Amrita Basu: Thank you all for coming today. I'm Amrita Basu. I teach in the Departments of Political Science and Sexuality and Gender Studies here at this college, and it is my great honor to introduce Darren Walker, the president of the Ford Foundation in international social justice philanthropy that's responsible for annual grant making of 600 million dollars. For more than two decades Darren has been the leader in the non profit sectors starting with the local community and economic development initiative in Harlem, his work has grown to engage social justice issues including human rights, urban development, freedom of expression and more. Darren has an abiding commitment to socially attuned urban development years after his work in Harlam each year the philanthropy committee that brought about the resolution to the city of Detroit's historic bankruptcy, a pioneer in the use of impact investing to expand opportunity. He has declared that inequality and all its forms is the greatest threat that our society faces.
Darren's career in the social sector following a decade working in international law and corporate finance. Born in the Charity Hospital in Lafayette, Louisiana, Darren was raised by a single mother in Goose Creek, Texas. He was among the first cohort of children to benefit from the Headstart preschool program. With financial support from a Pell Grant, he attended the University of Texas at Austin where he earned an undergraduate degrees in government and speech communications and a doctorate in jurisprudence in the university's law school. Darren co-chairs New York City commissions on city art, monuments and markers. He serves on the intimate independent commission on New York City criminal justice and incarceration reform, as well as the United Nations International Labor Organization's global commission on the future of work. He serves on the boards of Carnegie Hall, High Line and the Committee to Protect Journalists. A member of the council on Foreign Relations and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, he's received numerous degrees and university awards including the W.E.B. Du Bois Medal from Harvard. His name is featured on Time Magazine's annual list of 100 most influential people in the world, Rolling Stones' 55 people shaping the future, Fast Company's most creative people and Out Magazine's Power 50. Please join me in welcoming Darren Walker.
Darren Walker: Thank you. It's a real honor to be here at Amherst and to have the privilege of addressing all of you and being with you this afternoon. It's my first visit to your magical campus and it's quite remarkable. Of course, the legend of Amherst is very rich and robust in New York City because there are so many of you in the city. It's impossible to exist on that little island at least and not run into Amherst everywhere. And so it's a real thrill to actually be here and see what all of the enthusiasm for this little college called Amherst is all about. And it really is quite special.
Amrita Basu: Well, it's a thrill to have you here, Darren. And it's a thrill for me because Darren said that rather than giving a lecture, he would prefer to engage in a conversation. So what better opportunity for me to get to know you then through a conversation. And I thought we would talk for awhile. Please jump in if you'd like, but we'll also make sure to spend enough time that we'll be open to questions from the floor. So I wanted to start by asking you a little bit about your childhood and upbringing which you speak about write about quite often and I guess the two themes that strike me are first how difficult a childhood you had growing up in poverty with a single mother in the south. But the second theme, which is at least as powerful, is how enchanted you feel your childhood was because you describe yourself as having been surrounded by love and by the protective cocoon that your mother created around you and they way that she supported you. So I wonder if you could just say a little bit about how your childhood and upbringing have influenced who you are and the kind of work that you're doing today.
Darren Walker: Well, thank you. And I think the reason, the reason to talk about this is not for self aggrandizement or narcissism, it's to put my story into context in this country for a reason. That's the reason that I'm interested in talking about my story. Not because I think my story is a uniquely American story. And I think stories like mine, if trends in our country continue, will be less common because I actually think stories like mine, which are stories of kids, families with aspirations and dreams without necessarily the financial means being allowed to dream and to actually have those dreams come true. And so for me, I don't think my mother actually knew, and I certainly never knew about the possibility the world I exist in today in that little town in Texas. But I do know that my mother was very committed to my being successful, whatever that meant.
She wasn't able to say, well, it means you should go to this college and major in that. But she did encourage me and I think that first encouragement really came when we lived in a small town after we left Louisiana and we moved to a small town where my great aunt live in rural east Texas, a little town called Ames, Texas, which was 1,200 people in Liberty County, Texas. And the county seat, Liberty, was the next town. But in those days, the Negro community was Ames where we lived. And blacks didn't live in Liberty, the county seat. But one day in 1965 on this dirt road, we lived in a little shotgun house, a young woman was going down the road and she came to the porch where we lived and I was in the front and my mother was sitting on the stoop and she told my mother about a new program called Head Start.
