Why our World Needs a New Kind of Leader

Climate change. The rise of authoritarianism. The devastating spread of pandemics that respect no boundaries. The challenges we face as a world today are both unique and daunting. Yet, in many ways, they are the same forces of evil and injustice we’ve been wrestling with for decades, for centuries, for all of human history.

Today, the way these forces work has become all the more complex. The world is moving faster than ever, the global population is exploding, the proliferation of technology has made society more connected than ever before in history, and yet the rifts between us have only widened.

Inequality, in all its forms, is an issue that will define our time. And it has only worsened, compounded by a global pandemic that’s exposed the fragility of our systems and made the vulnerable even more vulnerable and a dangerous rolling back of democracy in nations everywhere, disabling access to information and leaving citizens voiceless.

To build a future that’s truly equitable in a time like this requires a particular kind of leader. Leaders grounded in the issues and deeply aware of the systems and structures at play. Leaders who are unafraid to navigate the unknown in a rapidly evolving world and have the tenacity to forge ahead even when they don’t have the answers, seeking solutions from different people, places, and cultures. Leaders who have committed to something bigger than themselves—a just, more inclusive world where every person can live with dignity and opportunity—and who have the courage to make it a reality.

It also requires looking for leaders in different places—in the Global South as well as the Global North and in communities most impacted by injustice. And it requires connecting them to each other since effective solutions to the kinds of inequality we face cross boundaries as well.

Since Ford was founded, we have invested in individuals, ideas, and institutions working to dismantle the root causes of injustice. We believe individuals make ideas grow and institutions work and, together, they can create real, lasting impact in the world. Progress is not possible without leaders who have the audacity to imagine a brighter future and steer us toward that vision.

Over the last 80 years, we have supported social, political, and intellectual leaders such as Kofi Annan, Muhammad Yunus, and Henry Louis Gates Jr. who challenged the status quo and demonstrated that change was possible. We have cultivated the talents of such writers as James Baldwin, Katherine Anne Porter, and Saul Bellow who pushed our thinking and changed the way we see the world. We have fostered the development of countless individuals from communities around the globe, from constitutional lawyers in South Africa to doctorate students of color in the United States—all in an effort to build the next generation of leaders committed to a more just world.

The foundation’s largest fellowship, the International Fellowships Program, built on this legacy and went beyond it. Created in 2001, the program was designed to advance the education of social justice leaders around the globe. Over its 12 years, more than 4,300 fellows from 22 countries completed a graduate or post-graduate program and have since gone to make their mark in their respective countries—holding public office, heading government agencies, building civil society organizations, and mobilizing grassroots campaigns to defend the rights of all people.

Building on the foundation’s long experience, we sought to imagine a fellowship program for the current moment. We looked for leaders emerging from every corner of the world who were looking at the problems facing their communities with fresh perspectives. They were eschewing old, timeworn solutions and instead of creating new, inventive approaches to address them. They were, however, under-resourced, under-recognized, and lacking the support system to take their work to the next level. We started to devise a program that could bring these individuals together to learn from one another, create connections to deepen their work and develop shared solutions to tackle the drivers of inequality.

The result is the Ford Global Fellowship, a unique program that builds on all we’ve learned investing in leadership over the years. Created in partnership with our fellows, the 18-month program is designed to give social change agents space and support to grow both individually and collectively. They create the curriculum and set their own goals, so the experience is transformative, rather than performative, allowing them the room to develop the skills most valuable to them at this stage in their leadership journey.

Having had the privilege of benefiting from fellowships at pivotal moments in my career, I knew it would be important to give our fellows the time, freedom, and community to reflect, uncover their blind spots, experiment with ideas, establish connections, and push themselves, personally and professionally. Leadership is a continual, evolutionary process, and our hope is that, with that trust in place, the fellowship will become a catalyst to accelerate their impact.

