Fri. Jun 21st, 2024

Darren Walker President, Ford Foundation

Boy standing in front of “The Civil Rights Memorial Center” wall in Montgomery, Alabama.

Threats to truth and justice are mounting. How should we respond?

During the spring of 1816, four decades after Thomas Jefferson drafted the United States’ Declaration of Independence, he exchanged letters with an old colleague and companion from his days as minister to France’s court of Louis XVI. This friend, Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours, had written to Jefferson to share a treatise he had composed about the purpose and virtues of republican government. And with characteristic eloquence—and the wisdom of an extraordinary 73 years behind him—Jefferson responded boldly to du Pont’s manuscript: “Justice,” he penned, “is the fundamental law of society.”

From the very inception of the United States, this “fundamental law” has guided our grand experiment in self-determination and global leadership. In our constitution preamble, the framers made clear their ambition “to establish justice.” In our courtrooms, we call for “equal justice under the law.” In our classrooms, we pledge allegiance to a republic “with liberty and justice for all.”

No question, the ideal of justice has faced all varieties of tests and trials—contests and contradictions—during these last two and one-third centuries. Each generation of Americans has, in turn, been called to reimagine, reaffirm, and renew its commitment to justice.

And still, we see justice’s uneven march forward all around us. I see it—and feel it—in the humbling fact that my semi-literate grandfather’s education ended in the third grade, while I am privileged to serve as the president of the Ford Foundation.

Today, however, the institutions designed to protect and promote justice in our society—to serve and strengthen our democracy—are beleaguered and besieged.

In a just society, people are guaranteed a voice—and vote—to influence the decisions that affect them. In our society, access to the levers of power is heavily skewed in favor of the wealthy and privileged.

In a just society, journalists hold the powerful to account. In our society, the powerful are waging a concerted campaign to degrade and delegitimize the free press.

In a just society, the rule of law is applied equally, regardless of identity, ability, or income. In our society, the justice system favors the privileged and powerful over the poor and vulnerable. In our society, women are too often hindered by a culture that tolerates harassment and abuse.

In these ways and many others, we have seen the United States abdicate its responsibility, legitimacy, and integrity as a leader for justice in the world. The consequence is an American society riven by and reeling from inequality, and a global community devoid of America’s best example.

The imperative of action

Recently, the health care expert Donald M. Berwick set the imperative of action in stark relief. In the Journal of the American Medical Association—a periodical not normally on my reading list—he wrote:

It is chilling to see the great institutions of health care, hospitals, physician groups, scientific bodies assume that the seat of bystander is available. That seat is gone. To try to avoid the political fray through silence is impossible, because silence is now political. Either engage, or assist the harm. There is no third choice.

While addressed to the medical community, the trustees and leaders of American foundations would be well served to hear and heed this message: In the struggle between justice and injustice, between equality and inequality, there is no third choice.

Now is decidedly not the time to wring our hands, stand on the sidelines, or quibble over whether 2018 payouts should be at 5 or 5.5 percent. Now is the time to provide general support to our grantees so they can be more resilient. After all, the organizations we support and the communities they serve are depending on us amidst swirling, disorienting winds. Paraphrasing the iconic Shirley Chisholm, we must not perpetuate injustice through inaction.

This is why I am heartened by the actions of so many foundation colleagues—by the Knight Foundation’s courageous grant making to promote independent media and journalism; by the Open Society Foundations’ redoubled determination to protect the rule of law; by the work of the Ballmer Group and the Raikes Foundation on poverty and education; by the MacArthur Foundation’s 100&Change, helping the International Rescue Committee and Sesame Workshop to collaborate and bring opportunity to children and families in refugee camps; by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s efforts to bring tech to philanthropy, and its focus on long-term, systemic change; and many more.

