Disruption in Power Structures Key to Creating an Anti-Racist Society
By Tracy Seipel
In Fireside Chat with President Kevin O’Brien, S.J., Ford Foundation president Darren Walker offers frank advice on fighting racism.
Whether it’s Santa Clara University, Silicon Valley, or society, truly committing to anti-racism means that power structures must be disrupted, Ford Foundation President Darren Walker told SCU President Kevin O’Brien, S.J., during a recent virtual conversation on diversity in Silicon Valley.
“And it will only be disrupted by the gatekeepers of those structures and systems acknowledging that, because it will take behavioral change,” Walker said during the Feb. 25 talk, hosted by SCU’s Silicon Valley Executive Center and the Leavey School of Business.
Walker has spent decades enacting diversity at different stops along his career. Since 2013 at the Ford Foundation in particular, he has helped guide the $15 billion social justice philanthropy that believes fundamental inequality is the defining challenge of our time, one that limits the potential of all people, everywhere.
Diversity, equity, and inclusion aren’t trendy buzz words for Walker. His success in life, he is the first to say, could not have happened anywhere else but America, citing his access to public education made possible because of President Lyndon Johnson’s Head Start program in 1965, aimed at giving every vulnerable child an opportunity to succeed. He was among the program’s inaugural class members.
“I was lucky to get on that escalator of a public investment that made it possible for me to have a solid, and I would say, very good public education,” Walker said.
Embracing all humanity
Accessible college tuition, subsidized by the state legislature in Texas, as well as the federal Pell Grant student aid program, allowed him to attend the University of Texas at Austin, where he earned his B.A., B.S. and J.D. degrees.
After a few years working as a lawyer, Walker pursued an investment banking career until he left to join a community development organization in Harlem. He later moved on to help lead the Rockefeller Foundation, and then the Ford Foundation.
While the 61-year-old philanthropy executive is a financially successful Black American with extraordinary access to influence, he said he remains “enraged by injustice, by racism, by white supremacy, and by the ways in which our institutions, leaders, and policies refuse to fully embrace the humanity of all of us, so that the potential of this nation—the possibility that America can be America—can be realized.”
As Walker pointed out, anti-racism “is a recognition of the centrality of race in our narrative in our history and in our institutions today.” But simply saying things like “we just need to be colorblind” won't achieve equality and justice, he added.
Challenges of capital networks
For Walker, a central challenge for many Black people is the historically weak ecosystem of capitalism, and problems like redlining that still impact Black people and must be confronted.
Asked by Fr. O’Brien about how Silicon Valley can improve gender and racial diversity inside venture capital firms, Walker chafed at the on-going challenges that come with capital networks that rely heavily on where you went to college and who you know. African-Americans, he said, "have traditionally not been a part of those networks."
In order to change this, Walker emphasized, “we need to understand that reality, because that reality is structural, and that structure needs to be disrupted.”
O’Brien’s conversation with Walker rounded out the public webinar series of four frank and critical conversations on diversity in Silicon Valley hosted by LSB and the Executive Center.
The events also highlighted the Center’s new Black Corporate Board Readiness program, which aims to increase racial diversity in boardrooms. A new law in California requires publicly traded companies in the state to add at least one member of an underrepresented community to their board of directors by the end of this year, and the Nasdaq stock exchange is requiring companies to disclose board diversity and explain shortfalls.
The BCBR program idea surfaced in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder by police officers last May 25, 2020, and the rallies and protests that followed. Amid the racial reckoning Floyd’s death ignited nationwide, President O’Brien and the Board of Trustees publicly committed Santa Clara University to become an anti-racist institution. In addition to hosting a wide-ranging series of campus conversations with diverse, high-profile speakers on the topic, SCU also is on the brink of hiring its first-ever Vice President of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.
Holding ourselves accountable
During the talk, O’Brien emphasized that “change has to be concrete” at the University, which he said is not only seeking to diversify its Board of Trustees but all of its advisory boards, and even its endowment investments, “making sure we’re holding our investment managers accountable for those standards.”
On the role of endowments and philanthropy to effect change, Walker echoed Martin Luther King Jr.’s words on the subject.
“Philanthropy is commendable,” said Walker, quoting MLK, “but it should not allow the philanthropist to overlook the economic injustice which makes philanthropy necessary.”
He reminded the audience that it's not enough to think of making billions and then giving back.
“Dr. King was saying you have to ask not just what will I give back, but what am I willing to give up?” said Walker. “And that is a very different idea of philanthropy.”