Darren Walker speaks at the British Academy President's Lecture 2019

14 Nov 2019

The President of the British Academy, Professor Sir David Cannadine, hosted Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation, for the 2019 President’s Lecture (12 November) for a wide-ranging conversation on 21st century philanthropy. The discussion covered social mobility and philanthropy’s unique role in enabling it, reflecting that those most able to give or donate were least likely to link inequality and disadvantage to system-wide problems.

The annual President’s lecture offers a platform for an eminent public figure to address the British Academy.

The conversation started with Mr Walker reflecting on how his personal experience of growing up poor in the rural south of the United States, and of public education, informed his commitment to justice and social mobility.

He said: ‘I was very lucky, demographically. I was born at a time when the US government made a commitment to families that were poor, like my family. I was enrolled in the first class of Head Start, the first public commitment to eradicating childhood poverty in the US under President Johnson. I went to great public schools, I went to public universities. I have never attended a day of private education in my life and I say that proudly because I think it’s particularly democratic.

‘Regrettably, that [social mobility in the United States] is becoming less the case. There are fewer places and spaces where people with public education are leaders or present. And that’s part of the problem in America and part of what worries me today.’

Mr Walker then addressed the often-controversial history of the Ford Foundation, the objections the Foundation has faced throughout its existence and the role of philanthropy today.

‘Moving from generosity to justice, from charity to dignity, requires the philanthropist to get uncomfortable,’ he said. ‘It requires the philanthropy to interrogate some of the very systems and structures that produce our advantage. The role of a social justice philanthropy is to help society engage in the hard work of reflection and introspection as a society.

‘Of course,’ Mr Walker continued, ‘the role is to do innovation and to do the things that government can’t do – because there are things that government can’t do and philanthropy is much better positioned to do – but I believe, ultimately, we have to be willing to name and frame and surface the things that are just beneath the veneer, that if not attended to will ultimately be harmful to the larger public engagement, the larger collective aspiration.

‘That’s part of our work and that again is contested.’

Mr Walker also spoke about business and wealth culture in the United States and how that can make things more difficult for philanthropists in the country.

‘It’s different here in the British context because you don’t have the sycophancy that we have in the US when it comes to rich people,’ Mr Walker said. ‘I was just last week in Silicon Valley in a room like this, [surrounded by] lots of very wealthy unicorn creators with lots of wealth… it’s really hard in the US context to have these conversations with wealthy successful people because they believe the system is generally fair.

‘Why else would they be successful?’, he continued. ‘How is it possible that they would be 35 years old and be worth a billion dollars and America not be a free and fair and wondrous country? For them, they see absolutely nothing is wrong with the system at all. They just want to know, “Okay, I’ve got a liquidity event coming up, tell me what to do.” And that’s a very different conversation than saying, “Let’s actually interrogate the economy and let’s ask some questions about how you can use philanthropy to challenge the economic system that made you so wealthy”.

Mr Walker then took questions from the audience, which focussed on the actions the Ford Foundation is taking to tackle modern slavery, the relationship between education and social justice, and the challenge of keeping faith in charitable work.

On the latter, Mr Walker replied: ‘Even during times of darkness, we’re in the business of light. Even during times of hopelessness, we’re in the business of hope. And yes, it’s really dark out there. To my mind, that means we have to double down. We have to be more willing to be criticised, more willing to have people say unkind things about us and be willing to accept that.’

The President’s Lecture event also included a roundtable discussion, which was supported and chaired by the Wolfson Foundation, with philanthropic professionals from leading organisations who discussed the part UK philanthropy has to play in the 21st century.

The first President’s Lecture was held in 2017 with Janet Yellen, Chair of the Federal Reserve from 2014 to 2018, speaking to former President of the British Academy, Lord Nick Stern of Brentford. The 2018 event saw Sir David Cannadine in conversation with Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

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