And that Head Start was going to begin that summer and the summer of 1965 and when my mother enrolled me in the first class, and of course my mother quite enthusiastically was given an opportunity to actually believe that it was possible for me to not be in our hair for four hours a day. She didn't really know what Head Start was I don't think when she ernrolled me, but when the possibility that I had this rambunctious, very challenging child could be managed by some other people who are responsible, I think she leapt at the opportunity. So that was really for me the beginning of my journey. And when I truly started to love to read and be interested and curious. And the other thing that also happened among things was that my grandmother was a domestic for a family in Houston and she, much of my childhood were all the cast offs of the family and the children because fortunately one of their boys was a little older than me and so I got his hand-me-downs.
But among the things that she would bring to her house and occasionally I would, my mother would drive us into Houston to visit her were all of the magazines and books and things she occasionally would. And sometimes I'd go over with my grandmother and my grandfather who cut their yard and did yard work and I would help. But I was always curious about, all of the sort of detritus that they would throw away. And lots of it were art books and shelter magazines and programs from the alley theater or things like that. And the Houston ballet and I once my grandmother saw that I liked those things, she would just put them in a brown paper bag and we'd bring them when they would drive out to where we lived. And so for much of my childhood, I had all of these references that I could, I mean, I would sort of just look at things and flip through the pages and imagine a very different world in that little town where I lived.
And that was really the beginning for me to actually imagine a world outside of the very challenging world, which was my immediate world. And I just think that the reason the story is important is because I actually had dreams, you know, I mean, I actually, seeing those visuals even though they weren't black people inmost of them I could imagine myself in those places and spaces. And I think being able to actually imagine yourself in a better situation and being able to imagine your life being richer and more interesting is something that I think every child should be encouraged to do. And what I worry about in our society is that too many of our young people, particularly people with profiles like my profile, those opportunities are rarer. And that's what worries me.
Amrita Basu: So just to continue a bit with your story. So this rambunctious little boy ended up going to the University of Texas and getting a law degree and then initially your first professional forays were in the corporate world in the world of corporate law and I'm wondering why you decided to move out of that world and to work with a Community Development Organization in Harlem.
Darren Walker: Well, I mean I should also say, you know, that thing that I, you know, I was absolutely a very different child, right? So I was a queer little boy in a little small town and I think because I was different, it actually gave me confidence in a way. And my mother was very supportive and encouraging of me and all of my difference, even though she didn't say, you're a different little boy. Do you know, like today where, you know, people say, you know, to their eight year olds, I think you're gay. I mean, I mean it wasn't like that. My mother didn't read Psychology Today. [laughter]
She did have a point of view that, you know, I was going to sort of just be me and that that was great and fine in the fact that, you know, her siblings thought something was wrong with me, that she didn't think something was wrong with me. I think was very helpful to my own growth. And when I went to college, I went to College, I didn't know anyone. I knew one person from who had gone to school in Austin because most people who went beyond high school and my community went to the local community college. And so I was very lucky and fortunate because I, you know, I went to college and I received the scholarship. That was wonderful. In fact, I thought there was this narrative that the man who founded it was like, I mean, I think it was founded for white Christian, young men of good character.
You know, one of those things with the sort of, I mean, you know, and I can do, I mean, and I just imagine this, you know, I was definitely not that the idea of what the donor had in mind. I was very lucky. And so it allowed me to go to College and have everything paid for. And I've never, you know, had to deal with debt or any such thing but I did have a point of view about what I wanted to do when I went to work and that was not to be poor. And so one of the things about being poor is that you really are very clear that you don't want to be that way forever. And I, you know, we were for a bunch of reasons, I think a host of reasons that I don't need to go into, it was just a very volatile childhood.
And until I was an adult. And so when I became an adult and I had the opportunity to work and have a choice of the kind of career, you know, I didn't want to go to work for a nonprofit or something. I wanted to go to work and make money. And I, and the good thing about, I've never been a person who was not self-aware and like totally honest about these sorts of things. I mean, people often will disingenuously say things about their career choices or whatever to me, and no, I wanted to go and make money. I did not want to be poor. I did not want to live the way I grew up, which was, you know, in a household where my mother panicked every week about whether or not what utility going to be cut off or whether she had the money to buy food or, I mean, all of those sorts of things left an indelible mark on me.
