For 80 years, the Ford Foundation has sought to reduce poverty and injustice, strengthen democratic values, promote international cooperation and advance human achievement. Now stewards of a $12 billion endowment, when this remarkable organization’s leader speaks, people listen. So it may well reverberate throughout the nonprofit world – and far beyond – now that Ford Foundation President Darren Walker has used the occasion of his annual letter to his constituents admitting that a new effort by the Ford Foundation to disrupt inequality had neglected people with disabilities.
Walker, who is African-American and gay said, “In the same way that I have asked my white friends to step outside their own privileged experience to consider the inequalities endured by people of color, I was being held accountable to do the same thing for a group of people I had not fully considered,” Walker wrote. “Moreover, by recognizing my individual privilege and ignorance, I began to more clearly perceive the Ford Foundation’s institutional privilege and ignorance, as well. It is clear to me now that this was a manifestation of the very inequality we were seeking to dismantle, and I am deeply embarrassed by it.”
I have known Darren Walker for years and consider myself honored that he sought counsel from my organization and others in the disability community on this issue. He is an extraordinary man who has been a leader in the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors for two decades. When TIME magazine names someone to its annual list of the “100 Most Influential People in the World” one could be expected to let that get to his head. Not Darren. His remarkable admission about the Ford Foundation’s past ignorance and indifference to people with disabilities only underscores his humility and grace. He also knows when he’s made a mistake and owns it.
The sad reality is people with disabilities have been marginalized for centuries. Even in this age of prosperity, people with disabilities remain underemployed and their skills underappreciated. Twenty-six years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, its full promise has yet to be fulfilled, as millions of Americans with disabilities still struggle to attain a quality of life equal to our non-disabled neighbors.
Personally, I have felt a special connection to the Ford Foundation since my longtime mentor, Mike Sviridoff, went to work for the Foundation in the 1970’s under its legendary leader McGeorge “Mac” Bundy. Together, Mike and Mac worked tirelessly to nurture a variety of programs to address the problems of our cities, most notably poverty. Two years before President Lyndon B. Johnson declared the war on poverty, Mike led an antipoverty program in New Haven that was set up with a Ford Foundation grant. In its first 30 months, the program found employment for 1,500 people and became a national model.
Fast-forward half a century, the Ford Foundation continues to deliver proven results for poor and excluded communities around the world. But even more importantly, Darren Walker takes the unusual next step of putting Ford’s own practices under a microscope, and leading by example. In his letter, Darren notes that “those who courageously—and correctly—raised this complicated set of issues pointed out that the Ford Foundation does not have a person with visible disabilities on our leadership team, takes no affirmative effort to hire people with disabilities, does not consider them in our strategy, or even provide those with physical disabilities with adequate access to our website, events, social media, or building. It should go without saying: All of this is at odds with our mission.”
In a country where most foundations don’t consider disability among their focus areas, for the leader of the nation’s second-largest philanthropy to acknowledge this gross oversight and to appreciate the need to be inclusive of people with disabilities, is a game-changing move for the people my organization represents and for our nation as a whole. I hope his actions will spur other foundations, large and small alike, to examine if they, too, have ignored people with disabilities in their programs and employment. He concludes his letter with a hopeful tone:
“For my part, I am hopeful,” he writes. “By demanding and expecting more of ourselves and our institutions, we can deliver more for others. In listening to each other, we will continue to learn. By listening more to each other, we can continue to forge a more just way forward, together.”
Darren knows we’ll all be watching. And we know he’ll deliver. He always has.