I am inspired, too, by the work of the extraordinary people and organizations on the frontlines—by the Committee to Protect Journalists and the International Women’s Media Foundation as they promote the Fourth Estate; by the ACLU’s and NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s victories for immigrants’ rights and voter protections. Global Witness has exposed corruption by powerful interests, and the Alliance for Safety and Justice is making impressive progress domestically to address policies that reflect racial and class bias in our criminal justice system, like the discriminatory cash-bail system. The list goes on and on.

There can be no shortage of courage in a time of injustice—and I see enormous courage in the work of thousands of groups like these across the country and world.

What the Ford Foundation is doing

In the face of so many mounting threats to justice around the world—and informed by the resilience and resolve of our partners and grantees—we have been reconsidering our own priorities.

Beginning immediately, we will consolidate our work in some areas, while dedicating more attention and resources to others. We will integrate our programs more thoughtfully, while reducing our overall number of grant-making areas, in order to emphasize our most essential work and maximize our flexibility.

Much of what we do will not change. When I became president, we focused our programs and resources to address inequality, in part, because we foresaw its cascading consequences. And as we continue to work to disrupt inequality, we will continue promoting its antidote: justice.

To that end, we have identified several broad areas of intervention where we will deploy additional resources during the year ahead, and beyond.

Democracy, rights, and free expression

The prerequisite for a just society has always been the engagement of its people. If “establish justice” was among the first priorities of the framers of the Constitution, the role of “We the People”—as active participants in and creators of the Republic—was the very first. Before there was government, there was an understanding that “We the People,” together, are responsible for our collective fate.

Instead, widening inequality severs the relationship between people and democratic institutions, and unravels the fabric of a society. Our common goals and aspirations have been replaced by gaps—in incomes, in influence, in power.

Meanwhile, the space for civil society has been shrinking, as governments around the world restrict citizens from organizing. Basic rights—to vote, to speak, to assemble—have been curtailed by those who hope to keep their hold on power. Fewer people have a meaningful voice in the decisions that affect their lives—and, in turn, those decisions are increasingly unjust. Without the ability, agency, and access to participate in our society, some people have tuned out entirely.

Philanthropy can and should help restore the commitment to justice that drives a society to care for itself. For us, this means increasing support to groups that fight to strengthen democratic institutions. This includes grants that help people organize in pursuit of common ground and common good, especially young leaders, to whom we are making a strengthened commitment. We will also increase support to organizations working to champion journalism as foundational to a healthy and vibrant democracy.

Dignity and work in the age of automation

Just as inequality robs civil society of its voice, the so-called fourth industrial revolution of technological change—our new digital age—threatens to rob many people of their livelihoods and their dignity.

Work is fundamental to any individual’s sense of place and purpose in society. Yet wage stagnation, loss of benefits, and the feeling that the economic system is rigged have contributed to widespread insecurity among workers. As technological innovation upends more sectors of the economy, that anxiety will only continue to grow. A recent report from the McKinsey Global Institute estimated that as many as “30 percent of the hours worked globally could be automated by 2030.”

We are not yet prepared for the extent to which technological revolution will alter our society. Instead, our current discourse on the issue has been reduced to an oversimplified binary: On one side, many entrepreneurs have blind faith that technology and innovation are always good for society; on the other, critics say it will render so many people unable to earn a living that we will need a system of universal basic income for millions of unemployed and underemployed workers. In our view, neither of these outcomes is desirable, and both would have potentially explosive political consequences.

Philanthropy can help chart a course between these two extremes. At Ford, building on years of work to strengthen job quality and labor standards, we will collaborate with private employers, labor economists, technologists, workforce activists, and other funders as we consider how to ensure that all people experience the dignity of meaningful work in the future.

The internet as a platform for justice

Automation—or artificial intelligence, for that matter—is not the only theater in which rapid technological change will shape the future of justice. Today, the internet is how we find employment and housing, consume media, purchase goods, start businesses, collect ideas, connect, engage, and organize with one another.

