Darren Walker

Darren Walker, (born August 28, 1959),[1] currently serves as 10th president of the Ford Foundation, a $16 billion international human welfare and social justice philanthropy.[2][3][4] In June 2020, Walker led Ford Foundation became the first philanthropic institution in US history to issue a $1 billion designated social bond to stabilize non-profit organizations in the wake of COVID-19 pandemic.[5] Walker is a humanitarian, member of Reimagining New York Commission and co-chair of 2020 New York City Census.[6][7][8] In October 2021, Walker announced that the Ford Foundation will divest its investments from "fossil fuels and seek opportunities to invest in alternative and renewable energy in the future"; including investing in "funds that address the threat of climate change, and support the transition to a green economy."[9][10][11]

Darren Walker
Darren Walker by Brokaw Photography.jpg
Born (1959-08-28) August 28, 1959 (age 62)
EducationUniversity of Texas, Austin (BA, BS, JD)
OccupationPresident of the Ford Foundation
Partner(s)David Beitzel (died 2019)

Before joining the Ford Foundation, Walker was vice president at the Rockefeller Foundation and COO of Harlem's Abyssinian Development Corporation. He co-founded both the US Impact Investing Alliance and the Presidents' Council on Disability Inclusion in Philanthropy. He serves on many boards, including the National Gallery of Art, Carnegie Hall, the High Line, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture, Committee to Protect Journalists, Square, PepsiCo and Ralph Lauren.[12][13][14][15] Walker chaired the 2013 Gish Prize selection committee.[16][17][18]

Earlier in his career, Walker worked as a lawyer and investment banker.[19] Walker is a fellow of the Institute for Urban Design, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and a board member of the Arcus Foundation, Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, Friends of the High Line, and the Foundation for Art and Preservation in Embassies.[20] He has been a teacher of housing, law and urban development at the New York University School of Law and the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service.[21][22][23] He is co-chair of the New York Public Library Council.[24][25][26] He is board of directors vice-chairman at the New York City Ballet.[27] In 2018, Walker joined the board of directors of the Committee to Protect Journalists.[28]

Beginning of lifeEdit


Walker was born in a charity hospital in Lafayette, Louisiana.[29] On his humble beginning at Lafayette, family, character, creativity, dreams and imagination, Walker said:

"I am inextricably linked to my past. My friendliness, my willingness to talk to strangers, my love of people, my insatiable curiosity about the world -- a lot of that is the result of my Southern upbringing. I was born in a small town in Louisiana, in a small hospital where blacks and poor whites received care. My parents never married, and I was raised by my mother:" Beulah Spencer.[30][31] In other ways, I am who I am today because I had a pretty remarkable imagination. I dreamed a lot. And I had lots of ideas based on books I read in school. My grandmother worked as a domestic for a family, and she would bring home magazines and clothes in paper bags. I loved that, because often what was in those paper bags would spark a lot of creativity and feed my imagination. Eventually, my mother moved my sister and me to Texas, where she had an opportunity for a better job and a better life for her family."[32]


Walker was raised by a single mother, Beulah Spencer, in Ames and later Goose Creek, Texas; and was one of the country's first children to benefit from the Head Start Program.[33][34] Walker said that his background "has given me an understanding of the need for investment in human capital and the centrality of private philanthropy making a difference in human lives."[35]

As a child, Walker lived amidst "just enough" means with his sister: Renee and mother in an Ames shotgun house. His mother was a highly devoted "old-fashioned black churchwomen values" driven nurse's aide, who made it a reality of divine parental calling to seriously see that young Walker got excellent education in any possible way. Walker narrated that:

"Sometime around my fifth birthday, a clipboard-carrying young woman knocked on our door—and began a conversation with my mom on our porch. As it turned out, this woman worked for a brand new education program—the leading edge of President Johnson's War on Poverty—and she asked my mother if she would enroll me. My mother said yes, of course. And not long thereafter, I began attending a makeshift preschool at a church not far from our home. It was not until years later that I learned that the idea for this particular program was funded with an investment from the Ford Foundation. The program was called Head Start. And it gave me mine."[36][37]

Goose CreekEdit

During his fifth grade, Walker's mother moved to Goose Creek, Baytown, Texas, with him and their family. Reflecting on his childhood, relocation to Goose Creek from Ames and eventual move to Austin, Texas, for college studies plus hopes, ideals and aspirations of all humankind, Walker said:

"I believe in a world where every person has the potential to dream and to have those dreams realized. Where everyone has the right to work and live in a community where their dreams and aspirations can be realized. That remains the goal to which we aspire, regardless of barriers and obstacles in our way. I didn't know anything until I went to college. I had no context other than, maybe, television. I had no context for what a professional career was. My grandparents were domestics and my mother was a nurse's aide. I didn't know professional people in any ongoing, intimate way. I had enormous curiosity and that was satiated by a very good education. And I had a great capacity to imagine things. My imagination was certainly supported and unleashed in some ways through my education. We should be very alarmed by the current trends which indicate that someone like me, born today—a young African American boy in a small town would have less of a chance of experiencing a higher education, experiencing a fulfilling career and success, and realizing his potential."[38]


University of TexasEdit

For higher education studies, with financial support from a Pell Grant, Walker was admitted into the College of Liberal Arts' Department of Government; [1] as well as Moody College of Communication [2] - within the University of Texas at Austin. In 1982, he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Government and a Bachelor of Science in Speech Communication. Subsequently, in 1986, Walker also graduated from the University of Texas at Austin's School of Law [3] with a JD: Juris Doctor.[39][40]

In these words, Walker bared his "knowledgeable" mind to the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Texas at Austin's multimedia coordinator: Marc Speir; and to humanity, in April 2014:

"When I walked onto the campus of UT my life was transformed. By the time I left Austin I was a very different person—more knowledgeable about the world, confident that I wasn't as different as I might have thought and secure in my belief in my ability to make a difference in whatever endeavor I chose. Especially now, when the reality of inequality in our country is becoming clear, it's important to remember that opportunity and social mobility are the foundation of the American narrative. People like me—from humble backgrounds—stand as a testament to the possibilities for dreams to be realized in this country. Hopefully, it reminds us that fewer dreams are realized when economic mobility is further out of reach to those who are not born into the middle class or wealthy."[41]

Public education affirmationEdit

With governors of: Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, and Tennessee, Walker is a strong supporter of the Ford Foundation backed public education initiative called TIME Collaborative,[42] "a multi-year investment in the development of high-quality and sustainable expanded learning time (ELT) for schools in five states: Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, and Tennessee, with guidance from NCTL: The National Center on Time & Learning and local partners in each relevant state.[43][44][45][46]

Concerning his life-changing, interesting and eye-opening public education years at University of Texas, Walker affirmed that:

"One of those things you realize when you live in New York is how great it is to have a degree from a great public university. In the northeast, private schools (and particular Ivy League schools) often produce the leaders of many institutions, and so I am often the only person in the room who is a graduate of a public institution, and that is because there is a greater reliance on those private schools for leaders. We don't have that tradition in Texas, which I think is good. People will often assume things about me. For example, I was speaking at a meeting and someone referred to me and my time at Yale. I said: 'I didn't attend Yale, I attended UT Austin,' and he was surprised. I think it is so interesting and it demonstrates the bias toward private institutions. This is something I think all of us in society should be mindful of and why excellent public universities and excellent public law schools are such hugely important assets in our society and our democracy and why I am so passionate about the idea of public education."[47]


Walker began his career in 1986 at the international law firm Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton. In 1988, he joined Union Bank of Switzerland (UBS) and spent seven years in its capital markets division.[48]

In 1995, Walker left the corporate world to spend a year volunteering at a school in Harlem.[49] He went on to become the chief operating officer at Abyssinian Development Corporation, a community development organization also located in Harlem.[50][51] There, he was able to draw on his private sector experience to advance redevelopment in Harlem, including the opening of a Pathmark supermarket in 1999 at 125th Street and Lexington Avenue.[52] Also, Walker led the development of the first public school built in New York City by a community organization.[53]

From 2002-2010, Walker was vice president for foundation initiatives at the Rockefeller Foundation, where he oversaw a wide range of programs in the United States and internationally.[54] Also, at the Rockefeller Foundation, he led recovery program in the South of the US after Hurricane Katrina.[55]

He joined the Ford Foundation in 2010 as vice president for Education, Creativity and Free Expression, one of the foundation's three major program areas.[56] He also oversaw the Ford Foundation's regional programming in four offices based in Africa and the Middle East.[57][58] Amongst other achievements, as the Ford Foundation's vice president for Education, Creativity and Free Expression, Walker was a creative and servant leadership driving force behind initiatives such as JustFilms[59] - one of the largest documentary film funds in the world - with the goal of advancing "social justice worldwide through the talent of emerging and established filmmakers"; as well as championing public-private collaborations such as ArtPlace, which supports cultural development in cities and rural areas in the United States.[60][61][62][63][64][65][66][67] Walker was also instrumental to saving American Folk Art Museum from going under because of the museum's dire financial straits, declaring that the museum is "a powerful showcase of the American spirit and an important public treasure for the people of our city."[68]