And so that's why I went to Wall Street. And I'm glad I did and it was a great 10 years. And at the end of it, I thought, all right, I don't really have to do this. I mean, I never really, I was never passionate. And this was the thing about Wall Street. I mean, you have to actually be, to be super successful, you actually have to be passionate about piling up money. And I don't say that I'm a capitalist, so I know, I know. But for me, I mean the idea of some sense of security was more than I could ever...It was so out of context. I mean, I couldn't have imagined, you know, I mean living with privilege, you just, you, if you've lived without privilege and you live with privilege, the difference is just amazing.
I mean, it's like amazing. And okay. So I did that and I thought, well, I don't really, I don't want to, I don't have to work right now, so let's just figure out what I wanted to do. And so that's how I found myself in Harlem. I met Calvin Butts who's the pastor of the Abyssinian church. And he knew that I was working at the school, which is down the street from Abyssinian, not far at the children's [inaudible] school. And one thing led to another and I ended up going to work for him. And that was how I got into the, I mean, I did that. There was no trajectory. There was no, Oh, I'm gonna, you know, career. I mean, I just realized that the vision of redeveloping Harlem, which is hard to imagine that there was a time when people didn't want to live in Harlem and we had to practically give away housing.
But believe me, 1993, we were practically for $300,000, you could buy a 5,000 square foot brownstone that was completely renovated. It was really amazing, but I'm hard to believe today. But in the early nineties, it was a very different time. And so it was great because the skills that I had honed working in law and finance, I actually could use, I mean, I understood, project finance. I just never financed low income housing, just finance projects that help rich people get richer. But I'd never actually financed a supermarket or I mean put together a financing syndicate for a shopping center on 125th street. I mean, those sorts of things that we were doing was far more gratifying than helping, you know, Solomon brothers issue another rounded debt for B & P Bank. So, sorry. [laughter].
Amrita Basu: So that actually gets us to the title of our conversation which is "From Generosity to Justice, a Better Vision for 21st Century Philanthropy." And the title draws on an op ed that you wrote for The New York Times in 2015 in which you provided a critique of traditional notions of philanthropy as charity, and you argue that philanthropy has to really address more frontally inequality and figure out the roots of it. And under your guidance, the Ford Foundation in fact has been attempting to do just that, to make the question of inequality, social and economic inequality to place it at the forefront of its agenda. So I'm wondering whether there are ways in which you think philanthropic organizations are better equipped to address issues of inequality than government policy is. On the one hand, but I'm also wondering how you would respond to commentators like Robert Reich who says questions of, um, philanthropy and inequality should be kept separate because actually philanthropic organizations cannot address the structural, systemic institutional roots of inequality and social injustice. We need another way of getting at that. What do you think?
Darren Walker: Well, the series that I did for The Times, those columns were really, um, written after reflection on Andrew Carnegie's seminar in 1889 essay, The Gospel of Wealth, which is really the foundational document for Americans man therapy, which for its time was the radical document. And it went on to inform John D. Rockefeller in for frank and Morgan and Ford and um, many of the great names of American philanthropy of the 20th century. And Carnegie in that essay said that the, I mean, he articulated a number of principles of philanthropy. The first was that inequality was a natural phenomenon. And the point was that was for men like him who amassed enormous sums of wealth, that they should give it away and be generous and charitable and that they shouldn't die rich men. Um, and, um, that they should be generous. And these were all radical ideas actually.
And so I contextualize Carnegie as in some ways a real radical because he did articulate ideas that I think work very forward thinking for his time. What I wrote was that it's not Carnegie who inspires me. Actually, Martin Luther King, in 1968, addressed a group of philanthropists and he said, the following: "Philanthropy is commendable, but it should not allow the philanthropists to overlook the very injustice which makes philanthropy necessary." And what Dr. King was saying was something different than what Carnegie said. What Dr. King was saying was actually we must interrogate the very systems that create a philanthropists wealth, and ask ourselves: How are those systems working for justice? And to make a very clear distinction between generosity and charity and justice and dignity. And generosity, actually, as we know from the research, donors feel good about being generous. We know actually from the neuroscience that when you actually write a check to a charitable organization or you drop money in the Salvation Army bucket in front of Bloomingdale's at Christmas, then like something happens in your brain, and you actually feel good. That's what generosity and charity does charitable giving does.
