Library | Speeches

Darren Walker delivers welcome remarks at Just The Beginning 2016 National Conference

Darren, Walker, New York 2014-2015. Photo Credit: Simon Luethi ©Ford Foundation.

Remarks as prepared

Good evening everyone. Welcome to the Ford Foundation. Thank you Judge Chin for that introduction, and thank you all for joining us.

It is particularly exciting to have Justice Sonia Sotomayor with us this evening. She has been a trailblazer in so many ways -- not least of which has been forging the path to become America’s first justice of Hispanic heritage. You are indeed, one of my “sheros.”

I want to welcome you tonight not only as President of the Ford Foundation, but also as a lapsed lawyer. And I deeply understand the value of the law, and of a law degree. You see, a few years after I graduated law school, I went to work in Harlem for the Abyssinian Development Corporation—and I saw firsthand the interplay of power, politics, and justice. 

I saw how entrenched systems and structures continued to disenfranchise and disadvantage the people of Harlem. And I understood, more than ever before, how advantaged I was because I had a law degree.

The skills I learned in law school gave me—as they give you, and lawyers and judges everywhere—the capacity to negotiate systemic change, because as lawyers we can navigate the system.

Today we see distressing levels of systemic and structural inequality—particularly in our justice system. Look no further than questions like,

  • “Who is most likely to be stopped in traffic?”
  • Or “Who gets more harshly sentenced?”
  • Or “Who is most likely to get killed while, in some way or another, touching our criminal justice system?”

It’s hard not to feel a connection between people of color being overrepresented in prisons, and underrepresented on the bench, or as members of the bar. So it’s clear to me that to fight inequality and injustice, we must work within the system of justice. We need to recruit young people from communities that understand the experience of inequality and injustice, and train them to fight against it.

We must create pathways and pipelines to ensure that these skills do not only benefit certain communities—to train a generation of lawyers so that our justice system no longer treats people differently based on the color of their skin or the size of their wallet. Because the only way we will see equal justice for all, is if we are all represented equally in the halls of justice. That’s why we honor Constance Baker Motley, a pioneer for women of color, and a warrior for civil rights and social justice.

That’s why the work of Just The Beginning is so vital—because we need more voices from more communities learning and leveraging the skills that come from a law degree, so we can continue her legacy. By expanding who has these skills, we can grow the number of visionaries fighting on the frontlines of social change.

That is how social change—meaningful reform—will come to our justice system, and how we will see more justice, for more people, for many years to come.

We are so proud to host all of you, and hope you have a wonderful evening.

Thank you.