Grandmother's dreamEdit

Speaking about his grandmother's 1995 dream of how she would know that he has made it to the top of his career, including his thoughts on the vibrancy of ethnic media, advertising and internet, Walker said:

"Ford can't save media. We can engage the questions: What is the field going to look like or the future pipeline of journalists; who's going to employ them; what business models are sustainable? Foundations are not always best positioned to know the answer. We are best positioned to convene the people who can solve these problems. I grew up on the Houston Forward Times newspaper in Houston, Texas, going to my grandmother's. It's still there, I was just in Houston. When I was in Harlem, I was in a story someone did on an organization I worked for. My mother gave it to my grandmother who said, 'Well, that is great that he's in the New York Times. But when is he going to be in Jet?' To her, when I was going to be in Jet or the Forward Times, that's when she would know I had arrived. That media is still so important."[69]

Walker's grandmother would be joyful to know that her grandson did get to be in Houston Forward Times and Jet - because in a July 25, 2013, goodwill message, with Walker's photo on the page, Jet wrote: "Congratulations to Darren Walker, today named the 10th president of the Ford Foundation. Walker, a Texas native, led a stellar career in finance and law before he became a leader in the nonprofit sector. The Ford Foundation, one of the largest global private philanthropies has $11 billion in assets and over $500 million in annual giving, according to a statement from the organization."[70] On its part, Houston Forward Times reported that "Darren Walker became the second African American and 10th president of the Ford Foundation, America's second largest philanthropy organization with $500 million in annual giving. After a stint in international law and banking, Walker served as the COO of a non-profit agency in New York before moving to the foundation world, first arriving at the Rockefeller Foundation before being tapped to fill a vice president slot at Ford in 2010."[71]

Rockefeller FoundationEdit

On July 20, 2006, Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation announced that Walker would be the foundation's United States and international initiatives vice president. Rodin said: "Darren Walker's leadership has been critical to the Rockefeller Foundation's program strategy development, to advancing some of the Foundation's flagship programs, and, most recently, to our efforts to help break the planning logjam in New Orleans. We're energized by the opportunity to have Darren play a wider role in leading the Foundation." He took office on August 1, 2006.[72][73]

At the Rockefeller Foundation, Walker led the foundation's work in the United States and globally - in terms of supporting innovations that built economic development, sustainability and assets of poor and disadvantaged people; while creating long-term strategies that addressed increasing global migration, movements and urbanization. He also oversaw the foundation's new strategy and vision for New York City, including directing the Rockefeller Foundation's dedicated service in support of the re-building of New Orleans.[74][75]

Concerning Katrina, Walker reflected that: "The Hurricane Katrina experience provides a teachable moment to examine our expectations of each other as citizens. We believe that Teachers College has the expertise and experience to translate Spike Lee's masterful film into a curriculum for students to explore issues of race, class, poverty and democracy in America."[76]

On his appointment as vice president, Walker remarked: "I deeply appreciate the confidence shown in me by this appointment, and I look forward to extending the exciting work we have under way at the Rockefeller Foundation. Judy Rodin's leadership, the team we are assembling, and the very promising strategic review we're completing convince me that an exciting new era for the Rockefeller Foundation lies just ahead."[77]

Joining Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Walker led the Rockefeller Foundation to fund "a new Conditional Cash Transfer Learning Network which will share New York City's experience designing and implementing Opportunity NYC, the nation's first conditional cash transfer (CCT) program, as well as to continue learning from other countries and US cities about incentive-based poverty reduction programs." About the Network, Walker said: "As a global foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation has a keen interest in finding poverty-fighting models that work in different contexts around the world. The Foundation is proud to be a lead funder of Opportunity NYC, and we see the CCT learning network as an important means to further our investment in this groundbreaking pilot program."[78]

