by Darren Walker, president, Ford Foundation
(with minor edits)
Archives, history, narrative. Our society is informed by people like you who document, archive, and preserve our history, and our history tells us who we are as a people and as a society. Philanthropy has played a critical role in shaping who we were as a people. And so, the work that you do is critical. It's critical to our civilization, it's critical to our democracy because this democracy depends on knowing who we are and being inspired, finding from those narratives stories that help us dream and help us believe, even in dark times, what is possible.
When Nicki [Lodico, Director of Information Management, Ford Foundation] told me that this conference was happening I said, "Thirty years? This conference should happen every year! Why aren't we doing this on an ongoing basis? Nicki, we have to do this more often." Seriously, we'll help fund it. I mean, it's a really important thing. This is hugely important. And I'm really grateful to all of the co-sponsors who made this day possible.
Now, of course, in this digital era there are new challenges that come when we think about how we preserve our history. So how do we think about long-term preservation of digital records because it is not easy to organize, especially for people like me, how to think about recording all of it. I have PDFs of McGeorge Bundy's correspondence, of Henry Ford II's notes, of all sorts of things that give me an insight and a window into the Ford Foundation's history, and with the help of Nicki and her team I've become more aware of what I need to do because the task is not a simple one. Because this president does less of the things that McGeorge Bundy used to do, which was to take handwritten notes from a program officer about the Civil Rights Program and write in the margins, and then have someone else do the same, and all in just one document. I don't do that. I get a Word document, or an Excel spreadsheet and I make little notes and annotations in the side, but I'm not really sure exactly how that's going to be preserved. Fortunately, the team here has helped me to be thoughtful that when I am doing the work of the president of the Foundation, I am doing it in a digital era. I am thinking about the future and thinking about preserving a record so that future presidents can benefit from the things that this president does right and wrong and the lessons learned, just as I have. Because the amazing thing about this Foundation is the remarkable record that has been left over eight decades. We are enormously grateful to our colleagues at the Rockefeller Archive Center because you all have made the most efficient and most robust archive available, not just to scholars, because scholars are a first line of people interested, but there are people beyond scholars, as you know, who are interested in the work.
We can't take impact seriously if we don't take the preservation of our history seriously and we're not willing to invest in it.
I think that today, during a time of growing inequality and a time of growing cynicism about wealth and even about philanthropy, there is greater demand on us to be transparent in ways that we haven't had to be in the past. We remain the only sector in our society that does not have an external check on us. Yes, we have the IRS, and yes, we have regulations, and our general counsel keeps us out of trouble. But I worked at a bank. I worked at a nonprofit. Every day there was external pressure on me and the organizations I worked for to deliver for customers, clients, people living in Harlem who we were there to serve. Every day I felt that pressure. If we're to be honest with ourselves about philanthropy, we don't feel that pressure. We feel a different pressure. A passion to do justice in the world and to make a difference, and to cure and solve some of these seemingly intractable problems. But it really takes a lot of self-generated determination to be transparent, to monitor one's institutions and to really take impact seriously. We can't take impact seriously if we don't take the preservation of our history seriously and we're not willing to invest in it. It starts with the president and the board. It is incumbent on every board of a legacy foundation, and even newly created foundations and donors, to see the work of people like you, so that they can understand the history that they are making and their responsibility to preserve that history and to tell their story. So, sharing knowledge, sharing what we are learning, thinking about how preservation helps us during this time when we've got so much risk assessment going on, how preserving history, our records, our documents, can help us mitigate risk.
For me, as I think about the Ford Foundation's history and my own personal interest, I love history and I love being at the Ford Foundation because there is so much history, and so much of the history is personal. In 1965, I was a little boy in a small town in rural Texas sitting on the front porch of our little shotgun house, and a lady walked up to the porch, and she said to my mother that she was there to talk about a new government program that was going to be starting that summer. The program was called Head Start. I was enrolled in Head Start, and I was lucky enough to be in the first Head Start class. Lo and behold, when I came to the Ford Foundation I said, "I need to know our history. I'd love to know more about our history." Somewhere along the line someone said, "Oh, well, Darren was in Head Start," and of course what happens? In just a matter of hours, Nicki Lodico presents me with binders upon binders on the Ford Foundation's investment in a research project at Yale University in the early '60s, which made the recommendation to the then new Department of Economic Opportunity to include this program called Head Start as a part of the Great Society. I also went to college on Pell grants because I was from a low-income family and the Pell grant program was intended for students like me. Lo and behold, there in the Ford Foundation archive the Ford Foundation played a role in creating the Pell grant program, which wasn't called the Pell grant program back then. It became the Pell grant program after its efficacy was proven. Senator Claiborne Pell took it up as its great champion and made it national policy.
I could go on and on and on about the Ford Foundation's history. What preserving that history has made possible for us today is to have credibility and currency. And because we invested so meticulously, and some would say rather expensively, yes, that is true, but it has been worth every dollar we have invested. Because we are able to tell the story of Muhammad Yunus walking into the Ford Foundation's office in Bangladesh in the 1970s with a paper, an idea for something called microfinance and a vision for something called Grameen Bank, and how if the Ford Foundation got behind him, he might be able to help reduce poverty in the world. We have that documented. We have the entire narrative of Muhammad Yunus and the Ford Foundation and Grameen Bank and what he went on to do. Part of the good news of these last few years has been that poverty in the world has actually gone down, and he has contributed and the movement for microfinance contributed to that positive outcome.
As you can see, I am very enthusiastic about the work that you do. I hope you feel it. I know you're enthusiastic, and I hope your institutions, your presidents, your boards, are as enthusiastic as I am and as the Ford trustees are about that history because we can't have a future if we don't know our history. We don't know our history if we're not investing in the collection of it and the preservation of it, and in telling the story of it.
So, Nicki, thank you for allowing me to address this auspicious and marvelous, splendid group of colleagues. I'm really grateful that you're all here. And Nicki, I'm going to hold you to it. We can't wait thirty more years for another conference. Thank you all very much.