Darren Walker: Keynote Speaker

Introductory remarks from President Cristle Collins Judd

I am so pleased to introduce today’s guest speaker, Darren Walker. As one of the culminating events in our yearlong series exploring our inaugural theme, Democracy and Education, I can’t think of a more relevant guest for our 90th Commencement. Darren has not only been a transformative leader in the nonprofit and philanthropy worlds for more than two decades, but his personal story of achievement is one that resonates deeply with our mission here at Sarah Lawrence.

As president of the Ford Foundation, Darren is at the helm of an international social justice philanthropy with a $13 billion endowment and $600 million in annual grant making. The Foundation has an 82-year history of vital work in education, civil and human rights, arts and culture, poverty reduction, and urban development.

Perhaps Darren’s path to Ford—and to his work throughout his career—began in 1965, when he was a member of the first class of students to participate in The Head Start Project. Perhaps it was rooted even earlier in his beginnings, as the child of a single mother in a rural Texas town. In a profile celebrating the 50th anniversary of Head Start, Darren is quoted as saying, “As a young child in rural, hardscrabble, east Texas, nothing about my journey was inevitable. I need only to look at other members of my family, who were not as lucky, who did not get that first chance, to understand how it powerfully influenced my life.”

A look through Darren’s resume shows the impressive and numerous ways he has worked—and continues to work—to powerfully influence the lives of others. Before joining Ford, Darren was vice president at the Rockefeller Foundation, overseeing global and domestic programs including the Rebuild New Orleans initiative after Hurricane Katrina. In the 1990s, as COO of the Abyssinian Development Corporation—Harlem’s largest community development organization—he oversaw a comprehensive revitalization strategy. He chaired the philanthropy committee that brought a resolution to the city of Detroit’s historic bankruptcy, and is co-founder and chair of the US Impact Investing Alliance.

Darren serves on the boards of Carnegie Hall, the High Line, and the Committee to Protect Journalists. He also co-chairs New York City’s Commission on City Art, Monuments, and Markers, and serves on the Commission on the Future of Riker’s Island Correctional Institution and the UN International Labor Organization Commission on the Future of Work. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

And with all that, he still found time to join us today! Please join me in welcoming Darren Walker.

Darren Walker
President, Ford Foundation

President Judd, members of the board of trustees: thank you. To the deans, faculty, and staff of Sarah Lawrence; honored guests; family and friends of the graduates; and most importantly, to the Class of 2018: congratulations!

Darren WalkerI’m honored to join you this morning as we mark this momentous occasion and celebrate your tremendous accomplishment. Today, you join a prestigious group: graduates of Sarah Lawrence College.

And there’s no telling what your future might hold. You might write chart-topping songs like Carly Simon, or shatter an industry’s glass ceilings like Barbara Walters. You might upend the fashion industry like Vera Wang, or follow in the footsteps of J.J. Abrams and direct Star Wars episodes 37 through 39.

Like all the great artists, innovators, and pioneers that have walked this campus before you, you’ve all come a long way to get here today. You’ve produced hundreds of pages of writing, uncovered troves of research, and created works of art. You’ve put in countless late nights chasing elusive answers—and countless more searching for the right questions. You’ve worked hard—but you haven’t worked alone. In a moment, you will walk across this stage and claim your degrees. But as you do, I hope you’ll pause to remember the people who have walked with you: the ones smiling up at you from the stands, cheering and calling out your name. And the ones here with you in spirit.

You’re surrounded today by friends and family, teachers and mentors, collaborators and partners, who have made this journey with you; people who have worked hard to open doors of opportunity for you, and stood behind you as you stepped through them. Their names may not appear on your diploma, but this day belongs as much to them as it does to you. Please join me in applauding them today.

It’s important that we take time to recognize the people who helped us along the way—because often we’re encouraged to forget them. There’s a story that we Americans like to tell ourselves: the story of the self-made man. It’s the story of the entrepreneur who founds a start-up in his garage—or the minimum-wage worker who pulls himself up by his bootstraps.  But graduates: that story is pure fiction. Reflect for just a moment on your own life story. I guarantee you wouldn’t have made it very far without the help of others.

I wouldn’t be here today if not for my mother, who moved us out of the small, segregated Louisiana town where I was born. Or without the young woman with a clipboard who knocked on our door one day, asking to sign me up for a brand new program called Head Start. I wouldn’t be here without the public-school teachers who encouraged me to learn and excel. Or without the philanthropists and Pell grants that let me pursue a college education. The particulars of our personal stories may differ, but each of us has various people and factors in our lives that have contributed to—and even paved the way for—our success. If we take a moment, we can all remember people who have helped us get where we are today.

Darren WalkerI share this because it’s often easy to forget that our success is not only our own. We live in a society that glorifies individual achievement—where selfishness is incentivized, competition is encouraged, and cooperation is too often viewed as weakness. It’s that sense of individualism—of self-concern—that has produced the greatest wealth inequality in the world. [I mean, think about this: the three richest individuals in America control as much wealth as the poorest 160 million.] And yet, no person is an island, and no human achievement was ever accomplished alone.

