Edgar Villanueva on Decolonizing Wealth in America

About This Episode

Through a fascinating look at the history of our country, Edgar Villanueva provides a powerful, insightful argument for us to evaluate institutional philanthropy today. He believes that the way forward is to “heal the pain of the past and restore balance to the land.” Tune in to hear his powerful call-to-action to decolonize wealth in America.

About Edgar Villanueva

Edgar Villanueva is a nationally-recognized author and expert on social justice philanthropy. In addition to working in philanthropy for many years, he has consulted with numerous nonprofit organizations and national and global philanthropies on advancing racial equity inside of their institutions and through their investment strategies. Edgar currently serves as Chair of the Board of Directors of Native Americans in Philanthropy and is a Board Member of the Andrus Family Fund, a national foundation that works to improve outcomes for vulnerable youth. Edgar is an instructor with The Grantmaking School at the Johnson Center at Grand Valley State University and currently serves as Vice President of Programs and Advocacy at the Schott Foundation for Public Education where he oversees grant investment and capacity building supports for education justice campaigns across the United States. Edgar, previously held leadership roles at Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust in North Carolina and at the Marguerite Casey Foundation in Seattle. Edgar is the author of Decolonizing Wealth, which offers hopeful and compelling alternatives to the dynamics of colonization in the philanthropic and social finance sectors.

In His Words…

“I think philanthropy, if we’re talking about money within institutional philanthropy, still can be, and should be, used as a tool of love, to facilitate relationships and help all of us thrive. That’s my goal in life- to bring that love for humanity back into this institutional space, because I truly believe, although at times dysfunctional, philanthropy as an institution can really connect back to that humanity and that spiritual aspect of what giving really is all about.”

“I heard of this term recently called ‘trauma-informed philanthropy.’ We need to think about our philanthropy and how it can be part of healing trauma. First is really recognizing pain and understanding that the wealth that we have access to, and resources we have to move, were made on the backs of indigenous people, slaves and low-wage workers, most of them people of color.

“Very well-educated, well-meaning people do not understand the history of genocide that happened in this country.  They don’t know that just two generations before me, Indian children were taken from their homes and put into Indian boarding schools around the country, under the mantra of ‘Kill the Indian, Save the Man.'” 

“These policies that were put into place by the federal government have left generational trauma on a lot of communities.  And so, if you’re a funder and you want to help in the area of education, you want to help improve access to healthcare, you want to help revitalize culture, you have to understand, as a starting point, the trauma that exists in these communities.”

“There’s a very interesting report that came out in 2014 by The Association of Black Foundation Executives called The Exit Interview.  And the report is spot-on. They interviewed black professionals who were leaving philanthropy, because they felt that they were scrutinized, or their experience was not trusted or valued.  The truth is a lot of people of color are invited in, but you are expected to assimilate very quickly to a white-dominant culture, and you’re there to check a box.  Tokenism is very, very real, and there’s a lot of extra pressure and issues you have to deal with as a person of color.”

:”There is this very interesting culture within philanthropy that I believe is changing, but it still is there, where folks are expected to really assimilate to a certain way of what is perceived as leadership.  And if you are seen to come in with your own agenda, if you are seen to come in with some other ulterior motive that is different from the leader of that organization, you will quickly be pushed out.  And there’s no accountability.  Most foundations don’t have HR departments – some of the large ones – you can go and talk to them, but they are there to protect the leadership and to make sure whatever they need to happen to move you out, it’s going to be done in a way that you can’t sue them.”

“We have all types of formal and informal networks within philanthropy now to support one another, but anyone who is really in this work that is a person of color, who is sincere about social justice and making change in communities, has scars to show from trying to interact in this space and lead in this space.”

Questions Answered on this Episode

What is your definition of philanthropy?

You have a book coming out this fall, Decolonizing Wealth: Medicine to Heal Divides and Restore Balance. Thinking about your definition of philanthropy, where does Decolonizing Wealth come into play in this new model you describe?

if we apply your approach, what does that look like in institutional philanthropy?  If you were at a company retreat, and you were talking to your peers about what your organization can do, or you were leading another foundation through the next steps, what does that look like?  What is the role that an institution can take?

How do we get more people of color into philanthropy- into decision-making tables?  What does the pipeline need to look like?

In the model for decolonizing wealth, how do we get marginalized groups into the conversations?

I wonder when much of the conversation around philanthropy today centers on institutional philanthropy and millionaires and billionaires funding the needs, are there ways to reframe and reclaim the value of the grandmother who writes that $50-per-month check for 20 years to whatever organization?  Is there power in us pushing a new narrative around what philanthropy looks like, particularly for people of color if we see that our needs are not being met through institutional avenues?

What changes do you think we will see between now and 2020 that will maybe provide an opportunity for us to reshape the conversations around philanthropy and how we can work together as a collective?


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