Of course, injustices in the analog world are often accelerated and exacerbated in the digital one. Algorithms are encoded with human biases. Concern about surveillance, data privacy and security contributes to the public’s growing anxiety about technology. Social media provides a platform for an anonymous culture of harassment. Access to the internet remains unequal, while governments and corporations chip away at the freedom and neutrality on which the internet was constructed.

A society that depends on the internet cannot be just unless the internet is a just platform. So we will continue supporting organizations that are working to harness this public utility for justice, and we will more actively advocate for funding and action in this space by tech philanthropists, tech-focused universities, and corporate actors who recognize the enormity of what’s at stake.

Explorations and elevations

As we devote more time and energy to these three areas, we’re also aware that other manifestations of inequality persist around them.

The rise of the #MeToo movement has revealed pervasive gender inequality across every industry. The alarming stories coming to light are indicative of an entrenched sexism that women have known for centuries. None of our aspirations for a more just society will be achieved if we do not address these patriarchal imbalances of power—and that shift cannot happen until we invest more in the power of women and girls as unrivaled agents of change that is long overdue. Throughout this year we’ll be exploring how we can expand our existing grant making in this area.

Finally, at a moment when forging new networks and relationships has taken on increased importance, our external partnerships require a greater portion of my time and energy—as does the management of our programs. To improve the effectiveness of our program operations, I have elevated Hilary Pennington to the new role of executive vice president for program. In this position, Hilary will lead and integrate the foundation’s programmatic work, guiding it as we refocus on the demands of our current moment. Martín Abregú and Xav Briggs will continue in their critical roles as program vice presidents, working with Hilary to harmonize two program divisions from what were previously three.

Justice is the better part of greatness

As we embark on this new year and the next stage of FordForward, I cannot help reflecting on the forces that might hold us back. Among them, in the United States, is the idea that we ought to pursue a misguided facsimile of American “greatness.”

Lately, we have been told that this romanticized form of greatness should be our highest ambition. Yet this narrow-minded, small-hearted kind of greatness is not “the fundamental law of society” that Jefferson described. It is not the value the founders fought to establish—nor the ideal that our forbearers fought to extend.

That is because the distance between a so-called “great” America and a just America is vast.

In a great America, military might is vaunted as the only kind of strength, while in a just America, diplomacy and soft power are wielded to defend not only our interests, but human rights around the world.

In a great America, huge sections of the country don’t vote, or are prevented from voting. In a just America, everyone is encouraged to exercise the franchise, and ensure their voices and interests are represented.

A great America leaves too many people out. In a just America, opportunity is not a function of one’s gender, race, ability, or identity; it is available to all those with talent and drive.

In a great America, patriarchy and white supremacy poison our culture. In a just America, we celebrate and honor diverse leaders, and voices, and embrace and welcome people seeking freedom and opportunity from all regions and countries of the world.

A half century ago, Fannie Lou Hamer—a Mississippi sharecropper with a sixth-grade education—confronted President Lyndon Baines Johnson on his rhetoric about America’s greatness. “If this is a ‘Great Society,’” she said then, “God knows I’d hate to live in a bad one.”

Imagine what this took. Imagine what it must have felt like for a poor black woman, not even formally educated with little formal education, to challenge the president of the United States.

For 241 years and counting, Americans have done exactly this: We’ve strived and struggled—stood up, and sat in, and spoken out—all in pursuit of justice, our founding promise. We’ve embraced the teaching of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that, “I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.” And our hard-fought victories—affirmations of and advances for justice, all—explain why I remain optimistic.

This week, as we celebrate Dr. King’s life and legacy, let us recommit ourselves to his ennobling values—and the enduring vision that connects Jefferson, Chisolm, and Hamer. Let us demand and defend societies that are more than one man’s, or one group’s, definition of great. And let us do it together, with resolve for and faith in the future that we share.

As always, I welcome your thoughts—to comment, please visit our website.

With thanks,


Darren Walker
President, Ford Foundation


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