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After three and a half years of being a student at Duke, I have both witnessed and participated in the privilege that this university provides. Duke University and the Sanford School are so saturated by privileged people, spaces and resources that we often forget how rare of an opportunity it is to be a member of this community. In class, we examine and debate some of society’s most pressing issues including family policies, poverty alleviation and racial justice. Yet, these conversations are held with a certain degree of separation which insulates us from understanding the true experiences of those most disproportionately affected by systemic inequality. Darren Walker’s assertion that “Privileged people do not like being made uncomfortable” therefore refers not only to society’s top one percent, but also to most of us students here at Duke.

Darren Walker joins a long list of notable scholars, politicians, artists, and executive leaders as the 2020 Terry Sanford Distinguished Lecturer. The Terry Sanford Distinguished Lecture, endowed by the Kenan Charitable Trust, is the Sanford School’s longest running lecture series. Named in honor after the late Terry Sanford, they seek to facilitate discussion and promote “engaged and enlightened leadership.”

Born in Lafayette, Louisiana, Darren Walker was one of the first children who benefited from the Head Start Program. Now, Walker serves as the president of the Ford Foundation and is responsible for overseeing an endowment of over $13 billion dollars. In his lecture, Moving from Inequality to Justice in the South, Walker merged his personal experiences with his professional responsibilities by urging us to rethink the way philanthropies operate. Instead of viewing them as charities, we should acknowledge the systemic inequalities that led to the accumulation of wealth and necessitated philanthropic work in the first place.

I was impressed to hear the leader of one of the country’s largest philanthropic organizations speak so candidly about the limits of philanthropic work. Despite their largesse, Walker emphasized that foundations cannot achieve any of their wishes at scale without the partnership of responsible government. He condemned the recent patterns of degrading the potential of government and automatically associating “public” goods—public parks, public libraries, public schools—with something negative.

Man speaking into microphone on stage
Darren Walker with Professor Jay Pearson.

So what can philanthropies do? First, philanthropists and foundations should recognize and own the privilege that they possess, understanding that the power and resource imbalance can distort the funders’ behaviors. Walker emphasized the importance of actively seeking out perspectives from the people disproportionally affected by the inequality phenomenon. This includes placing more people in leadership positions who look like the people in the communities that philanthropies serve. One of Walker’s decisions as president of the Ford Foundation was selling the Foundation’s existing art collection of enviable Renoirs, Monets, and Manets, in exchange for a more diverse collection of contemporary art, including an eight-foot-tall portrait by Kehinde Whiley.

In order to have the difficult conversations about racial and socioeconomic inequalities to help our nation heal, we must be able to diagnose what exactly we are healing from—rooted notions of racism and classism. The lessons that Walker offered in recognizing privilege and assuming responsibility are not unique to philanthropic foundations nor are they unique to elite universities. Darren Walker’s conversation challenged me to embrace the value of discomfort and its necessary role in affecting positive change. These are lessons that we as Duke students must remember after we graduate with the tools, connections, and opportunities that this institution has afforded us. Ultimately, it is up to us to choose whether we use our privilege to either interrogate or perpetuate the structures that bolster all forms of inequality.

Wenjia Yu is an Undergraduate at Duke University and a Student Assistant for the Sanford School of Public Policy. 

Featured Video

Darren Walker visits Duke

Watch the complete lecture here.