News and analysis
October 29, 2015

Ford’s President Highlights Government’s Role in Reducing Inequality

On Wednesday Darren Walker, president of the nation’s second-wealthiest grant maker, joined Chronicle readers on Facebook to answer questions about what its new focus on reducing inequality means for the foundation and grantees. In the near future, Ford plans to articulate a more detailed grant-making strategy to combat racial, gender, income, and other kinds of inequality. During the discussion, Mr. Walker provided a glimpse.

Here are some of the questions readers asked, edited for clarity, and Mr. Walker’s responses:

Madison Sandy, a University Innovation Fellow at Arizona State University, asked what Mr. Walker meant in his recent essay Toward a New Gospel of Wealth when he noted that Henry Ford had talked about the obligation "to strengthen and improve the Ford Foundation’s progenitor," when it is your progenitor (capitalism) that is now fundamentally and consistently producing the inequality you aim to end?"

Darren Walker: I think we have to improve our market system to work for more people. Our current economic system of free-market-based capitalism is underdelivering on its promise and potential. At its best, our markets can lift up more people from poverty and reduce inequality, but it’s important to recognize the role that government has in ensuring that this happens. Government plays an important role in setting up the rules of the game in order to foster a market that creates more opportunity for all.

Astrid Scholz, chief executive of the Resilience Exchange, followed up: The privilege and systemic inequality that produced the Ford Foundation are enshrined in its very business model and practices. How willing are you to really disrupt the way the foundation works? And what are you doing concretely towards that end? It’s nice that you are announcing new areas of grant making soon, but if the way of doing grant making remains unchanged, you are not really escaping the institutionalized inequality that begat the foundation in the first place.

Mr. Walker: I think there are things that we are prepared to do that will change our own practices within the foundation and how we work with each other and others. For example, we are going to provide more general support to our partners. But this means we have to look deeper into our day-to-day practices and operations such as exploring our investment practices, our hiring practices, the ways we interact with different stakeholder communities and how we communicate. All of these will be disruptive for us in a good way, hopefully. But I want to be genuine and sincere when I say that we will be disruptive.

The Ford Foundation is not in the business of trying to get rid of capitalism. We want to create and foster a market system that works better for more people, not overthrow the system.

Lindsey McCormack, senior grants officer at International Planned Parenthood Federation: How will the Ford Foundation’s strategic focus on inequality account for the role of gender, and how do you see your relationship to feminism and the movement for sexual and reproductive rights?

Mr. Walker: I believe strongly in the full empowerment and participation of women and girls in every aspect of society. U.N. Global Goal 5, "to achieve gender equality and empowerment for all women and girls," will certainly require strong leadership from the U.S. government. I think for foundations, part of our role is to work closely with government and advocacy stakeholders to ensure that there is leadership in achieving this goal. As funders, Ford and other philanthropic institutions need to fund organizations that will catalyze the U.S. government to make empowering women and girls a global priority.

In terms of reproductive rights, we hold the view that a fundamental right of women is to have the full array of options for their reproductive health. We have to be vigilant to protect those rights and we will be supporting organizations that are on the front lines of fighting for reproductive justice.

Marilyn Walczak, community-justice coordinator at the Justice Initiatives Institute: [Ford has supported] developing innovative pathways to public safety that avoid excessive sentencing, increasing the quality of indigent defense, strengthening the voices of reform-minded prosecutors, and promoting greater understanding of the civil and criminal-justices systems. Will this continue to be a priority?

Mr. Walker: We in fact are doubling down on reducing mass incarceration. We will continue to fund the civil and criminal-justice system work you refer to. However, we do not see this as an issue limited to the civil and criminal-justice system. This has to be attacked through our education system work, community development, and racial justice. So our approach is to address this issue at its roots. Lastly, I’m pleased that Michelle Alexander, the author of The New Jim Crow, has joined the foundation this year as a senior fellow and will be advising us on our criminal-justice program.

Send an email to Alex Daniels.