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?
Welcome to the Social Change Diaries, the show that looks behind the curtain at everything you want to know about the social justice and non-profit landscape. I’m your host Vanessa Wakeman.
Welcome to the Social Change Diaries for another episode about philanthropy. Today, I’m going to be chatting with Edgar Villanueva. He is the Vice President of Programs and Advocacy at the Shott Foundation. Edgar has significant philanthropy experience, beginning his grant-making career in 2005 as a Senior Program Officer at the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust. Most recently, he served as a Program Officer for the [National and Midwest Portfolios at the Marvin Casey Foundation].
For many years, Edgar has been a social justice advocate for youth and communities of color, and he has held leadership roles on various boards and advisory committees, such as the Executives Alliance to Expand Opportunities for Boys and Men of Color, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Forward Promise National Advisory Committee. He is also the author of the upcoming book, Decolonizing Wealth: Medicine to Heal, Divide and Restore Balance.
Edgar, thank you so much for joining me today to talk about philanthropy. I’m so excited to get your perspective.
Thank you for having me, Vanessa. I’ve been really looking forward to speaking with you.
Thank you. So, when I was I thinking about what I wanted to talk about today, and thinking about our topic for this season on philanthropy, I was energized by some of what I had read about you and learned about your thought leadership on this topic. I think that when we talk about philanthropy, often times, there’s like a one singular perspective about wealth and poverty, and a very cerebral approach to what is required, and I’m really interested to hear your insights, because it sounds to me like you believe that what’s missing from our equation is this idea of humanity and compassion and healing in order to get us to our next step in the journey. So, I have lots of questions around that, but I do think it’s a different and a much needed approach. And so, with that, let’s jump in.
Edgar, why don’t you define for us philanthropy for you. What does philanthropy look like for you?
Well, if you go by the Greek roots, philanthropy is about love of humanity, which is the definition that I just think about all the time, because sometimes I feel like in my institutional work, I’m not practicing love of humanity. But I think in communities, at least the community I come from, philanthropy is a word that actually does not even exist. It’s just a way of being. It’s about giving of one’s time, treasure and talent, and existing in a state of reciprocity – just because – you love others and you do for others because you know that they would do that same thing for you. And we often hear the word philanthropy, and we think of the Rockefellers and those types of folks. But the first philanthropist I ever knew was my mother, and she in the house cared for me and cared for others in the community, although we did not have a lot of financial resources.
I think that as a field of institutional philanthropy, the way that I’m thinking about that is this really institutionalized process that has come about over the last several decades, more foundations and more recent times than there ever has been. And I have some critiques of how philanthropy is playing out in an institutional form. In many ways, I think of the savior mentality and how that manifests itself in institutional form. And instead of really helping, philanthropy can actually further divide and de-stabilize community, because I think that [love] and that reciprocity and that caring and that taking care of one another has gotten lost somewhere along the way as we have institutionalized philanthropy and created such distance from folks who are actually moving money from actual communities that we are trying to benefit.
I think philanthropy, if we’re talking about money within institutional philanthropy, it still can be and should be used as a tool of love to facilitate relationships and to help all of us thrive. And I think that’s the – my goal in life is 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.
Okay. So, you have a book coming out this fall, Decolonizing Wealth: Medicine to Heal Divides and Restore Balance. Thinking about your definition of philanthropy and what you just shared, where does Decolonizing Wealth come into play in this new model. I feel like it’s imperative. It’s the only answer to get us to where we need to go, but what does it look like in your version of the story?
I will start out by saying that I think we need to look at the tax system in this country and how the inequalities in terms of wealth – the wealth gap – to really question if we should have an economic system that allows individuals to accumulate such massive amounts of wealth [right]. That is not what the book is necessarily about. But, what I’m hoping to do through this book is to help people understand the history of this country and how the accumulation of wealth has traumatized communities. The way that, within capitalism, there is an element of white supremacy and racism that is connected and in the DNA of capitalism. And the way that, as that accumulation of wealth process, has left other [starting] communities behind. The stats are in the book, but take it from me, whether we’re talking about philanthropy, which is my field, or venture capital, bank loans, even municipal bonds, all the institutions that control access to money – I think of them as ivory towers. And, by design, these institutions, these ivory towers, who are not explicitly naming grace and acknowledging the history of this country and of colonization, and if they’re not doing that, then they are actually acting to preserve wealth and privilege of a few, and using money to separate them from the rest of us.