It makes you say, this is going to help the homeless and I feel good that I'm helping the homeless by writing this check to a coalition for the homeless. Justice demands that you ask the question, Why is there so much homelessness in the richest nation in the world? Why, in a city like New York or city like San Francisco, two enormously wealthy cities, are there camp sites of people living in the streets. Um, and justice actually makes the donor uncomfortable and the, and justice requires of you as a donor and as a person of privilege, it requires you to interrogate, to interrogate your own privilege and behaviors and the various systems that advantage you. And so I posit that it is very challenging, as Rob Reich says in his book, the Stanford Professor who has written I think quite eloquently on this subject, that it is very hard to that philanthropy, which is in some ways a beneficiary of inequality, to actually attack it, reduce it, seek to end it.
Um, because we are the beneficiaries of it and the way in which it is, I find it as often, at least in the circles I travel with, at least with very successful people, it's very difficult for them to engage in real interrogation because we desperately need to believe in this country, particularly if we're successful, that there is a level playing field. Because if I'm successful, how could it not be fair? And so you want me to engage in a conversation about, um, a system that is unfair when I believe that system is what's made me rich. And it's got to be fair because of its not how is it that I'm so enormously successful and wealthy. And that discourse is very difficult, especially in America, because successful people, particularly the kinds of uber-successful people I sometimes find myself with, just have a really hard time because they want to believe.
And the narrative that I started with nothing is a narrative that I hear from very wealthy men primarily again, because this is what we're talking about primarily. I hear all the time when you may talk about when you challenge on privilege, people recoil because they're almost offended because there's always a pattern that is a response, which is: "I started with nothing. My father didn't have a high school degree." I mean I can just check, check, check, you know, and, and so in their mind, when you start to say, let's really interrogate these systems, um, it's very difficult to do, but that's what the New Gospel is about. And so, not that I'm plugging my new book, but I will, in the following the look is a really about this idea of how do we, and it really the audience for it quite frankly, are wealthy people.
I mean, I want, you know, yes, it matters that everyone, but most people in America understand unfairness and injustice. It's those of us who are privileged who don't. And so I actually don't need, um, you know, my two cousins who are in Louisiana State Penitentiary, uh, to read that book. I actually don't, they don't need to read the book. Um, I need, um, a few of the billionaires I know who live on Park Avenue to read the book and to um, hopefully find a point of entry in it where it's not something to just hit them over the head and tell him that there are bad people because they are successful. But it's to appeal to their sense of the notion of fairness and how something they all believe in, which is this country, how at risk is if the trends around particularly economic and social mobility that we are seeing.
If those trends become hardened, you know, I was in a feud the other day and I hope it doesn't come out this way, but I'm sure it will because it's, you know, this reporter said, well, so what do you, what do you think about inequality? And I said, "Well, if you want the American dream moved to Canada..." What I was saying was in a snarky way, of course it means it'll get to be the headline. But what I was saying, it was the data around the social mobility and economic mobility over the last 20 years, we are being outperformed by the Canadians. I mean, it's not even close, right? So that the numbers of people who are born in the bottom core tile who 25 years later, 40 years later are in that top core tile. Um, they're outperforming us and um, and other indicators as well, other indicators of social wellbeing.
But the point is, you know, we have always led on the issue of mobility. I mean, mobility has been something that we have felt proud of this country and has been the defining feature of our society, and inequality asphyxiates that. And that's why I care about inequality, not because I want to criticize rich people. I don't think that that's helpful. I think we actually want to have a society of successful people, but we need those people, which includes me. I mean, as I said, when I was a first year associate at Cleary Gottlieb, or in college and law school, my checking account was like most. I mean, I was like the student union savings society. I mean, that's where my checking account was, you know, and it was whatever.
