direct our philanthropy to those who are most excluded?

Jeffrey Brown: Is it hard to change that mind-set of where the money goes?

Darren Walker: Well, I don't mean to say that people need to have some foundational, transformational change in their thinking about philanthropy.

What I mean, to say is, get a little uncomfortable when you look at organizations working on the front lines in homelessness, in building affordable housing, working on disability issues. These are areas that are heavily under-resourced in philanthropy.

Jeffrey Brown: And that means, inevitably, some who are getting it now might not get it.

Darren Walker: I think, if we are prepared to interrogate our privilege, we will conclude that philanthropy is not only about giving back, but it may be also giving up something, so that we can have an America where opportunity does exist for all.

And that social mobility escalator that I was able to ride continues to go up, doesn't slow down, doesn't stop, as it has for far too many Americans, which is contributing to our political and civil unrest, and the sense that too many Americans feel left out, rural America, where there is not enough work going on in philanthropy, parts of our country that truly have been left behind, and where the people there feel angry.

And they have every right to be angry.

Jeffrey Brown: You know the critiques better than anyone. Philanthropic organizations, foundations are often built on the fortunes, right, of the very kinds of inequities that you're critiquing in our society.

And they enjoy many tax breaks that many of us don't. And you yourself write: "They live off and extend the privilege of wealth and power."

Darren Walker: There's no doubt, Jeff, there is a contradiction in a foundation having billions of dollars in an endowment and talking about inequality.

But I believe we have to talk about a different kind of economic system, where capitalism, which, in my view, is the best way to organize an economic system, produces less inequality.

And so people like me, we need to ask ourselves, how do we deal with these contradictions of our privilege and our aspirations for opportunity? They are reconcilable, but we have to be intentional.

Jeffrey Brown: All right, "From Generosity to Justice."

Darren Walker, thank you very much.

Darren Walker: Thank you, Jeff.

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