And so, historically money has been used in the name of [addition], in the name of fear, greed and envy. So, my main argument in the book is that I really believe and in order for us to heal the pain that we see in this country, to bring us back together as one human race, and to restore balance to the land, we have to decolonize wealth. And that term is a little jolting for some people, when they hear, “Decolonize wealth, right? Are you going to try – are you saying we need to all go over our money, right.” And so, let me just deconstruct that a little bit. The word “decolonize,” a lot of folks would need me to explain what I mean by that.
To understand decolonize, you have to understand colonization. So, colonization and the history of this country began as a conquest, and it was exploitation motivated by greed and fear, and it was [just aside/decide] by a claim to God-given superiority. So, the mantra of colonization in our history was to divide and conquer, to command and control, and above all to exploit. And so what I talk about in the book is I talk about colonization as a virus, because I use the body as sort of a metaphor throughout the book. And this colonizing virus still exists in certain ways. And the virus exists in our culture and institutions, and is especially dangerous there. We see the colonizer virus in our education system. We see it in our foreign policy. We see it in our environmental policy and also in the realms of wealth, which is what this book is about. You see the colonizer virus appearing in investment and finance and in philanthropy. And, so to decolonize that obviously is the process of undoing colonization. And taking literally, decolonization means that the land that was stolen from indigenous communities is given back. Sovereignty, not only over the land, but of resources. All of that is granted back to those from whom it was stolen. It also means that the autonomy of every individual native person must be re-instated.
And when we think about that, the colonization that way, as a political process, we tend to get stuck. We make no headway at all. Because the truth is, in the 21st century America, there is no a future that does not include settlers occupying indigenous lands. Our lives are intertwined. Our families are intertwined. Our businesses are intertwined. And that’s really the reality of today’s world.
So, my point is that in understanding this history of colonization, one is [to know it]. So many people do not understand our history in this country of genocide and Indian boarding schools and even slavery. You know, it’s all been whitewashed in a sense. So, really understanding that history that we have, and then to understand the trauma that has been caused by that history, for communities of color, but also for white people. And that, what we can do is actually understand that the decolonization is the process of healing from that trauma.
So, we can’t undo it. The trauma is here. But we can begin a process of healing from colonization. And to understand that we’re all traumatized from the process, but we can focus on stopping the cycles of abuse, healing ourselves and helping others heal. And so the point I make in this book is that wealth and money, which has historically been used as a means to harm, can be used as a medicine if we put money in places where their hurt is the worst, we can actually begin to see healing take place in communities.
So, 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 in trying to get us to this place?
In the book, I outline seven steps to healing institutions and cultures around money. So the first I touched on is actually to recognize the pain that was caused by the accumulation of wealth in the first place. I heard of this term recently called “trauma-informed philanthropy.” Because we have trauma-informed care, trauma-informed education. We need to think about our philanthropy and how it can be part of healing trauma. And so the first is really recognizing pain and understanding that the wealth that we have access to and resources we have to move was made on the backs of indigenous people and slaves and low-wage workers, most of them people of color.
And once we acknowledge that history and, honestly, as a Native American, [unclear] a lot of what I do is what we call “Indian 101,” where I’m just helping people acknowledge that history. People, 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.”
And so, these policies that were put into place by the federal government has 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. And so, a blanket approach that was designed in a foundation, in a strategic planning process, that did not include anyone from those communities, did not include anyone that really understands first-hand, lived the experience about that trauma. Those approaches are not going to be as effective possibly in communities of color.