Earlier, from 2002, Walker served as the Rockefeller Foundation's working communities program director; where he oversaw a grant making portfolio, in excess of USD$25 million per year, that created anti-poverty strategies focusing on education, employment, sustainable community development, and democracy building in the United States. Bearing his mind on Walker's hiring, Sir Gordon Richard Conway, then president of the Rockefeller Foundation, said: "Darren Walker has proven experience tackling many of the critical needs of low-income communities and families, such as affordable housing, job creation and better schools. As the Foundation strives to foster greater equity and create healthy, working communities globally, we look forward to Darren playing a vital role on our leadership team."[79]

Ford FoundationEdit

To support climate action, earth's health, green economy plus renewable energy; and "to harness the full power of Ford Foundation's assets in the fight for a more just and fair world", Walker stated, in October 2021, that the Ford Foundation will divest investments from fossil fuels. Notably, Walker announced, as follows:

"Going forward, Ford Foundation's endowment will not invest in any fossil-fuel-related industries. With our endowment, our strategy is twofold: First, we commit to not doing harm. Consequences are too great to justify any additional investments in fossil-fuel industries. Second, no less important, we will look for opportunities to invest in enterprises and funds that are fueling new technologies and capabilities, contributing to a renewable sector that is strong, diverse, and varied enough to sustain a green-energy economy".[80][81][82][83]

Under Walker's leadership, the Ford Foundation became the first non-profit organization to issue a $1 billion earmarked social bond in US capital markets for proceeds to strengthen and stabilize non-profit organizations affected by COVID-19.[84] Having been named president of the Ford Foundation in June 2013, Walker later assumed office in September 2013, succeeding Luis Ubiñas.[85][86] In his earliest comments after becoming president of the Ford Foundation, Walker pledged to uphold the longstanding "advancement of human welfare" mission of the foundation, including its social justice and fairer world angle:

"Leading this institution is the opportunity of a lifetime, and I am so very honored and humbled. I pledge to work with energy and integrity, to lead while listening and learning, and to give my all in service of our mission: to build a world that is fairer and more just."[87]

Also, at a meeting with Ford Foundation staff titled: "What should we help build next?", Walker said: "Whatever we help the social justice visionaries of this generation to build next—at its foundation will be our staff. Because, like those who came before them and those who will follow, they are passionate about this place and its mission, and the enduring legacy we leave. In this way, one of the most indispensable elements of our culture is stewardship across generations. We're not just stewards of what we've helped build, but of the hard work and intellectual rigor of our predecessors. Together, we are part of an unbroken chain of commitment to social justice that reaches back to our earliest years and stretches far ahead of us. What a thrill to recognize the power inherent in that inter-generational bond."[88]

In a December 2013 interview by New America Media, Walker talked about his opportunity to make the United States a better country for Americans and humankind, globally through his servant leadership at the Ford Foundation:

"I have a chance to make a difference by leading a remarkable institution committed to human welfare and social justice when the very notion of social justice is being contested. Our country's policies and discourse sometimes feel retrograde, taking us back to when justice was more rationed; particularly for low-income people and people of color. I have a huge opportunity to fortify those voices. We made great progress in poverty reduction, employment for low income and low skill workers, in increased participation in higher education and high school graduate rates. When I hear, 'Oh, the War on Poverty was a waste of time,' I don't accept that. You have a hard time convincing me that investments in human capacity and in the potential of people like me to advance in society have somehow been for naught."[89]

Again, sharing his line of action as president of the Ford Foundation, with Michael Seltzer [4] - distinguished lecturer at the Baruch College School of Public Affairs, Walker explicated:

"It's easy to be dismayed by the current state of social justice in our country and around the world. But it is important to remember the remarkable progress we have made. There was a time, not too long ago, when every indicator of social mobility for low-income and marginalized communities was improving — employment among urban black males in the 1990s saw tremendous gains, we saw significant reductions in the level of homelessness and more African-Americans and Latinos were matriculating to institutions of higher education. Although it wasn't always even, for almost forty years, from the early 1960s through the 1990s, we saw progress. We've fallen back some, so it's particularly important we remember that history and not be discouraged. A certain set of circumstances contributed to the conditions which prevail today. That said, we have faced these problems before and made huge progress in addressing them, and we can do so again. I am actually hopeful and quite excited about what the Ford Foundation can do to address some of these challenges. There are thousands of new foundations out there, and together we have an opportunity and the potential to make a tremendous difference in the lives of poor and vulnerable people. That is very exciting. So, no, I am not discouraged. I am energized. We have work to do, but as Martin Luther King, Jr. asserted: 'The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.' The journey toward justice is a two-steps-forward, one-step-back affair. That process will always be with us."[90]

