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Future Of Philanthropy

The Ford Foundation Has A Privilege Problem—Here's How It's Trying to Fix It

In his annual letter, Ford Foundation President Darren Walker talks about the journey to understanding his institution's own blind spots with regards to people with disabilities—and how it's working to change them.

[Illustration: User68c0dd38_589/iStock]

When Ford Foundation President Darren Walker announced the philanthropy’s FordForward plan for "disrupting inequality" in June 2015, the supposed success became a major failure: Somehow people with disabilities had been inadvertently left off the priority list.

For Walker, that kicked off an institutional gut-check, which only uncovered more internal mistakes. The errors are spelled out in his annual open letter entitled, "Ignorance Is the Enemy Within: On the Power of Our Privilege, and Privilege of Our Power," which appears on the Foundation’s Equal Change Blog. "I was confronted with feedback that highlighted my own obliviousness," he writes.

[Photo: via Ford Foundation]

How the heck did that happen? By way of explanation, Walker quotes James Baldwin, who wrote during the Civil Rights Movement that "Ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have." Once upon a time, that power came from "wealthy white men and their institutions," he notes. (And in many ways it still does.) Today, it can also take the form of another societal hang-up: privilege. As Walker puts it, "the unearned advantages or preferential treatment from which we all benefit in different ways—whether due to our place of origin, our citizenship status, our parents, our education, our ability, our gender identity, our place in a hierarchy."

Walker explores this issue—how it develops both individually and institutionally—while admitting that he and his team didn’t have enough familiarity with people with disabilities to properly respect their concerns. "I am a black, gay man, so some might assume that I’m especially sensitive to these issues and dynamics. But during the past year I have had to confront my own ignorance and power, and come to terms with the ways I was inadvertently fueling injustice," he writes.

The bigger problem is that social issues are often interconnected. Walker offers the example that more than 750,000 people in prison have disabilities. That’s a factor that may complicate court cases, rehabilitation efforts, and lodging needs among other things, so it should be a part of the conversation whenever criminal justice issues are discussed.

On this particular problem, Walker and the Ford Foundation now ask themselves the question—"Are we mindful of the needs of people with disabilities?"—before any new initiative moves forward. The answers have led to changes in their program designs, grant-making criteria, and even how their headquarters will be remodeled. In the meantime, he’s cautioning anyone who wants to do good to avoid fundamentally bad (read: privileged) thinking by asking themselves three other questions. "Who am I forgetting? Which of my assumptions are flawed? Which of my beliefs are misbegotten?" Turns out, the most ferocious enemy to helping others may just be yourself.

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