So, what I’m advocating for is that we have to re-open the wounds and kind of grieve that. It’s not comfortable. We have to be uncomfortable and we don’t like to be uncomfortable in philanthropy. We don’t like to be wrong. We have a culture of perfectionism. But I’m saying that in order to heal our institutions and decolonize our thinking around this money, we have to open those wounds and be uncomfortable. We have to have difficult, hard conversations, and then we have to apologize. There’s a lot of power that comes from healing by actually apologizing.
In the book, I share some stories of white folks of wealth who had come to terms with their privilege and understanding how their family acquired that wealth, and they were struck with guilt. And the way that they began to get free from that was to actually apologize.
And then finally what I’m saying, in terms of what funders can do, is to truly listen and engage with communities. Begin a relationship that is not a transactional relationship but to really listen and to build with community and to begin staring to walk and talk about diversity and equity. And we, in philanthropy, talk about diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) as the same thing, but we have to really unpack and understand it’s not the same thing. We’ve made some progress around diversity. We’re seeing more people of color, still a very small number, especially in leadership positions, but equity is really a whole different ball game. Equity is not about inviting a person of color to the table in that kind of tokenism way, but it’s about building whole new decision-making tables. And I’m imploring funders and investors, bankers, to put our money where our values are, once folks really understand the trauma that colonization has caused to then align the funding strategy and use money to heal where people are hurting.
So, to get more technical with you, Vanessa, because I know a lot of this sounds theoretical, the most amount of – when you think of the billions of dollars that philanthropy is investing every year in communities, the highest percentage of money that has ever gone into communities is 7% to 8%. So, we’re thinking about how wealth was acquired, again at the disadvantage of people of color, genocide, slavery, low-wage work, which made a significant contribution to folks acquiring that wealth. And then, this money is tax sheltered, right? Wealthy folks got a tax break, or corporations got a tax break, by starting new foundations. And then most of the money is being re-invested in white-led, mainstream organizations, only crumbs are finding its way to support communities of color. And I’m saying that’s unacceptable. We have to figure out a way to change that and to use resources differently if we’re really going to address the race-wealth gap in this country, which is a critical part of appealing.
So, Edgar, how do we get more people of color into philanthropy, into those decision-making tables? What does the pipeline need to look like? When I’m having conversations with people about philanthropy, particularly people of color, there are words like “tokenism” come up, or “I’m not in a position to make any decisions,” or “I am only asked for my feedback around particular issues.” And so, that’s not appealing. People really do want to make impact and to be heard, and typically help their communities – people who look like them. So, how can we get more people into philanthropy, people of color, knowing that there really, at this time, don’t seem to be many opportunities for them to be impactful in a sustainable way that deals with all of the disease that you mentioned? I don’t understand how I can make a pitch to someone to say why they should go into philanthropy knowing that it’s a hard, hard road for them.
Right. That’s a great question. I mean I get a lot of calls from different people, people of color, who are interested in working in philanthropy, and I often question their motives and try to talk them out of it.
I can say some of the things that you hear in terms of we need more onramps for people to get into the field. It’s still a relatively small field. There really, in reality, there’s just not that many jobs, so they’re very competitive. And so, finding ways to expose philanthropy to young folks through fellowships or connecting with universities that have [dinners on] philanthropy and that type of thing is one idea.
I was fortunate that at a young age of 28 found myself working in a foundation, and so a lot of it just comes down to luck. It’s really honestly a different [film] to break into. What I am seeing and understanding more these days is that I think the number of people of color has increased, but I think that I’m beginning to see fewer people of color. Although we’re seeing more people of color gradually, a tiny, tiny, tiny percentage in CEO positions, there still is new data from the Center on the Council on Foundations that came out about a year ago, showed that the number of people of color is actually decreasing.
And so, I call it the white lash, like Van Jones [unclear] after the election. I think that right now, there’s something happening in this country because after this election where people who have less power, the white people who have less power, are trying to hold on to white supremacy, because they think that is their way out. And then people who do have power are trying to hold onto that out of fear. So I think that we’re going to actually see the number of people of color possibly decrease in philanthropy, which [would be] clearly sad, but it’s not just getting into philanthropy, because there are ways to get in. It is hard, but there are ways. But, once you get into this field, the turnover rates for people of color is enormous. It’s very difficult to sustain yourself in this space if you are a person of color, because this space was not built for us. There’s a lot of concentrated power and privilege, and the colonial dynamics and virus, is like majorly at play, and decisions are made in a way that is very counter-culture for how a lot of people of color make decisions.
