Decolonizing Wealth: Edgar Villanueva on the Healing Power of Money

  • February 16, 2019

$127 million. That’s how much money I have given away since 2005. Just under a million per month.

That’s a significant sum for all but a handful of extremely wealthy people on the planet. It’s even more astonishing given that I grew up in poverty. My people are dirt poor. They hail from Robeson County, North Carolina, the third poorest county in the United States, where more than a third of folks live on less than $15,000 per year, including most of my extended family. Yet I’ve made close to $130 million in philanthropic gifts. If that were 1.3 percent of my income—the average annual percentage given as donations by the super-wealthy—I’d be earning around $750 million every year.

I would be, that is, if that money were my own. As it happens, I am that rare phenomenon: a Native American working in the field of philanthropy. Those millions are other people’s money, entrusted to my hands.

decolonizing-wealth-villanueva_3d-right_300x432Decolonizing Wealth is an unflinching exploration into the colonial dynamics at play in the world of philanthropy. In this adapted excerpt of Edgar Villanueva’s book, he introduces the actionable path toward healing the stark divides by drawing from Indigenous wisdom. Villanueva calls for a radical and transformative shift, pulling no punches in envisaging the world that works for all and the work it will require.


What’s the matter with philanthropy?

The field of philanthropy is a living anachronism. It is (we are) like a stodgy relative wearing clothes that will never come back in fashion. It is adamant that it knows best, holding tight the purse strings. It is stubborn. It fails to get with the times, frustrating the younger folks. It does not care.

  • It is (we are) like a mansion with neoclassical columns and manicured lawns staffed with butlers and maids who pass silver trays of tiny tasteless nibbles (pigs in blankets, angels on horseback, anyone?) to guests wearing tailcoats and bustles, as a string quartet plays tunes written centuries ago. No one’s voice rises over a certain decibel, no one jokes, no one’s words call attention to the ludicrous and unsustainable farce that is the entire scene.
  • It is (we are) a period play, a costume drama, a fantasy of entitlement, altruism, and superiority. Far too often, it creates (we create) division and suffering rather than progress and healing.
  • It is (we are) a sleepwalking sector, white zombies spewing the money of dead white people in the name of charity and benevolence.
  • It is (we are) colonialism in the empire’s newest clothes.
  • It is (we are) racism in institutional form.

Philanthropy moves at a glacial pace. Epidemics and storms hit, communities go under water literally and metaphorically, Black and brown children get shot dead or lose their youth inside jail cells, families are separated across continents, women are abused and beaten and raped, all of Rome burns while we fiddle with another survey on strategies, another study on impact.

Other sectors feel the heat of competition. Not us. We politely nod at the innovations of the business sector; it takes us a half-century to implement one of them. We indulge those who say that diversity is important by conducting several decades of analyses, hiring consulting groups with absurd price tags. We publish reports. We create a task force and debate mightily over what to call it. We do not actually change, not more than superficially.

This is philanthropy. It is (we are) the family that embarrasses me and infuriates me. But it’s still my family, my relations, and I believe in redemption. It’s from the place of calling this family to a better self that I write.

Philanthropy, honey, it’s time for an intervention.

The Elephant in the Room: Colonialism in Philanthropy

Most critiques of philanthropy point the accusing finger at things like funding priorities, grantmaking decision processes, the tax code, and payout percentages. As far as I’m concerned, a focus on reforming this stuff is certainly valid, but ultimately about as effective as rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Why? Because those are mere symptoms of a virus that has pervaded every aspect, every cell, every interaction. What remains unexamined with those kinds of reforms are frank conversations about where that wealth came from, why it’s held back from public coffers, how it’s invested as an endowment, and who gets to manage, allocate, and spend it.

My central argument is what ails philanthropy at its core is colonialism. Almost without exception, funders reinforce the colonial division of Us vs. Them, Haves vs. Have Nots, and mostly white saviors and white experts vs. poor, needy, urban, disadvantaged, marginalized, at-risk people (take your pick of euphemisms for people of color). The statistics speak for themselves: 92 percent of foundation CEOs are white, 89 percent of foundation boards are white, while only 7 to 8 percent of foundation funding goes specifically to people of color. Philanthropy is the savior mentality in institutional form, which instead of helping—its ostentatiously proclaimed intent—actually further divides and destabilizes society.