For this first year, we have brought together 24 changemakers from six different countries working across sectors, borders, and contexts to tackle the roots of inequality. They are individuals such as Carlos Naffah, who is reimagining transportation for disabled communities in Lebanon; Daiene Mendes, who is building a collective of writers from Brazil’s favelas to amplify voices that have long gone unheard; and Desmond Meade, whose own incarceration experience led him to create the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition and help re-enfranchise 1.4 million people with felony convictions.

Over the next 10 years, we have committed $50 million to expand our corps of changemakers to roughly 250 fellows across five continents. By bringing together individuals with significant geographic, class, ethnic, religious, and educational diversity, we can build a cohort reflective of the world today and of the leadership our society needs. Inequality takes many shapes around the globe, and we need leaders who can cross lines of difference and bridge divides between rich and poor, public and private, business and philanthropy, profit and purpose, shareholders, and stakeholders.

Our aim is not only to empower these leaders but also to build connections and deepen relationships to create a powerful global ecosystem of change agents. They may be entering the fellowship as individuals, but they are joining Ford’s long-established vast community of leaders. In today’s world, the very idea of fellowship is as important as leadership because the problems we need to confront transcend borders and demand the power of many. Together, we can achieve much more than anyone of us can alone. And that’s why I couldn’t be more excited to introduce you to the collective of individuals quickly becoming an unstoppable force to end inequality. Meet the Global Fellows​.

Shared – Hilary Pennington, Executive Vice President of Programs – Ford Foundation

The Hard Work of Hope

The Hard Work of Hope

How we move forward during the year ahead
With the new year comes a new beginning, an opportunity for reflection and renewal.

And yet, a month into this new year and decade, the promise of the New is already overwhelmed by the Old—by climate crisis and geopolitical crisis years in the making; by crises of misinformation, online and off; by crises of inequality in opportunity, voice, and progress.

Day by day, we lose ground to fire and fear, corruption and cynicism, partisanship and polarization. As authoritarianism and nationalism advance, democratic values and institutions remain in retreat.

The hits keep on coming. And while depletion, depression, and “democracy grief,” as one columnist called it, are perfectly understandable reactions (I’ll confess, I feel it sometimes, too), they do nothing to douse the flames or calm the fury.

This week in the United States, we honor the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and it feels fitting to heed his timeless call: the urgency of now—of our now—has never been fiercer.

To me, embracing this urgency—harnessing its power to carry us closer to justice—is the defining task of this year, and of every day and hour ahead. This is a time to step up, not check out—a time to reenlist, reengage, and reconnect, both with each other and with the deep, abiding optimism at the heart of the democratic creed.

We must ask ourselves: How do we escape the maelstrom, and elevate the makers and markers of progress? How do we move beyond the constant harm and hurt—and move toward the healing and reconciliation we crave and the real change we so desperately need?

These are not easy questions—and they defy obvious answers. No doubt, we must strive to understand the world in its fullness and complexity. But with justice as our guiding light, I remain hopeful that we can make our political and economic systems more inclusive—and, in turn, repair and rebuild our trust in one another.

I find myself reflecting, often, on one of my heroes, Congressman John Lewis, who fought for justice alongside Dr. King and is courageously facing a new fight against cancer. Five years ago, Congressman Lewis invited me and a number of leaders to join him on a pilgrimage across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama—the hallowed ground where he and thousands of others had marched directly into unimaginable violence, changing the course of America’s civil rights movement and democracy forever. As we commemorated the 50th anniversary of what we now call Bloody Sunday on that modest bridge, we affirmed a sacred conviction, in the congressman’s words, that “love will conquer hate” and “hope will conquer fear.”


We also recognized the tremendous power of sacrifice and struggle. As the congressman once said, we cannot “get lost in a sea of despair” because “our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year; it is the struggle of a lifetime.”