So, for example, as a Native American, in my community, we do not like competition. If we have resources, we want to distribute those in an equitable way. We’re not pitting organizations to compete against each other. We like for everyone to have a shared voice in a decision. Philanthropy is very top-down, and so you end up having to code switch like crazy if you’re a person of color in this space. Now, what I have found is that the more white you behave as a person of color, the more you’re elevated in this field. And so when we see people of color begin to elevate in the field, they’re not necessarily people of color, which is a good thing, right? I’m not going to argue that that’s ever a bad thing, but I would not say that all of them have the same type of analysis about this work that I have. Because, I think if you come from a place where you have not historically had power or privilege and all of a sudden you are sitting around a table, that proximity to that power and privilege can make people act in very bizarre ways.
And so, I have some of the most painful interactions that I’ve actually had working in philanthropy have been with other people of color, and I know that, from writing this book and talking to a lot of folks, that that’s a shared experience, and that makes me very sad. I blame that on white supremacy that has caused some of us to internalize that oppression and try to hold on to that power.
So, 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 just really 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. And so, 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.
For example, as a Native American, when I got into the field about 14 years ago, I think I knew one other Native person in the entire country who worked in foundations. And so, all of a sudden, because I was in a foundation in North Carolina, the Native community in North Carolina was very excited. One of us is in there. And so, there’s this expectation all of a sudden that you are going to move resources back to your community, and of course I wanted to do that, but it was very, very difficult. And so you feel like you’re letting down your community, you’re trying to be authentic to who you are, but you’re also being told what to wear and how to behave. You hear stories of from Native Sisters who were asked not to wear their jewelry to work, because it was making people so uncomfortable.
And so, 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.
And, it’s just very difficult. 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, have scars to show from trying to interact in this space and lead in this space with those types of values.
So, I think we have to think about getting more people in, but how do we support people. Over 14 years, I’ve been pushed out of two foundations. I’m in my third foundation. I keep getting hired back, which is kind of a good thing. But it’s really – if you’re going to have values and make a stand, you will be pushed [down/out]. That is not welcomed in this space. And so, we have to find ways to expose that and call it out as a [unclear]. And my book is not necessarily a tell-all, but I am bringing some things to the table and telling some stories that actually make me nervous, where I’ve had water cooler conversations with other people of color about some of these dynamics, and I felt like in order for us to ever move beyond that, I’ve got to bring those conversations to the main stage. Although this is a culture of politeness and you know, I’m seeing some progress, we’re not getting there fast enough.
And so, it’s a risk I’m willing to take by telling the truth, because I think ultimately, there’s a lot of people out there who resonate with these stories of trends that affect change within this space that is very, very resistant to change.
Well, thank you so much for your courage. I definitely know that through history, it’s the courage of a few that allow the rest of us to move forward. So, thank you for that. I want to touch on what you said about having the scars. I think one of the things we don’t talk about in philanthropy, in the non-profit sector and social change overall, is this idea of self-care. I think what you described as the typical path and the behavior and interactions that people of color have in philanthropy, unfortunately, are not unique to philanthropy. I think that working in any sector as a person of color, you often will walk away with a couple of scars and some stories to share. But, in some areas, there is the understanding that, “Wow, that’s really hard work, and you need to be taking care of yourself.”
I think that because in social change there’s this mindset around sacrifice and doing whatever I have to do to help others that people often forget how important it is to make sure you are okay, that you have a network of people that you can share your experiences with, that you can cry on someone’s shoulder, that there’s someone there to kiss your boo-boo and put a band-aid on it. And so, if we’re thinking about what it takes for people to sustain themselves in that environment, when you talk about trauma and healing, I think that that’s also a very important part of it that we shouldn’t overlook, that we need to make sure that we do get people into the pipeline. And those that are brave enough to move forward that they do have the support system that they need to be able to sustain whatever they can to be able to pass the baton to the next group of people.