Part One of my book Decolonizing Wealth, “Where It Hurts,” recounts my journey into the heart of philanthropy, past the field’s glamorous, altruistic facade, into its shadows. I drill down to the core of the affliction, uncovering white supremacy, the savior mentality, and internalized oppression.

Yet while my own experience is centered in philanthropy, the same dynamics basically hold true across what I call the loans-to-gifts spectrum: Bank loans. Venture capital. Municipal bonds. Even social and ethical finance, impact investments, and humanitarian aid. Here the statistics are equally dismal:

  • The management of financial services is 81 percent white
  • 86 percent of venture capitalists are white, as are more than 96 percent of angel investors.
  • On the receiving side, loans are denied to 42 percent of minority-owned firms, but denied to only 16 percent of white-owned firms.
  • A measly 1 percent of VC funding goes to African American and Latino entrepreneurs.

To sum it up: when it comes to getting or giving access to money, white men are usually in charge, and everyone else has to be twice (or more) as good to get half (or less) as much. All the institutions along the loans-to-gifts spectrum—I’ll use the term “funders” to encompass them all—are “ivory towers,” by which I mean institutions of racism and division. All these funders exist to preserve the wealth and privilege of a few, to separate them from the rest of us. Most employ money in the name of division, to reinforce fear, greed, and envy.

Now, some will say that it’s “just the economy, stupid,” the natural outcome of an ideology that puts the welfare of the free market and the rights of corporations before the welfare and rights of people. But I say that those who would focus the blame on the system of capitalism or neoliberalism are obscuring the real root of the problem. As Malcolm X said, “You can’t have capitalism without racism.”

Since at least the 1400s, white supremacy has been the justification for colonization, the conquest and exploitation of non-European lands, backed by a claim of divine sanction. European white imperialism spent centuries marching around the world, using whatever means necessary to amass and consolidate resources and wealth. Now, adding insult to injury, those who were stolen from or exploited to make that wealth—Indigenous people, people of African descent, and many other people of color—must apply for access to that wealth in the form of loans or grants; we must prove ourselves worthy. We are demeaned for our lack of resources, scrutinized, and often denied access after all.

The tactics of colonization violate us and leave us traumatized, over generations, to this very day.

Yet there’s a silver lining in this cataclysm. All of us who have been forced to the margins are the very ones who harbor the best solutions for healing, progress, and peace, by virtue of our outsider perspectives and resilience. When we reclaim our share of resources, when we recover our places at the table and the drawing board, we can design our healing. We can create new ways of seeking and granting access to money. We can return balance to the world by moving money to where the hurt is worst.

To paraphrase Maya Angelou: Once we know better, we need to do better.

Money as Medicine

For most people, medicine is something used to treat or cure a disease, often a man-made drug or sometimes an herb. Sometimes it refers to the whole field of medicine: hospitals, pharmacies, doctors, and so on. In Native traditions, however, medicine is a way of achieving balance. An Indigenous medicine person doesn’t just heal illnesses—he or she can restore harmony or establish a state of being, like peacefulness. Medicine people live and practice among the people; access to them is constant and unrestricted. And the practice of medicine is not just limited to the hands of medicine people: everyone is welcome to participate. Engaging with medicine is a part of the experience of daily life. Traditionally, Indigenous people don’t wait to be out of balance before they turn to medicine.

In the Indigenous worldview, many kinds of things can be medicine: a place, a word, a stone, an animal, a natural phenomenon, a dream, a life event like a coffee date with a friend, or even something that seems bad in the moment like the loss of a job. Have you ever looked back at your life and thought, “That was the best thing that could have ever happened to me”? That was medicine. In order for something or someone to serve as medicine, it only needs to be filled with or granted a kind of mystical or spiritual power. Anyone can find and use medicine, just by allowing your intuition and feelings to determine whether something can serve as medicine.

You listen for its sacred power; you don’t force it. You don’t choose the medicine, the elders say, it chooses you.

It has taken me a long, long time (patience is a virtue in Indian country) to accept that the medicine that has chosen me is money. Because, I mean, money? Come on. Money corrupts. Money is dirty, even filthy. Money is the root of all evil, doesn’t the Bible say that?

But what is money but a way to measure value, to facilitate exchange? And what is exchange but a type of relationship between people? Money is a proxy for the sweat we spent on growing food, sewing clothes, assembling electronics, coding apps, creating entertainment, researching and developing innovations, etc. It’s just a stand-in for the materials we used, the services granted, the responsibility shouldered. Money is a tool to reflect the obligations people develop to each other as they interact. It’s “the measure of one’s trust in other human beings,” as anthropologist David Graeber writes in his comprehensive book Debt.

