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From a tidy glass office in Midtown Manhattan, Darren Walker gives away $650 million 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 U.S. taxpayers more than $50 billion a year.
Things nagged at Mr. 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 $13 billion — invested in industries that mined or logged that land.
On the other hand — what?
Mr. 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.
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. Mr. 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, Mr. 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?” Mr. 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 Mr. 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.”
Mr. Walker’s focus changed the conversation among his peers, said Ben Soskis, a historian of philanthropy at the Urban Institute. “It’s hard to overemphasize how little inequality had been a philanthropic concern over the last half-century,” Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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.”
Darren 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 Mr. Walker at U.T. “People were really drawn to Darren.” He engaged frat guys and student government nerds and arty types, and “could bring them together,” Mr. 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,” Mr. Begala said.
When New York beckoned, Mr. 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 Mr. Walker’s mother. (Beulah’s successor, Mary Lou, is named for Mr. Beitzel’s mother; when Mr. 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 Mr. Walker’s friend and a recipient of Ford grants. “He has the gift of being able to make friends and keep them.”
In the neglected Harlem of the late 1990s, one dynamic player was the Abyssinian Development Corporation, a nonprofit offshoot of the powerful Abyssinian Baptist Church. Harlem then was littered with abandoned buildings that had been repossessed by the city. The development corporation, led by the Rev. Dr. Calvin O. Butts III, leveraged city and private money to restore these shells, then used the profits to acquire and rehab more buildings. Mr. Walker became the organization’s chief operating officer, working out of a basement office to help bring a Pathmark supermarket to 125th Street, the anchor for what would become a thriving commercial corridor in a neighborhood that had been given up for dead.
“Working for Calvin Butts, you saw the power of the black church, the shrewd political instincts of a power player, and the dynamic at the intersection of race, power, geography and culture,” Mr. Walker said. “It gave me tremendous insight into how power at that intersection plays out, and who benefits and who doesn’t benefit.”
Mr. Walker’s time at Abyssinian also taught him what it was like to rely on foundation grants, begging the mighty patron for favors. When he left to join the Rockefeller Foundation and then Ford — and as Abyssinian boomed and busted in a new Harlem — he vowed to change this relationship.
“He’s brought a breath of fresh air,” said Rob Reich, a director of the Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society at Stanford University, and the author of “Just Giving: Why Philanthropy Is Failing Democracy and How It Can Do Better,” which explores philanthropy’s contradictions.
“He is an amazing politician of straddling the world of old money and directing it for causes that speak to the current moment of inequality, while attempting at the same time to speak the language of social justice. It’s a high-level carnival juggling act that he’s attempting to pull off. It’s pretty hard to imagine anyone doing it with 100 percent success.”
Here is how Mr. Walker extends his influence.
When Anna Deavere Smith sought backing for her next play, the Ford Foundation offered support. But Mr. Walker also arranged a get-together with Ms. Smith and other potential funders and theater directors, throwing the foundation’s endorsement behind her. “You can’t put a dollar sign on that Good Housekeeping seal,” Ms. Smith said.
Then when Sherrilyn Ifill, who runs the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, wanted to meet the artist Mark Bradford, whom she’d just seen on “60 Minutes,” she called Mr. Walker.
“And Darren says, ‘Of course, I know him quite well,’” she said. “‘We’re very good friends.’”
Mr. Walker also connected her to a major philanthropist she’d wanted to reach.
“Simply to be around Darren is to meet other people,” she said. “He will offer up his Rolodex to you. He always is willing to think about, ‘Who could connect you to that person?’ If it’s not him, he knows the conduit. He’s kind of the mayor, in his own way.”
Mr. Walker worked with the philanthropist Agnes Gund to create a $100 million Art for Justice Fund. Then he introduced Ms. Gund and Ms. Ifill. The art fund, in turn, brought light to issues argued by the NAACP’s lawyers.
“That’s my job,” Mr. Walker said of connecting Ms. Ifill. “Why wouldn’t I introduce her? I want her to succeed. It’s in the interest of moving justice forward in this country that Sherilyn Ifill succeed, and I can help her to do that.
“To me the question is, How do we as the Ford Foundation, and I as its president, leverage the foundation’s and my networks, and on behalf of whom?”
Last year he used that influence for an art exhibit called “Posing Modernity: The Black Model From Manet and Matisse to Today.” It had been rejected by museums throughout the city. With $500,000 in grants from the Ford Foundation, the show ran to glowing reviews at Columbia University’s Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Gallery, and then moved on to the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.
