|By Michael Easterbrook
Within the Rockefeller Foundation, Darren Walker has made his name by advancing the organization’s most visible programs and clearing logjams.
That reputation is one reason the foundation in July promoted Walker to vice president.
In his new position, Walker will continue to lead the foundation’s flagship programs and work toward a broader goal – ensuring the 93-year-old foundation remains, as he puts it, “durable and fluid.”
“Lots of organizations can become static,” says Walker, 47, who joined the foundation in 2002 as director of its working communities program. “I would like the Rockefeller Foundation not to be.”
Fluidity also nicely describes Walker’s own life up to now.
He was born in Louisiana and later moved to Goose Creek, Tex., a small town in the southeast corner of the state that for decades has been dominated by the nearby presence of the largest petroleum refinery in the U.S.
The odor from the sprawling, steaming facility sticks with him.
“That was my backyard,” says Walker, referring to the refinery.
After finishing law school in Texas, Walker moved north to practice securities law for two years at an international law firm in New York City.
He later went to work in the capital markets division of UBS, a major investment bank.
In 1995, after seven years at the bank, he left to work full-time as a volunteer staff member at Children’s Storefront School, an elementary school serving low-income families in Harlem.
Walker grew up reading Harlem Renaissance authors such as Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, so the opportunity to work in Harlem was a major draw.
“I spent a lot of time reading the great Harlem literature,” Walker says. “You very much got a sense of Harlem as a quiet, romantic place.”
While Walker works in Manhattan once again, he says he has no qualms about leaving the for-profit sector.
Job: Vice president, Rockefeller Foundation, New York City
Born: 1959, Lafayette, La.
Education: B.A., government, University of Texas at Austin; J.D., University of Texas School of Law
Partner: David Beitzel, art dealer
Career: Associate, Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton; associate, Union Bank of Switzerland (UBS); chief operating officer, Abyssinian Development Corp.; director, working communities program, Rockefeller Foundation
Favorite travel destination: Anywhere in Africa
Currently reading: “The White Man’s Burden,” by William Easterly
Inspiration: Grandfather, Louis Munks. “He only finished the third grade because that’s as far as the Negro school in his small Texas town allowed,” Walker says. “Yet he was exceptionally intelligent and erudite.”
“For most people, what they are passionate about is something they have to do outside of work,” he says. “What I’m passionate about I get to do every day.” Established in 1913, the foundation is one of the nation’s largest private foundations, with assets of more than $3 billion.
As its new vice president, Walker will direct the foundation’s rebuilding efforts in New Orleans, using the $6.5 million Rockefeller has earmarked to help rebuild the city.
He will also oversee an effort by the foundation to ramp up philanthropic work in its own backyard.
“Although the Rockefeller Foundation is in New York City, we have done limited grantmaking here,” he says. “We’ll be putting forth a new strategy for New York City.”
In addition, Walker will be charged with the task of crafting strategies to address some of the world’s most vexing problems such as poverty, global urbanization and migration.
That work takes on particular resonance as the foundation approaches its 100th birthday.
“I think the next few years, as we move toward our centennial, will be a period of great change and excitement,” he says.