In college, you’ve seen this principle at work every day. You’ve gotten this far thanks to the professors who spent countless hours with you on conference work and the dons who helped you chart your academic course. Thanks to the staff who served you lunch at Bates and the baristas at Heimbold, who kept you caffeinated during your all-nighters. And of course, thanks to the guardians, mentors, and friends who were with you every step along the way. But when you leave this beautiful campus and move out into the world—whether it’s to Williamsburg, Crown Heights, Bed-Stuy, Bushwick, or somewhere besides Brooklyn—you might find that your incentives and priorities start to change.

Suddenly, the built-in community that has supported you will be gone. The hundreds of friends and fellow students that surrounded you every day might dwindle to a handful of roommates. Suddenly, the things that once mattered most—friends, community, exploring new ideas—are replaced by material concerns, like getting a job and paying rent. Of course, there will be fresh joys too: new places to explore, challenges to meet, friends to make. But it can be tempting sometimes, as busy adults in our individualistic society, to retreat inward. To focus on ourselves: our work, our wants, our personal worlds. It’s an attitude that reaches even the highest offices in our country.

I don’t think it’s controversial to say that our leaders today are beholden to a broken set of incentives. Or that many of the systems and structures that our society was built on reinforce inequities, and discourage moral leadership. We live in a society in which:

  • our elected leaders are encouraged to spend more time courting donors than working for their constituents;
  • our CEOs are forced to care more about their bottom line than their consumers;
  • and in my own sector, philanthropists are tempted to avoid controversy rather than take a stand against injustice.

The result is a vacuum of moral leadership that has made the world you are about to enter a more frightening, more selfish, and sometimes, a more violent place.

Darren WalkerAnd yet, in recent years, we have started to see that vacuum filled by what some would consider an unlikely source of moral leadership: the young women and men of your generation.

A few short months ago, I remember watching in awe, as I’m sure many of you did, as the students of Stoneman Douglas High School—survivors of an unspeakable tragedy, still fresh in their minds—led millions of young people from every major city in the US in the March for Our Lives. I’ve been inspired to see college students around the country, including at Sarah Lawrence, protesting against campus sexual assault, fighting to protect campus workers, leading divestment campaigns, securing resources for their local communities, and resisting white supremacists and other champions of hate.

A 2016 UCLA study found that this generation of college students—your generation—is more committed to protest, activism, and civic engagement than at any previous point in history. Of course, political activism and civic engagement are nothing new to Sarah Lawrence students.  It was the poet and Sarah Lawrence alumna Alice Walker who said, “activism is my rent for living on the planet.” Think about that: activism is our rent for living on the planet.

Soon, you will leave the supportive community that Sarah Lawrence has built for you, where it has been part of your everyday life to engage with other people and ideas. After today, you will begin the hard work of building community outside this place. And you will be tempted by all those incentives that keep so many of our leaders from acting courageously and compassionately. My hope—my wish—for you: resist. Be active. Use your privilege. As graduates of an elite college, there’s no denying that you are the beneficiaries of incredible privilege. All of us here today are.

So wherever you go from here—whether it is to Brooklyn or to Burbank—back to your hometown or halfway across the world—I hope you find ways to repay our society for the privileges it has extended you, and contribute to the health of our democracy. In other words, I hope you find ways to pay your moral rent.

Now this rent will look different for different people. It might look like activism on campus or acting on behalf of others. It might mean getting involved in your local community or building a more connected global community. It might mean raising your voice or lifting up the voices of others who haven’t been heard. It might be your day job or something you do on the weekends or on the side. Because it doesn’t matter what you do to pay your actual rent—whether you’re an artist or an activist, a doctor or a lawyer, a professor or program officer at a foundation, or anything else you can imagine. Whatever you do, you must find opportunities to pay your moral rent.

Darren WalkerAnd while the form it takes will be different—the impact of it must be the same: to build bridges rather than drive people apart. To inspire empathy and compassion rather than division and disdain. To champion the ideals of this democracy—equity and justice for all—rather than be complacent about inequality or injustice. To give others hope in the face of fear and to lead by example when others lose their way. This is just as important as anything else you will do because if you neglect your personal rent, you risk getting evicted. But if you neglect your moral rent, the world will never know the contributions you—and only you—can make.

Graduates, I leave you with this: In 1949, a Sarah Lawrence literature professor—a gentleman named Joseph Campbell—set out to diagram the hero’s journey. And he learned all great stories share the same step: the call to action. It’s a charge every hero receives—to leave their place of comfort and begin a new adventure. So, Class of 2018, this graduation day, I offer you a call to moral action. As you embark on the next great adventure of your lives, never forget the people making this journey by your side. The people who’ve opened doors and lit the way for you. And no matter what path you take, become that person for someone else.

I can’t wait to see the things you accomplish together, and how you begin to pay your rent for life on this incredible planet.


Remarks as prepared for delivery