Around the world today, we are seeing examples of sacrifice abound, particularly from young people, women, people with disabilities, rural and indigenous communities, and people of color. Kynan Tegar, Greta Thunberg, Artemisa Xakriabá, and the youth who are leading movements to stop climate change, and the millions of everyday citizens in places like Chile, Haiti, Hong Kong, India, Lebanon, Mexico, and Sudan who are demanding more transparency and equality, more dignity and democracy, are proving themselves worthy heirs to the legacy of Congressman Lewis and the many courageous individuals throughout our global history who have put their safety, their bodies, and, at times, their lives on the line in the name of justice.

The truth is those who are committed to, and fighting for, social justice are no strangers to sacrifice. Many courageous champions of change have sacrificed, and will continue to sacrifice, for the most righteous of reasons.

But we must ask why those with the least tend to sacrifice the most, while those with the most power, the most resources, the most privilege, and the most potential to do good tend to resist the transformational change that would produce a world with more justice? Why are well-positioned people capable of making the changes we need so hesitant to do more? What new crisis needs to befall us before we, together, are spurred to collective action?

Too many unaffected by the inequities of our day remain at a remove, holding themselves apart, exonerating themselves for their complicity in systems in desperate need of repair. I believe to rebuild trust, the people who benefit most will need to sacrifice more—whether resources, comfort, or power.

At the end of last year, we hosted a conference on the future of philanthropy, and I was struck by the philosophy that has driven Luis Miranda Jr., longtime activist and father of Lin-Manuel Miranda, throughout his life: “If it doesn’t hurt … then you’re not giving enough.”

This conception of sacrifice is profound: Only when it is uncomfortable, even painful to give of ourselves, only when your life makes a meaningful shift away from something you otherwise might want, do you know that you are giving beyond your own benefit.

In this way, sacrifice is the expression of so much of what I’ve explored in From Generosity to Justice, which aims to push philanthropy to address the root causes, rather than merely the effects, of injustice. Sacrifice is giving selflessly, yes, but also on behalf of others—on behalf of justice.

So, if you are someone who benefits from tremendous good fortune and privilege, consider how you can contribute to your community in a way that, to use Miranda’s word, “hurts.”

Perhaps that means paying a higher tax rate to increase public resources to solve our collective challenges, or devoting more effort toward attacking the root causes of injustice. Perhaps it means asking, honestly, which system, status, or status quo you are willing to step away from or challenge to benefit others?

This kind of sacrifice—the willingness to put the needs of others ahead of oneself—has a value beyond what is given up. Sacrifice speaks volumes. Sacrifice reminds people that we are bound together, that we share a destiny, and that we all are better served by mutual trust and respect than mutual contempt.

No doubt, the sacrifices we must make—during 2020 and beyond—will be difficult. But now is not the time to tire. Now is the time to try—and try again. Dr. King reminds us that “every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle.”

We need to lay a new foundation for an inclusive future with more inclusive economies. We need to marry good intentions with more meaningful actions. And we need to demand more sacrifice from our leaders—too many of whom are more eager to stay in power than use their power to address the old crises that will shape yet another new year.

In ordinary times, hope is rare. But in these extraordinary times, hope is radical.

And so, let us embrace a radical kind of hope. Let us inspire each other to sacrifice more. Let us commit to the hard work of hope so, even as division and discord take center stage, we can keep our eyes on justice as both our guiding light and the ultimate prize.

I hope more leaders will reduce the inequality of sacrifice, which is critical to achieving inclusion and fairness. I hope we draw from that potent combination of urgency and patience, of optimism and realism, of faith and action, and start to build a future that benefits each and every one of us.

Here’s wishing you strength for the toil and triumphs ahead in 2020.

Illustration by Martin Leon Barretto

Darren Walker, President
22 JANUARY 2020

One man’s mission for true justice

One man’s mission for true justice

I first met Bryan Stevenson, a longtime grantee and trustee of the Ford Foundation, over 30 years ago when he was a young public-interest lawyer just a year or two out of Harvard Law School. I was a month into my first job at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. We met at the fund’s annual training conference for capital defenders, an exhausting three-day marathon on the writ of habeas corpus and other arcane topics.