So when I went my summer, it was first time I arrived in New York and the woman who took care of all the first-year associates gives me this packet and she says, "Oh, take this and go to 55 Wall Street, which now, of course, Cipriani Banquet Hall, but it used to be First City National Bank for us really old people, and go to First and they'll take care of me. And so I walk into the bank, it was the middle, this time it was hot and I walked him to the bank and there's a long line of people and the waiting, you know, and I go and I stand in line and I, I'm tending their, this clerk at the bed, you've walking past people to think, oh, just meant to say, Oh, I'm here and I show her this. And she says, "Oh sir, you're in the wrong line." And I say, "Oh, okay." And so she takes me and she walks me up the stairs. It's um, and up the stairs and there's this sign in, it says private bank. I didn't know, I thought the bank was a bank. I didn't know that there was a bang. And then there's a thing called a private bank kind of in the private bank your checks don't bounce. [laughter] No, I mean for me, for a poor kid like me, like those are things I'm a private bank is for where people like me go to bank, is like for where people like me go to the bank, it's not like one of the people in that line who were like down there in the world. I mean it was air conditioner that was had red carpet and nice furniture. It was like amazing. It was just this like moment of like the beginning of my journey of understanding like the world I was going into and how, um, that world is just very different from the world.
And you can be, you can insulate yourself. I mean, one of the reasons I love about living in New York is you, you can't insulate yourself, which is, I like that. I like you get on the subway, you can't insulate yourself, but you can insulate yourself too. You can. And I think that privilege that we all live with, um, is, is something that insulates us from the reality that most people in this country live from and make it harder for us to really engage because it means we have to actually give up something. And that's the hardest part. And the final thing I'll say is, I know it's really hard and I tried different ways to see if it's hard on a personal level. And for me, you know, I was with a group of very successful African American, you know, all my age, you know, and in New York, everybody knows, I mean there a whole group of us, we all know other whatever. But I was saying that we should end legacy as a structure in higher education because I believe that we shouldn't have a system that privileges the already privileged and advantages the already advantaged. And, you know, I was the only one in the room, you know, because as one person said: Why is it now when we have a chance for legacy, that you're like advocating to end it? Well, I mean, but around the table, all of them and in every one of their kind are all at Amherst and Yale.
Because they're all legacies who went to private school. African American doesn't need to wish on another meet. I mean daddy could mom can pay the full, I mean [inaudible] I mean of course, but that's actually not the child I'm worried about. I'm worried about what you used to be, like that profile when you were living in public housing and you got prep for prep that sent you to Andover, like and you, and it changed your life, like, I want that kid to get into Harvard before your kid gets in. And that's the really hard thing because people, on a very personal, deeply embedded into our own privilege, it's really hard to lead, to interrogate even for us, meaning even for African Americans like myself, who are the first generation to actually achieve any semblance of economic and social mobility.
Amrita Basu: I wanted to ask you a little, what about gender? Um, you have described yourself as a strong supporter of Hashtag need to and as a feminist, and of course the Ford Foundation for decades now has supported various programs to empower women. Um, various civil society initiatives does strengthen women's movements. Um, and what we're seeing today of course, is a backlash against many of those gains, um, that women had made, an LGBTQ communities had made, we're seeing a growing incidents globally, uh, violence against women and violence against lesbian, gay, transgender people as well. And of course, this is the million dollar question, who has an answer, but I'm wondering if you have thoughts about what went wrong and what are the steps going forward to address these forms of gender inequality?
Darren Walker: Well, I think the idea of social progress, which I believe progress around gender will always be contested. So, I have a board member who sometimes get, gets very frustrated because he just, he just says, could you just, can we just fund things that we can count? And uh, I can evaluate. Can you just, can we just in our India program, which is really focused on women, could we just like do some toilets or do something that is like what people need on a practical level. But we can't stop because we're a social justice foundation and the the things that we work on are going to be contested. And when you work on justice issues, you have to know that—and it's why we focus so much on institutions—that the contest station is going to mean that there will be feats and defeats and that you, unlike when I worked at Rockefeller and we were working on vaccines and seeds and soil, you could, scientific breakthroughs are created. You never go back. I mean, if you, if you have a breakthrough with a scientific discovery, you build on that. It may, you may go sideways for a while or you may not, but you actually build on that scientific knowledge and discovery. When you're doing the work of justice, you don't necessarily...you're not assured that it is accretive. And so I say that to say, just as we're looking at whether it's, you know, I just approved a round of grants on voter suppression in Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia.