“Here was a brilliant black curator who couldn’t find a job, but who just needed a foundation to believe in her idea,” Mr. Walker said. “These ideas can make mainstream institutions uncomfortable, in part because they have never fully embraced diversity. Have never fully embraced a narrative where they aren’t at the center.”
He added: “I’m not interested in tokenism. I’m interested in transformation. How can we be allies in an idea that might fundamentally change your world, and might make you uncomfortable? Because not everyone in the room is going to look like you when this transformation is complete.”
Mr. Walker has been careful to avoid picking fights with other philanthropists. But he drew criticism in 2016 for accepting a lucrative position on the board at PepsiCo, whose products contribute to poor health in low-income communities. Mr. Walker argued that he can be a force for good on the inside, and that the company was “increasingly focused on the environment, on health and well-being of consumers.” Such arguments, in an era of rampant obesity and diabetes, have not assuaged his critics.
On a rainy night in May, Mr. Walker looked around the Whitney Museum and said, “This is why boys from small towns dream of coming to New York.”
It was opening night of the museum’s Biennial exhibition, a showcase for emerging artists — this year heavily female, African-American and oriented toward social justice issues. With Mr. Walker were Ms. Golden of the Studio Museum in Harlem; the artist Glenn Ligon, one of whose neon sculptures is in the Ford collection; and Elizabeth Alexander, who last year became the first African-American woman to run the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the nation’s largest humanities foundation. A few years ago it was Mr. Walker who recruited Ms. Alexander out of academia to Ford, her first job in philanthropy.
“Darren Walker changed my life,” Ms. Alexander said.
The group moved through the museum like a gravitational force. If there is a new art establishment forming in New York, it might look like this group and this show.
“Having Elizabeth Alexander at the helm of Mellon is something you can attribute to Darren,” said Tom Finkelpearl, the city’s cultural affairs commissioner, who teamed with Mr. Walker on a program to bring greater diversity to New York’s arts institutions.
“His influence on the way that arts and culture operate in New York is going to have a major long-term effect, and the influence is around diversity, equity and inclusion, and around the idea that art and social justice can be intertwined,” Mr. Finkelpearl said. “Ford has always been involved in the social justice issue and the arts issue, but they haven’t been intertwined this way.”
The group moved on.
“Are you beyond proud of your brilliant daughter?” Mr. Walker asked the parents of Rujeko Hockley, the Zimbabwe-born co-curator of the exhibition. Then to Ms. Hockley: “We’ll have brunch or something.”
Many people were seeing Mr. Walker for the first time since the memorial for Mr. Beitzel, who died of heart failure in January. The couple never married — they were always too busy, they told friends — but Mr. Walker often referred to Mr. Beitzel as his husband.
“David was a better human being than me,” Mr. Walker said.
There were more galleries to walk through, more artists to meet. If Mr. Walker didn’t know them when the night started, he did before it was over. From old friends, there were condolences.
“We had 27 years,” Mr. Walker told one couple. “I’m so lucky.”
He photographed paintings he wanted to revisit. It was getting time to go.
“Mary Lou is calling,” he said.
Around the time Mr. Walker wrote “Toward a New Gospel of Wealth,” Anand Giridharadas, a former New York Times columnist, challenged the world-savers gathered at the Aspen Institute in Colorado with a more pointed critique, accusing them of trying “to market generosity as a substitute for the idea of justice,” using their philanthropy to justify their self-enrichment — a challenge he expanded last year in a best-selling book, “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World.” Mr. Walker is presented in the book as sincere but too entangled, trying to address the contradictions of philanthropy from within rather than taking down the mighty.
Mr. Walker acknowledged this critique. “They call us on our hypocrisy,” he said. But change, he added, “for a privileged group of people and institutions is much harder to do than people think.”
Mr. Walker’s gospel is unfinished. He plans a book-length expansion of “The New Gospel of Wealth” to come out this fall, and a memoir next year. He committed $1 billion of Ford’s endowment to investments that serve the foundation’s goals, not simply generate returns.
The contradictions in his work are still there. Reform is slow; capital has its own oceanic momentum. He lives in an apartment built with massive tax abatements, at a time when New York lacks affordable housing, an inequity he calls “unconscionable.” He works with the Koch brothers, whose anti-regulatory politics he opposes, on a project to reduce prison sentencing. Ford’s endowment still includes stocks that work against the foundation’s mission.
“It’s a journey,” he said. “I hope I’ve brought a sense to the organization that we have to walk more humbly, that we actually don’t have the answers, the answers are in communities and in the people we are investing in. They are the key to unlocking solutions.”
In a changing city, this is what power looks like. As Mr. Walker said, “I have the best job in the world.”
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