Mr. Walker’s focus changed the conversation among his peers, said Ben Soskis, a historian of philanthropy at the Urban Institute. “It’s hard to overemphasize how little inequality had been a philanthropic concern over the last half-century,” Mr. Soskis said. “He took on a huge challenge. There’s been no figure with greater influence in the sector than Darren Walker.”
At the heart of this is the unlikely character of Mr. Walker himself, a serious man and demanding chief executive who can whip up blender drinks and gumbo for 50, and says things like, “If the roux does not smell like burnt tires, you haven’t cooked it enough.”
Something else about him: “Darren Walker knows more people than anyone we know,” said Thelma Golden, director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, who has known Mr. Walker since the 1990s. “Darren is the ultimate connector. He’s at the center of this vision of the world as he sees it and the world he makes possible. Without it I don’t know how I or many of us would have the broad communities that we have.”
Darren Walker grew up in Louisiana and East Texas, with a single mother who worked as a nurse’s aide. His life changed when he was recruited in 1965 for the first preschool class of Head Start, a new federal program aimed at reducing poverty. It set him on what he calls a publicly funded “mobility escalator” that continued through state college and state law school, and that he fears no longer exists for young people trying to get out of poverty.
At the University of Texas, he thrived both academically and socially: head of the student union and the elite Friar Society, where a university regent once mistook him for a server. “Even then, as a college kid, he was polished, polite, brilliant, warm, really kind,” said Paul Begala, a former adviser to Bill Clinton, who was a class behind Mr. Walker at U.T. “People were really drawn to Darren.” He engaged frat guys and student government nerds and arty types, and “could bring them together,” Mr. Begala said.
He was also willing to challenge them. At the student union, he brought the Pilobolus dance company to campus, without telling anyone that they performed naked. “People were scandalized,” Mr. Begala said.
When New York beckoned, Mr. Walker worked as a corporate lawyer and then as a bond trader, but quickly jumped off to volunteer full-time at the Children’s Storefront school in Harlem. Around that time, in 1992, he met a downtown art dealer named David Beitzel, and soon they were living together, with the first of two English bulldogs, named Beulah, after Mr. Walker’s mother. (Beulah’s successor, Mary Lou, is named for Mr. Beitzel’s mother; when Mr. Walker wants to leave one of the nightly events he attends, he sometimes says, “Mary Lou is calling.”)