We did a grass series of gratitude 55 years ago on voter suppression in those three countries. That's because the idea of justice and progress and so on gender, so much of this is the very contested idea of equality for women. That's a contested idea because of cultural norms. And it is not science in that way. It's a matter of interpretation of culture and context and the ebb and flow of politics and the things that intersect with issues of gender and gender equality, for example, are so often about, certainly in the case of gender, at a root cause, patriarchy. I mean, we can't get our way out of the issue of gender inequality without addressing the issue of patriarchy. And certainly in the context of India, or everywhere, it's patriarchy, which is the idea of the supremacy of one gender and the normalization of that ideology, which makes it possible then to, for men to feel culturally entitled and legally entitled, to have ownership over women and girls and to exercise agency over them and to take away their agency and to perpetrate violence.
Right? And so we began, it was, I said to Muhammad Yunus, we can't microfinance our way out of this, you know, we can, we can make progress by using instruments and approaches like microfinance. But at the, if we're to look at root cause, and so the question is if that's, if that's our diagnosis, how do you as a philanthropy deal with patriarchy? What's the program strategy to deal with patriarchy? Actually there is a program strategy to deal with patriarchy. I mean, there is a way in which because patriarchy is carried by the carriers of culture. It's transmitted, right? I mean it's transmitted in community over generations by the carriers of the culture. The religious leaders, I mean, depending on where you are in the world, the religious leaders, the village elders, political leaders, men who are enlightened. I mean there are people who carry and perpetuate and transmit culture, whatever that is.
And so actually, as we've seen this work, for example, on, on FGM, on female genital mutilation, there have been very good programs that have significantly, materially reduced the practice of FGM. And it has happened, in part, because in those communities, the religious leaders, the village elders, men, said, we are not going to do this to our girls. This is not culturally appropriate. This is not culturally acceptable. And in those places that practice decreased. And so it is possible to imagine that there are ways. The problem is, there are other things that intersect. Right? So that's not happening in a petri dish, right? There are other things going on around those experiments in which, which can impair the progress. And that is in part what we're seeing. So we're seeing the, the fears and concerns about cultural homogenization, globalization, if you want to call it that, in those countries like India for example, that has given an opportunity to the patriarchs.
And, and so whenever there is an opportunity where people feel vulnerable and insecure, generally in society, the aperture for these kinds of evils, as we're seeing in our own country, there is a correlation between the growing inequality and the insecurity in this country, and in India, where Modi was just re-elected and the larger discourse on the kinds of evils that many of us find repugnant and repellant, um, but the curtain can go up on those because you've got general sense of insecurity, dislocation, uncertainty, vulnerability, and it just opens up all kinds of possibilities for bad things to happen.
Amrita Basu: So at this point I'm going to, I'd have questions that I'm going to leave this side cause I would love to hear comments, questions, thoughts from the audience.
Audience Member: For the question of legacy, I'm sitting here thinking about my second-degree legacy, nd I'm thinking about my grandchildren who might not come to Amherst where their grandfather and father went, but would be likely wind up at Williams or U Chicago, in part because of where their grandfather and father had come from, is that an indirect or second-degree offense?
Darren Walker: Well, I think privilege in this country is compounded over generations. The data are clear, so I'm not, that's not a political, ideological idea. They're in some ways, um, there's no way to get around it. I mean, so there's no way to get around the notions of privilege...and I mean, I have five Goddaughters and you know, and 2 of their father are the kinds of profiles of the men that I'm talking about and they, you know, one of them would sort of play all these games to convince his children that they weren't privileged. I mean, you know, like they would sort of play these silly games, but then of course they were eight years old and I've never been to a commercial airport so you can play all of these silly games, but your children go to Teterboro to the airport, right? And so you, so you can...my point is that there are certain things that are just that will just be the knock on effects. So they may not be admitted to Amherst, but they'll go to Williams or...I mean really bad backup schools. [laughter] I mean, those are the knock on effects that, that privilege perpetuates. And the point that I tried to make is we should seek to intervene. Not, I was accused recently, you know, not for social engineering cause I actually think the social engineering is the compounding of privilege. I mean, I actually think what we've socially engineered is the compounding of privilege and more privilege for those and advantage for those who already have it. And um, so I think that what we need is for people who are privileged to be comfortable engaging in those conversations and leading those conversations, and recognizing that it's not, I mean, what Carnegie said was that we should think about giving back and that's the idea in America, is for privileged people to give back. I'm actually not asking to give back, I'm asking what are we going to give up? And that's a very different conversation. Um, the giving up, um, is a very different thing than giving back.
