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Darren Walker: Detroit’s Core Narrative is About Opportunity

Detroit has several foundations and leaders that are willing to do what needs to get done. Among these influential people and at the center of community development for more than two decades is Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation. Walker’s influence spreads from helping to bring the Grand Bargain to fruition and ushering Detroit’s swift exit from bankruptcy, to working with the Rockefeller Foundation to rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

In a moderated discussion with Devin Scillian, anchor for WDIV-TV 4, Walker reflected on the Grand Bargain, his thoughts on the impact of foundations in the current state of democracy in the United States, and expounded on the Ford Foundation’s commitment to continue to invest in Detroit.

Key Takeaways:

  • The Grand Bargain was an elegant piece of problem-solving where government and public and private partners did what was needed to get the job done. Citizens, government leaders, business and philanthropic groups and retirees stepped up even if they had something to lose.
  • Recently the Ford Foundation returned to its roots in Detroit, and plans to co-locate its office with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Plans include working together with other foundations to tackle issues in Detroit.
  • The Ford Foundation has already committed $15 million a year to Detroit and the first investments will include supporting housing, community development, restoring funding to civic organizations and the issues of blight removal and putting Detroiters back to work, among many more.
  • It is always better when foundations can be in alignment and collaborate. It is impossible to do the type of work foundations do in isolation from a larger ecosystem of philanthropy and social change.
  • A foundation can only be successful if it is willing to be cooperative and will only get things done in partnership.
  • Foundations cannot solve the problems with grantmaking alone. Problems are large and require all the tools in their toolbox.
  • Top down initiatives designed by experts at the top of a social chain do not work.
  • What works is when you do not privilege credential knowledge over authentic lived experience from people on the ground giving their perspective.
  • Never take justice and progress for granted, which is why Walker believes in focusing on the three I’s: institutions, ideas and individuals.
  • In democracy, progress is usually followed by regress and backlash, something that was prominent with racial justice issues following the election of former President Barack Obama.
  • Foreign leaders around the world feel like America no longer has credibility on human rights issues, especially when there is social injustice happening in the country.
  • America has a growing inequality problem.

“At the core of Detroit’s narrative is opportunity and when people don’t feel that there is opportunity they become hopeless,” Walker explained. “Hopelessness will drive a people to do desperate things and they do those things because they’re angry, they feel unheard and overlooked. We have to have hope.”