Darren Walker often attends more than one event every night, which is not surprising, since he's the president of the second-biggest philanthropic organization in the country, the Ford Foundation. He first experienced New York from afar as a kid, watching the old TV show Green Acres, and it's been quite a journey ever since. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following One on 1 profile.
"I actually never sought a career in philanthropy," said Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation. "I still don't want a career in philanthropy."
It is an interesting observation from a man who oversees the distribution of a half-billion dollars in grants every year.
"I'm at the Ford Foundation because the Ford Foundation is one of the great platforms in the world for anyone who cares about social change and social justice," Walker says.
The Ford Foundation's chief mission is to address inequality here and around the world.
Walker came to the Ford Foundation after working on Wall Street and in the nonprofit sector.
In Walker's Ford Foundation, the views of those studying poverty are not supposed to take priority over the views of those who experience it.
"Authentic knowledge, knowledge that reflects the lived experience of people who have been poor or who are poor," Walker says. "We haven't done enough to ask them what they diagnose as the problem and what they might offer as solutions."
Walker has been on the other side of the equation. Throughout the 1990s, he was the chief operating officer of Harlem's largest community development organization, the Abyssinian Development Corporation.
One of the challenges of moving to the giving side of philanthropy is to resist the allure of compliments.
"Once you come to a foundation, you'll never be more handsome, you'll never be smarter and you'll never have a better meal," Walker says.
Walker is 57 and a dance enthusiast. So when he couldn't accept an award in person from the Latino dance organization Ballet Hispanico, Walker sent them a video.
"I had a particular approach to leadership, and that hopefully, part of that approach is not taking myself so seriously that I can't be jovial and even laugh at myself," he says.
The Foundation was created in 1936 by Edsel Ford, the son of automobile pioneer Henry Ford, a man known for his conservative political views.
"Well, I think it's fair to say that Henry Ford would be surprised that a black gay man is president of the Ford Foundation," Walker says.
For years, the Ford Family and Motor Company had nothing to do with the Foundation because of a disagreement over initiatives supported by the Foundation.
After Walker became president in 2013, he reached out to the Ford family. And in 2015, the Foundation held its first board meeting in Detroit since 1948.
"There was such positive energy and such a desire to fill that breach and repair the damage that had been done," Walker says.
Darren Walker grew up in small towns, first in Louisiana and then Texas. His grandmother worked for a wealthy white family who would give her art and architecture magazines to give to Darren, introducing him to an exciting and prosperous world far away.
"That world captivated me," Walker said. "That world helped to shape my aspirations and dreams."
He says he was rambunctious and had far too much energy. He credits a third-grade teacher, Mrs. Majors, with teaching himself self-control.
"She said, "Darren, you are going to get in trouble. Little boys like you' - and what she was saying was, little black boys - 'little boys like you who get in trouble, get on the wrong path, and you never get off it,'" Walker says.
Walker didn't have to look far for examples of what he calls "the convergence of poverty and racism."
"Seven of my male cousins went to prison, and one of them killed himself in the parish jail in Louisiana. I think he was so distraught about his future and such a sense of hopelessness," Walker says.
Walker earned a scholarship to the University of Texas. After law school at Texas, he came to New York and worked as a lawyer and then investment banker.
He quickly understood the nuances of being a young black professional working on Wall Street. For example, for Walker, there was no such thing as casual Friday.
"I wore a suit because often, if you aren't in a suit and you are an African-American man, your status in the organization, your actual position, is assumed to not be a professional position," he says.
In 1991, he saw a cover story in The Economist entitled "America's Wasted Blacks," and it spurred him to volunteer in Harlem.
He eventually left Wall Street for what he calls a life-changing position at the Abyssinian Development Corporation.
First, Walker had to make a phone call home.
"You got all that education to go up to Harlem and do social work?" he says.
"I was on Wall Street, I was being given this privilege that very few African-Americans are provided, and that I was seemingly throwing it away to go back and work in a black neighborhood."
He moved to Harlem in the mid-'90s, where even a trip to the corner bodega required what he calls a "calibration of his sense of optimism and rage."
"And seeing that all of the cereals had expired, that the expiration dates had passed, and the lettuce was brown, and thinking to myself, 'This is America,'" Walker says.
The nonprofit work Walker did in Harlem may seem like a world away from the multimillion-dollar world he works in now. But a thread runs through them. Walker refers to it as working at both the grass roots and the grass tops.
"For many, many professional African-Americans, the ability to move between black and white worlds is essential to our being and our ability to succeed, and so how we do that is something that's constantly being navigated and negotiated," he says.
Walker is optimistic. That optimism stems partly from the generosity, and opportunity, he's received on his journey.
"That a little young boy in Ames, Texas, living in a little shotgun house, could find himself 50 years later as head of the Ford Foundation could only happen in America," he says.