Audience Member: My question is kind of related to what we were just talking about and I was also really thinking about the sort of challenge people of privilege have to grapple with—like, even if I came here from nothing, I still benefited from the system in some sort of way. And so I think my question is, How do you convince people that it's even worth attempting to grapple with it? Like, the challenge of thinking about it and reconciling that in itself can be hard enough for people, but I've talked to some people who you try to bring it up and they just like, they don't even want to think about it. Do you have any advice?
Darren Walker: Yeah, I mean they don't want to think about it. And again, not because they're bad people but because it's just really uncomfortable. And where does it lead you, right? I mean, what's the end game? What are you trying to achieve? Because sometimes, and this is a critique that I have made to some of my progressive friends, um, you can't just be for tearing it down. All right, what is it you want in its place? What is it? What's the world that you want in its place? And that can be very, um, for some people a difficult conversation to engage in. And and what I find actually is just talking about it that way, by saying this, this can make us all feel really uncomfortable. And I think putting our own discomfort, because that's what it is. I mean, it makes us all feel a little, you know, uncomfortable. And who wants to go uncomfortable at a party or at work? No, seriously. I mean, who wants to buy? This is why my friend that I was just talking about what I'm doing, do you like to do down or tonight. And there I was like at a nice dinner at somebody's apartment, like talking about this. It was not fun for a lot of the people.
Audience member: We like to think that the culture of philanthropy in this country is better than anywhere else. Stronger. I wonder if you agree with that?
Darren Walker: It is better than anywhere else. I mean, in terms of private giving, it is better here than anywhere else. Public giving isn't, but the actual, uh, system that we created with a tax advantage and a mechanism in the form of a vibrant and robust nonprofit sector, I mean there's nothing like it in the world. The problem is we, and this gets to your earlier question about, uh, we have some have come to believe that it is actually the role of private philanthropy to undertake the public interest, I mean in the sense, and this is part of Rob Reich's critique, that when I hear, as I heard someone say recently, "I want to pay less taxes because I will give away what I want to be spent on the public." So I want to pay less taxes because if I decide that I want to give to education or I want to give to the Central Park Conservancy or whatever it is, um, that, that private right should be privileged over the idea of that money going into the public treasury. And I think that's the risk that we have allowed that kind of thinking to infect our sort of discourse about how to solve public problems. Because I actually worry that, uh, that there is too much of a belief, particularly in the part of newer philanthropists, uh, that, that private philanthropy is better positioned. Private philanthropy is better positioned to test and to possibly innovate and iterate on ideas and to invest in people and start institutions, but private philanthropy can't scale anything, at least to reach millions of people, without some public infrastructure. I mean even the Gates Foundation, with their vast wealth, they can't, they can fund the research on a vaccine but they can't actually distribute that vaccine in a country if the health system is broken.
Audience member: Thinking about sort of what you see as the intersection between elite colleges and what they should be doing or what their role is and sort of like the same kind of investing where you see higher education going forward is?
Darren Walker: It's really hard because a school like Amherst is so privileged. I don't mean to make you feel guilty on it. Say it that way. But I made this, this is just such a privileged place. And, um, and I, and so to my mind, um, it's, there's, there's nothing that anyone should feel guilty about being privileged. And that's where I think, as I was saying with, you know, with my goddaughter's probably tell their fathers like in a mouse. Like, of course she's, they're privileged girl, but we just don't want them to be titled that Spoiled Them Ready. Right. I mean, but they can't, I mean, they're privileged, but they can be privileged with a conscious, they can be privileged with empathy that, I mean, there are, they can, you can, those things can reside in the same soul. They can be in both, right. Because that privilege and empathy, which is what you get when you go to a great liberal arts school and your is, is then what can embolden you to, to do good in the world. And so these institutions like this, I believe, I hope, and what I see, because I see lots of young people coming forward and other places are generating young people who possess those qualities, who understand that they have been provided with this enormous gift to spend their college years a place like this. And then to say, So what do I do with that? Um, and that may mean going to McKinsey and that's okay too. That may mean going to the Ford Foundation are going to work for an NGO in Africa or whatever. But to find your path to actually use the qualities and the skills that you've learned and the knowledge that you gained in a privileged place like this to me is, is it's the ultimate objective. Because, you know, I see people, I mean, there are people who, there are people we can see around us who, who possess no humanity. And you can look at those people and say, they definitely did not go to a college like Amherst. I mean, but you know, this person, there is no way they could have sat through a class. There's just no way. And, and turned out the way because no empathy, no ability to put yourself in another person's shoes. No sense of a belief that there may be some qualities of humanity in another person who looks different from you or who has a different background or who is from a different country who speaks a different language. And so that's the gift to actually see that is one of the gifts of a privileged education of a place like Amherst.