Bryan worked for the Southern Prisoners’ Defense Committee (now the Southern Center for Human Rights) in Atlanta, a band of plucky lawyers who represented as many people on death row as they could manage. The hours were grueling—many clients had active execution dates and no counsel—and the work paid a meager $25,000 a year.

A few months later, I ran into Bryan again at a rally on the steps of Atlanta’s federal courthouse. I had joined my boss, who had just argued the last constitutional challenge to the death penalty, McCleskey vs. Kemp, in the U.S. Supreme Court. We presented a first-of-its-kind study showing that the race of a victim, more than any other factor, determined who received the death sentence in Georgia.

Bryan gave me a lift back to my hotel in his beat-up Honda Civic. On the drive, I asked him how long he planned to focus on capital defense. It is such stressful, onerous work, knowing you are all that stands between your client and the electric chair. I couldn’t imagine anyone doing it for more than five or 10 years, tops.

His answer took me aback. Looking straight ahead at the road, he replied, “As long as it takes.”

“As long as what takes?” I asked.

“As long as it takes to end the death penalty,” he answered matter-of-factly.

Walter McMillian (left) celebrates after Bryan Stevenson won his release from death row in 1993.
We lost McCleskey by a 5-4 vote in the U.S. Supreme Court. In an opinion that legal historians would later call the Dred Scott of the modern era, Justice Powell wrote that racial disparities in sentencing were “an inevitable part of our criminal justice system.” (Years later, after his retirement, Powell confided that McCleskey was the one vote he wished he could change.)

In many ways, Bryan’s career has been an answer to the racial cynicism of McCleskey. In 1989, he ventured further south to Montgomery, Alabama to found the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a legal organization that works to end mass incarceration, excessive punishment, and racial inequality. Over the last 30 years, Bryan and his team have represented hundreds of adults and children condemned to die in prison.

A brilliant orator and legal strategist, he laid out his vision in a powerful TED Talk, which has since garnered more than six million views, and, in 2014, penned Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, his memoir that quickly became a New York Times bestseller—and this week becomes a major motion picture starring Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, and Brie Larson.

As a result of Bryan’s unshakable drive and EJI’s tireless efforts—which Ford has been proud to support since 2006—the number of executions and new death sentences have declined sharply since their peak in the 1990s. And today, there is now a robust movement to end mass incarceration.

But, perhaps, Bryan’s greatest achievement—thus far—is the creation of the National Memorial to Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. Back in 2010, the Equal Justice Initiative began to investigate and unearth thousands of lynchings across the U.S. In 2018, Bryan and his team turned those long-forgotten acts of racial terror into a sobering and breathtaking monument documenting America’s history and its links to slavery, Jim Crow and mass incarceration. The memorial is a testament to EJI’s commitment to changing the narrative around race in America and forging a deeper, more honest understanding of U.S. history that proves that white supremacy and racial difference didn’t die with slavery but evolved into new forms of oppression.

Just Mercy, which opens in theaters across the country tomorrow, carries on EJI’s important legacy and pushes Americans to no longer see racial injustice and mass incarceration as distant problems but challenges we must address now.

















Tanya Coke, Director, Gender, Racial, and Ethnic Justice
9 JANUARY 2020

Advice to My Younger Self: Latanya Sweeney

Advice to My Younger Self: Latanya Sweeney

Latanya Sweeney is a computer scientist on the faculty of Harvard University. She studies the unforeseen consequences of technological innovation, and how to deal with them.

What issue in the technology sphere keeps you up at night?

Latanya Sweeney: The ways in which technology design has taken over society. Every democratic value is basically up for grabs by what technology design allows or doesn’t allow.

How so?