So, they’ll look at ou, who has had 14 years of experience, and I can’t even imagine what your scars and battle wounds look like. But I think that using this book as a way to share those experiences, there’s some healing in those cathartic nature in that. And I think also allowing people to understand and see that they’re not the only ones. Often times, there’s so much silence, because we feel like as the token person of color, the only black woman, the only Native American male, that we have to just shoulder it in silence, not knowing that the person who is 50 miles away in another organization is undergoing the same type of experience. And so, I’m really happy that people will have a resource that they can use to understand, “Oh, it’s not just me,” and maybe this will open up additional conversations. And also, for the people who are sitting in the space of privilege, our white allies and colleagues, maybe this is an opportunity for them to reframe the experience that they’re having to understand what is happening. So, I think it’s really important.
When we talk about movement and movements of people of color, so we’ve had Standing Rock recently. We had Black Lives Matter. These are groups that traditionally have been marginalized and silenced. One of the things that we’re doing in our work at the Wakeman Agency is we’re building a speakers’ bureau, and we are not solely interested in working with leaders of organizations or thought leaders and influencers, we also want to give a platform to the people who are experiencing the issues. So, my observations has been that we are very quick to cart out on the stage the people who are impacters. So, these are people who are homeless. These are the people who are hungry. These are the people living in poverty and don’t have any jobs. But when it comes time to frame solutions and have those conversations, we do not give them a seat at the table. It’s like, “Oh, no, no, no, you can’t possibly have any insight into this issue. Let the experts handle it.”
And so, we’re trying to disrupt and flip that model and say, “I’m going to guess that the person who is experiencing this probably has some really solid insights that we can learn from and can be valuable to us solving this problem.” And so, in thinking about that, how do you, in the model for decolonizing wealth, how do we get the marginalized groups central into these conversations? Because I think that there’s so much healing and so much opportunity for progress in that.
Right. So, I think that when we’re thinking about the mess that the country is in right now, I have to laugh to keep from crying, and the economic state that we’re finding ourselves in, one place that people don’t go for solutions is Native America or looking at other communities of color that have been so resilient. The fact that I argue in the book is that we the resilient, the folks who have a corner on resiliency, we’re still here after so much. Those of us who have been excluded and exploited by today’s broken economy, that we actually possess exactly the perspective and the wisdom that’s needed to fix it.
And so, what I say to a lot of funders is that it’s not that there’s not a place for the 1%, there’s not a place for white people, but sometimes their privilege blinds them to solutions that work best for everybody. I’m pushing for people to really understand that the work of decolonization and really undoing this harm and this trauma, in healing that, there’s roles for everyone of [all], whether you’re rich or poor, whether you’re a funder or recipient, whether you’re a victim or a perpetrator.
And so, it’s really making sure that everyone knows that they have a responsibility to do it. And getting those folks, these movement leaders that are on the front lines, who are really just dynamic, what are the lessons that we can learn from that and their expertise in shifting power. I think what philanthropy and funders are afraid of is power, because we have so much power as funders, and I’m not going to kid you and say that I haven’t enjoyed some of that power, right? Being from where I’m from and getting into this place where I have this automatic assumed respect and expertise and power, there’s privilege that comes with that.
But, we have to be willing as philanthropy and as investors to really give up that power and understand when we look at Black Lives Matter, we look at [unclear], these movements that arrived without any philanthropic investment. It’s organic movement, because people who are living that experience in that moment said, “Well this has to change.” And the change that has been able to be accomplished by these movements and shifting power and bringing to a global platform acknowledging these challenges, and acknowledgment of their resilient solutions, is amazing. And if philanthropy doesn’t want to be a part of supporting that, we’ve missed our mark.