Amrita Basu: We can take one last question.
Audience member: What's your thought on the recent gift made by William Smith Robertson at Morehouse?
Darren Walker: Well, you know Robert is a friend of mine. I was texting him, we were texting on Sunday. So, um, I think this I, first of all, Robert is an extraordinary philanthropists and his giving, um, and uh, has been, uh, so clearly targeting in ways that reflect his own history and his own narrative and its own concern about the plight of African Americans in this country. Uh, whether it's, uh, scholarships that he's established to recruit more people of color into the sciences or the kids leadership gift to the Smithsonian African American Museum. Um, he has really demonstrated a deep connection and concern for the plight of people of African descent in this country. The gift at Morehouse, I think he saw as what it is on a very personal level, a way of liberating these young men from the burden of debt because we know that that burden reduces the chance that they will be entrepreneurs or business people because they can't get loans if they've already got $75,000 of college loans, and will make it harder for them to actually create the kind of intergenerational wealth that African Americans have never created at any large scale this country. And so his impulse, I think, was spot on. Unfortunately, some people have, it will obscure the root cause of this issue, which is that this can't be solved by philanthropists. The issue of college debt, uh, which is now greater than the mortgage debt. I mean, it is a trillion and a half dollars now, um, that we have an entire generation of young people—and again, the very people who historically from the perspective of social mobility—would move up because they could accumulate assets. That they will, it will be less likely that they will accumulate assets because they will be paying off their debt. Right? And so the issue cannot be obscured by a philanthropist. And this is Robert's regret. I mean, I think he did not want the issue to obscure. And I think some of the attacks, which I think were really unfortunate and personal, um, on him, was never intended. I mean, he was literally just thinking about that graduating class and not wanting them to have that, um, and wanting them to be able to make a choice as to a career path or what they wanted to do without having to think first: well, I've got to pay back my college debt. Um, and so I think what philanthropy can do, and certainly what we and others have done who are interested in higher education access is to stay vigilant on the core issue of the correlation of high school/college achievement and potential with wealth creation and economic mobility. And we are immobilizing a generation of people from being able to create wealth, build assets, buy a home, start a business, give back, because they're spending. I mean, remember Barrack and Michelle Obama, when they got to the White House, still had college debt. I mean, he paid off their college debt when he got the advanced on the second book. Um, their debt was maybe school when compared to the six-figure dents that you find. And those six figure dance, I mean, again, kids, at least undergraduates coming out of Harvard and Williams and Amherst mean there because again, the inequality in our system, the Harvards and Amhersts and Williams, in terms of their endowments and therefore the availability of scholarships for deserving students, is much more so. So the other underlying issue that Robert was seeking to address was that a school like Morehouse has $120 million endowment. I mean, Princeton's endowment, your endowment like kicks them off in a year. You're clipping coupons here at Amherst and you got more than $120 million a year. Um, and so the ability to underwrite, I'm sure, I know, cause I know this, every person at Williams College at Amherst College at Harvard who needs financial support and who is eligible for a scholarship, gets a scholarship, gets tuition. At Morehouse and Spelman and Howard, that's not the case. You have needy students who, if, if their economic profile was at, and they were at Amherst, they would be getting 25 or $30,000 in a grant every year because there have been enough wealthy alumni who have created scholarship and financial aid to make that possible, which is a great thing. But if you're Morehouse, you don't have that. And so again, it's how the inequality in the system gets compounded because the school like Amherst, literally your privilege, thanks to a brilliant investment strategy has been compounding every year. And this school has been getting richer and richer and poor little Morehouse, $120 million dollars, it's taken, you know, a hundred years to get to $120 million.
Amrita Basu: I wish we could continue, but we're out of time. Thank you so much.