Think of the Sony camcorder. It was the first mass-market device for recording sound and video at the same time, and it didn’t have a mute button. Doesn’t sound like a big deal, especially by today’s standard. When it came to market in 1984, American jurisprudence said it’s okay to photograph people in public, and you needed consent to record conversations. Here was this device that was going to record both video and sound. Legal issues came up right away. A woman in Pennsylvania strapped one of those camcorders to her child’s body and used it to record atrocities on the school bus. She ended up arrested for illegal wiretapping.

Nowadays, Pennsylvania has a law that requires video recording in all of its school buses. The lack of a mute button created changes. There were no laws or debates about it.

When technology is financially successful like it was in the case of a camcorder, the design gets replicated. Today if you pull out a smartphone and you go to record a video, it doesn’t have a mute button either.

When did you first become fully aware of the impact technology has on policy?

I was a Ph.D. student. One day I hear someone say, “Computers are evil.” I stopped, and find Beverly Woodward from Brandeis University. She talked about how technology was eroding our social contract around information. She said, ‘Even right now in Massachusetts, information from the health insurance for state employees, their families, and retirees–that data has been given to researchers and sold to industry.’

The data she was describing didn’t have names, addresses, or Social Security numbers of people with particular diagnoses–sexually-transmitted diseases, drug use, things like that. It had month, day, year of birth, gender,  ZIP code. I did a mathematical computation in my head. I started out trying to prove her wrong, and now I’m like, “Wait a second.”

William Weld was the governor. He had collapsed, and information about him was in that dataset. For $20 I got the Cambridge voter list, which included date of birth, gender, and ZIP code, along with names. That simple experiment ended up showing that data could be re-identified. The next day I was testifying before Congress. It was a profound point in my life–here was technology that I wanted the world to have, but nobody was looking out for these unforeseen consequences.

Why weren’t they?

It has to do with how innovations happen. Usually, we have some goals, some new use of technology, like voice recognition. The team is already fixing a really hard problem: to make that vision come true. The last thing they want is to have their world complicated by having to also think about societal constraints. Technology gets built without that consideration.

Then it has to get commercialized. How is it going to make money? Is it going to be sustainable? The mute button is easy when you catch it at the design stage. It’s hard when they’ve already shipped millions of units worldwide and it’s in the marketplace.

How did you end up in academia?

All my life I loved mathematics. I wanted to build a thinking machine. As an undergraduate in the 1980s, I was usually the only black or only female in my classes. Personal computers were just coming out. Computer science was new. I don’t think I had a single professor who had a degree in computer science. They either had a degree in math or engineering. It didn’t take long before you knew about as much as your professors. Many of us left school and started companies.

I had a company for 10 years but I wasn’t happy. I would do something noteworthy, but there was nowhere to publish about it. There was no way to say, ‘You won’t believe what I just did!’ I wanted that. The only way to get that voice was to go back to school. I went back to Harvard, and then to MIT.

What advice do you give students interested in going into your field?

I got good at turning lemons into lemonade. I stopped caring about why someone wasn’t doing right by me, or giving me the same opportunities, or treating me unfairly.

New technology areas are prime territory for women and people of color. If you go into a discipline that’s well studied, the best you can do is put a little bitty brick into this huge wall. Public interest technology is a brand new area. It crosses disciplines. Young computer scientists, young technologists, young scholars from all backgrounds could find their place there. I teach a class called Technology Science to Save the World. The students literally solve real-world problems. That shows the opportunity to have impact.

The last piece of advice is don’t try to get one person to be your advisor. Get six different people. Get this committee together. Each one may not be willing to take you under their wing, but they might give you some little nugget.

You left college to start a company and then left that to return to school. How was it different the second time around?

I was 10 years older. When I went back, I was incredibly confident. I had a sense of control over my destiny,  over my environment. My sense of value and self-worth were no longer something the school gave me. I knew where my path was leading.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Latanya is one of the Public Interest Tech voices we’ll be hearing from as part of this series over the next few weeks. Join us as we speak to thought leaders and discover their unique paths.