We can support policy change. A sister at this conference I met right now said yesterday this powerful phrase, “Policy change without organizing is death.” So, we have to not only work to change policy and shift systems, but organizing and building that community power is really what’s going to sustain this movement. And if I could think of what I’ve observed about Standing Rock and about BLM and other movements, one is that these movements are being led by young people, and that gives me hope. Today is actually a day where young people are walking out of schools all over the country demanding gun control. Change has always happened, been led by young people on the front lines.
And philanthropy does not have a way to often times in our antiquated vehicles to move resources to support that, but we need to figure it out, and there are some models that are beginning to do that. But we have to let these movements be messy. We cannot force them into our theories of change and require them to jump through all these hoops. We have to be responsive and fast, because they are responding in the moment, and if they have to write a proposal, wait six months to hear, I mean the world is going to be drastically different in six months, right?
So, we have to trust indigenous wisdom and leadership. These young people and these women who are on the front lines of imagining a world that is different and finding ways. It’s on us as philanthropy to find ways to support that.
I always think about the movement or The Revolution Will Not Be Funded. The book, right? And I think about the quote about dismantling the master’s house with his own tools, as the march [unclear] up. Is there actually a role for philanthropy? Philanthropy, because it is a part of capitalism, because it is another face where white privilege and power is perpetuating white supremacy. And so if I see a change in the type of funding that’s happening, I will say that, because 8% is not making a significant change in communities of color. Until we are willing to let that go and give up our power, and support movement-building work, then we’re not funding the most effective type of work. I think investing in community organizing, investing in building grass-roots power in communities of color is the most effective type of philanthropy that there is. There have been studies to show the return on investment for funders who need return on investment, who need their theories of change to models. There are ways that we can speak to the result that come out of that, if that’s what you have to have as a funder.
But, just anyone who’s been awake in the last couple years to see the women’s movements, everything that’s happening with [B2] right now, and all of these movements. They have happened in spite of philanthropy, in spite of not having a financial resources of support from philanthropic institutions. If we can only align our values with these movements and what they’re trying to do to shape and create a better world, and align our funding with that agenda of healing and that agenda of decolonization, man we can really see a lot of healing happen in the world and we can really see I think us coming together as a human race and addressing some of these issues. But, we have to realize as funders, when we’re not centering those on the front lines that are most impacted, if we’re not centering them in our conversations and our funding and how we’re making decisions, then we are actually part of the problem.
I was the first grandchild in my family, and so I got all of the stories. I am the story collector. One of the stories that my grandmother used to proudly tell is about how, in her community as a young wife and mother, how close everyone was and when something happened to someone in the community, there was no need to go outside of the community, because people were going to come together. Whether they had to sell dinners to make sure money was coming in and people’s rent could be paid, or if they were putting money together and making a contribution if someone dies suddenly, it was this sense of, as you mentioned early on, of compassion and caring for one another.
And so, 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 these institutional avenues?
Yeah. Absolutely. There’s so much power in the giving that we have in communities of color. When I was writing this book, I was doing some research about the term “Indian giver.” Because when we were growing up at school, if someone called you an Indian giver, it was a bad thing. And I’m like, “Where did that come from?”
And the premise for that is because in native communities, when we think of giving, we don’t think about it from the white [savior] way or the charity transactional model that I’m here in the Ivory Tower and I’m going to bestow upon you this gift, and [some type of] charity. That savior complex type of giving does not exist. And that’s where philanthropy is locked in and has to deconstruct that and change that.
But in Native communities, and I know in some other communities of color who share that value, we actually do give because we know that we’re going to receive back, right? It’s that resiliency and that taking care of one another. So, it’s not giving because we know we’re going to get per se, in terms of, “I’m not going to give to you unless you give to me.” But it is that code of value that all of our thriving is mutual. All of our suffering is mutual. And so everything is in a reciprocal process. Even with the lands, with animals, with everything. And so that’s why you find in indigenous communities such an appreciation for the arts and a care for the arts and a care for each other, because giving really is just inter-conducted in that way.