Operation DetroitEdit

Walker spearheaded efforts to save DIA: Detroit Institute of Arts and city workers' pensions in the Detroit bankruptcy process.[91][92] Walker stated that: it was "unprecedented and monumental for philanthropies to undertake this kind of initiative, but if there was ever a time when philanthropy should step up, this is it."[93] In that initiative to help Detroit, Walker led nine foundations, many with ties to Michigan - including: Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, William Davidson Foundation, Fred A. and Barbara M. Erb Family Foundation, Ford Foundation, Hudson-Webber Foundation, Kresge Foundation, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, McGregor Fund, and Charles Stewart Mott Foundation. These US foundations "have pledged to pool the $330 million, which would essentially relieve the city-owned Detroit Institute of Arts museum of its responsibility to sell some of its collection to help Detroit pay its $18 billion in debts. Walker's Ford Foundation pledged to provide USD$125 million for the USD$330 million common fund from the nine foundations.[94][95]

In January 2014, with Alberto Ibargüen, Mariam Noland and Rip Rapson, Walker, in The Chronicle of Philanthropy, explained their reasonable motivation for the commitment to help the people of Detroit in their tragic period:

"Tens of thousands of Detroit's public servants face deep cuts to their retirements and livelihoods. Shoring up the pension funds helps these families, strengthens the local economy and relieves some of the pressure on the city's operating budget. Similarly, the proposal would safeguard the DIA, a treasured cultural beacon that for decades has helped strengthen the Detroit metropolitan area, attracted residents and visitors alike, and added to Detroiters' sense of identity and connection to the city. Our support also aims to accomplish something even larger: helping a great city get back on its feet quickly and on course toward a better future. This new investment, above and beyond our existing grant making in the region, represents our desire to seize a rare opportunity and play a constructive role in the revitalization of Detroit. We see a one-of-a-kind chance to make an investment that is true to all of our values and our giving priorities and that embodies the kind of flexible, creative, and transformative philanthropy we believe in. At its best, we hope our involvement may bolster the spirit of positive engagement and creativity in Detroit, catalyzing others to invest strategically across the region. It does not mark the start of philanthropy as a solution to public insolvency. This is a unique, clear-eyed move to push forward positive negotiations, with our philanthropic dollars being exclusively pegged for two roles: safeguarding the DIA and protecting pensions.[96]

Awards and honorsEdit

Walker at the LBJ Presidential Library in 2020

Notably, Walker has been included on numerous leadership lists of honor; some of which are:

Commencement speechesEdit

For Miami Dade College, on May 3, 2014, Walker gave commencement address at their Medical Campus ceremony.[104][105] On May 23, 2015, Walker was commencement speaker for University of Texas at Austin.[106][107][108] On January 21, 2016, at Hunter College, City University of New York, Walker was 212th commencement speaker.[109] On May 18, 2016, Walker spoke at 184th commencement for New York University.[110][111] At Queens College: City University of New York, on June 2, 2016, Walker was 92nd commencement speaker; and, as well, received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree.[112][113][114] On May 22, 2017, Walker was 184th commencement speaker at Oberlin College.[115][116]

At Sarah Lawrence College Bronxville: New York, on May 18, 2018, Walker gave 90th undergraduate commencement speech.[117][118][119] On May 20, 2018, Walker gave 206th commencement address at Hamilton College Clinton: New York; and was awarded an honorary degree.[120][121][122] Also, on May 19, 2019, Walker was 218th commencement speaker at University of Vermont.[123][124][125][126] Walker received honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from Amherst College on May 26, 2019.[127][128][129] On May 28, 2021, Walker delivered the 86th commencement address at Bennington College, a liberal arts institution in Bennington, Vermont: United States of America.[130] At Prairie View A&M University, on May 14, 2022, Walker was the University's 140th Spring Commencement Convocation speaker.[131][132]

Book by WalkerEdit

In 2019, Walker published a book, titled: From Generosity to Justice: A New Gospel on Wealth. In this book, Walker "articulates a bold vision for philanthropy in the 21st century joined by an array of thinkers, activists, and leaders from every field, sector, and walk of life. It convenes some of the most important voices in philanthropy to ask and offer answers to a vital question: If there's a continuum between generosity and justice, how do we push our work closer to the latter?"[133][134][135][136]

Personal lifeEdit

Walker is openly gay. His partner of 26 years, David Beitzel, died January 20, 2019, of a cardiac arrest due to an aortic dissection.[137][138][139]


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