And, I’ve heard some of the data that poor folks actually give at higher rates. And so no one is thinking about the little grandmother at church who’s putting money in the offering plate or bringing canned foods in. No one’s calling her a philanthropist, but we actually know that folks like that are giving more than anyone in this country. And so, I think finding ways to celebrate and acknowledge that giving that’s outside of institutional philanthropy is very, very important, it’s very empowering. It’s something that is so rich and necessary that no one could ever take from us. And I think that it’s a part of our culture, right? It’s a part of our way of being, and being okay, and that’s why we’re still here, because we have given and taken care of each other for generations through a lot of hardships.
You know, when you study, and some of the conversations I had with white folks when I was writing this book, who have studied their ancestry and where they came from, many of them found in European countries or Scandinavian countries or whatnot, before their ancestors came to America and colonized or settled here, that they had similar characteristics in their community. They were tribal folks. They were in clans. They took care of each other. But somewhere along the way in our history, as folks are coming to America and colonizing this place, these false narratives around independence and taking care of self and excluding and us versus them and division came to be a part of what is considered white-dominant culture.
And so, what I want to say to white people is that a lot of the culture, black culture, native culture, is being people are looking to a culture rate [that the white] because they want that feeling. They see that we have it. They see the reasons. They see the deep personal connections we have with one another, and they want that. I think somewhere within their hearts, it’s in their DNA to be connected.
And, if they can understand that that’s where they have lost [found] in colonization, that type of giving and being a community in a way that’s reciprocal and connected, and that if they go through their own healing process, that can be restored in their lives, and we will open up the circle and invite them if they will go through a healing process with us and stop these cycles of abuse. And so, I do think that acknowledging that indigenous, organic, cultural way of living and giving and taking care of each other, something that’s so simple.
I was watching the news a couple days ago, and one of the news stories was a man in Georgia who had to stop his truck, held up traffic to help an elderly man across the street who was on a walker. And I thought, “Wow, that’s really kind.” But then I thought, “Why is this making national news?” The fact that someone stopped a truck, they help an old person across the – that is making national news. I’m all the way in New York hearing about it. And so, it’s just really sad that we’ve gotten to that place as a group of humans who want all the same things, that we have lost our way in terms of that humanity.
And so, I think we have to deconstruct in a sense about why we think about this American dream and this vision of individualism, because it’s only – we haven’t seen the fruits of that. That’s a false narrative. We need to realize it’s not real, and that we are really independent and need each other to get through life and to thrive.
Okay, so clearly I have a million more questions, but I promised to make this next question my last question, if you will agree to come back and chat with me again once the book is actually out. Is that a deal?
Absolutely. The book comes out October 16. I would love to come back. This is my favorite subject to talk about. I’m a philanthro-geek, as they say. So, please have me back. Folks can check out the book. It’s on pre-sell on Amazon. If you just Google Decolonizing Wealth, you can check it out there, and I’m happy to – I would love to come back and talk with you and see how maybe some of my thinking will have evolved and there will be new stories to tell. I would be happy to do that.
Perfect. So, my final question is, 2020 is when we will be electing a new President. We know that there are some changes to the tax code brewing, which I’m guessing will, in some ways, impact philanthropy. 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?
I think some of the stories about red and anecdotes that I’ve heard recently – when the election first happened, there were a lot of folks giving, out of anger, rage, someone coined it “rage-philanthropy.” And so, I’m feeling like, if we gave to everything that this administration was trying to – every democratic value they were trying to shut down, that was a way of feeling like we had some control over it.
Well, to all of our dismay, maybe shock, we can’t sustain that giving or we will be making a contribution every day, because every day something crazy is coming out, right? And so, I have heard there’s a study that showed that giving, this rage-philanthropy, and giving to counter-act what’s happening out of the White House, has decreased.
But, I feel hopeful. I think that we, as a country, are going to have a lot to reflect on. I think that we have been extremely polarized, and I think everyone’s tired of it. I’ve had an opportunity recently to talk with people outside of my own bubble. Whereas, after the election, I was angry. I stayed angry, and I did not want to talk with people who may have voted [for] Trump or whatever. But, you know, what I realized – I come from a conservative family in North Carolina, evangelical folks who were Trump supporters. It’s very likely that my own mother may have voted for Trump. And I know that she’s a good person, and so I think what we have to realize – we need to figure out why people who don’t stand to benefit from the policies that are being put out, what kind of pain are they in and how can we find a way to bridge them.
And what I learned in my own self, in writing this book and beginning to reach out and talk to white people, especially that maybe I would not ever want to talk to because of my own pain, and with this administration, I learned, and back to this code of value of all my relations. And I was talking to an elder in my community where I was expressing my anger, saying I didn’t want to talk to white people right now, is she reminded me that, “Edgar, those are your relatives. Regardless of how people voted, that’s your sister, that’s your brother, and the [additionist unclear] that we hold is to let everybody in and to meet where they are.”
Now at that point, I realized that I was very colonized. I was not thinking like a native. And so this book has given me a special gift to talk to a lot of folks to really think about decolonizing my own thinking, to really connect back to my own native beliefs that of all my relations. And I hope that people in this country can get to a place where we will just let go with the venom and find ways to connect to find the middle ground. While we’re fighting, we’re losing kids to gun violence, we’re losing kids to police violence. We are not focusing our energy where it could be on reforming mass incarceration, improving public education, because we’re so polarized.
And, I’m just as angry as the next person, but I’m willing to open my circle up if someone wants to get in the circle with me to figure out a way to connect and heal. I think philanthropy can have a role in helping to fund that type of coming together. In many cases, we play a neutral role in communities, and we have money. we have money to help fund work that will try to start chipping away at this polarized place that we’re finding ourselves in.
I do think, one last thing I’ll say, and then we’re winding up on time here. I feel really excited about the future of philanthropy in the sense that, when I started doing this work, there weren’t – social justice was like a bad word in philanthropy. The word equity was not even on the table. We were very race-neutral, I would say. No one specifically called out race or said that there needed to be strategies around moving money into communities of color.
So, we’re talking very differently. People are beginning to talk and think about funding advocacy and philanthropy that I never imagined would get to that point. So I do think that people are beginning to see that philanthropy can legally within the walls of what’s permissible, can actually support [static] engagement and advocacy work to really roll back some of this harmful legislation and to fight and resist against some of that. So, I’m hopeful that more funders are going to get on board and realize that with this wealth comes responsibility, and we have a responsibility to really support and to protect further harm from happening to these communities that are being directly impacted by this harmful administration.
Edgar, if people are interested about learning more about the book or where you’re going to be speaking this fall, or just in general about your work, is there a website or any place that they can go to, to maybe sign up for a mailing list or anything?
Sure, my website is under construction, and it should be ready any day now. You guys are going to be on the front end of this process, but it will be decolonizingwealth.com. A great way to connect is to follow me on Twitter. My handle is @VillanuevaEdgar. You can [DM] me there, connect over Twitter, and as soon as the website is up, I’ll share that with folks. But absolutely, the book also has a Facebook page, Decolonizing Wealth, if you want to follow along with, and I’ll be sharing more information there.
Beautiful. It was an absolute pleasure to speak with you today. I so appreciate your vulnerability as you spoke about this topic, your compassion, your passion for the work, and I look forward to hearing more about this topic and hopefully seeing a groundswell of change as people embrace the ideas that you’re presenting. I feel like there’s a real opportunity for transformation and healing and change, and I’m happy to know that you will be on the forefront of that, so thank you so much.
Thank you guys for having me. I appreciate you using your platform in this way to fight for social change. Thank you so much.
I so enjoyed my conversation with Edgar. I’m sure that the topic of decolonizing wealth and some of the realities that Edgar and I discussed are uncomfortable to some listeners, and I think that’s okay. To be clear, it’s equally uncomfortable to share those truths, but hopefully it will lead to honest and authentic conversations that help us to collectively change the world.
I thank you for tuning in today, and as always, please share this with someone who may be interested. And if you enjoyed the episode, leave us a review on iTunes. Thank you.