Materially, it’s a bit of nickel, zinc, copper. It’s a little linen, mostly cotton, some ink. It’s basically Kleenex adorned with dead presidents. Actually, today mostly it’s a series of zeros and ones. Bytes, data on screens. Imaginary. Harmless.

And in fact, the Bible doesn’t say money’s the root of all evil. It says the love of money is the root of all evil—in other words, when we let it be more important than life, relationships, and humanity.

I’m not saying there aren’t problems with money when it’s hoarded, controlled, used to divide people, to oppress and dominate. But that’s not the money’s fault. Inherently it’s value-neutral. Humans have used money wrongfully. We’ve made money more important than human life. We’ve allowed it to divide us. That is a sin. We forget that we humans made money up out of thin air, as a concept, a tool for a complex society, a placeholder for aspects of human relations. We forget that we gave money its meaning and its power.

Money is like water. Water can be a precious life-giving resource. But what happens when water is dammed, or when a water cannon is fired on protesters in subzero temperatures? Money should be a tool of love, to facilitate relationships, to help us thrive, rather than to hurt and divide us. If it’s used for sacred, life-giving, restorative purposes, it can be medicine.

Money, used as medicine, can help us decolonize.

Seven Steps to Healing

In Part Two of Decolonizing Wealth, “How to Heal,” I offer my thoughts on what we need to do to decolonize the institutions and processes around money. Across American history and through the present day, the accumulation of wealth is steeped in trauma. The process of healing from that trauma is central to decolonization.

Acknowledging our woundedness is key. This is not just for individuals; institutions can also engage in the Seven Steps to Healing:

  1. Grieve: We have to stop and feel the hurts we’ve endured.
  2. Apologize: We must apologize for the hurts we’ve caused.
  3. Listen: We must acknowledge the wisdom of those excluded and exploited by the system, who possess exactly the perspective and wisdom needed to fix it.
  4. Relate: We need space to share our whole selves with each other and understand we don’t have to agree in order to respect each other.
  5. Represent: We must build whole new decision-making tables, rather than setting token places at the colonial tables as an afterthought.
  6. Invest: We need to put ALL our money where our values are.
  7. Repair: We must use money to heal where people are hurting, and stop more hurt from happening.

These steps aren’t necessarily linear. Certain steps may need to be revisited, and the entire process may need to be repeated. In this way, it’s more of a circular or spiral process. Like any clever virus, the colonizer mindset keeps mutating and adapting, so in order to heal fully, we will need to be vigilant and get booster shots.

This is not a silver bullet solution. There is no quick fix for the complexity of colonization. Decolonization is a process with roles for everyone involved, whether you’re rich or poor, funder or recipient, victim or perpetrator. It may not feel like we’re moving forward at all, during certain phases of healing. Patience and grit are required.

In fact, as you may have already noticed, I don’t really do quick fixes: I tell stories. Hello, I’m a Native American! Storytelling, ideally spiced up with a bit of humor, is how we transmit wisdom. Patience is a virtue in Indian country. A lot of books on wealth and finance offer fast-food-style delivery of sound-bites and easy takeaways. Who are those books written by? More often than not, they are not by people who look like me. When someone other than a mainstream white expert is in charge of delivering value and knowledge, the experience is different. I come from a long line of Native storytellers and Southern storytellers. Listening to our stories is part of the decolonization process.

In creating this book, I had the honor and the pleasure of collecting stories from dozens of leaders from foundations, community organizations, and financial institutions. Most of them were Indigenous people and people of color; a handful were white folks. I asked them to speak candidly about the dynamics of race and power that they encounter in their work with money, and I asked them to share ideas for how we could decolonize wealth. Because their frank honesty could cause problems for them in their workplace, many chose to be quoted anonymously. I am incredibly grateful for those conversations, which deepened my analysis and furthered my thinking about the relationship between wealth and trauma.

All my relations—Mitakuye Oyasin, as the Lakota say, meaning we are all related, connected, not only to each other humans but to all the other living things and inanimate things and the planet, and also the Creator. The principle of All My Relations means that everyone is at home here. Everyone has a responsibility in making things right. Everyone has a role in the process of healing, regardless of whether they caused or received more harm. All our suffering is mutual. All our healing is mutual. All our thriving is mutual.

Edgar Villanueva is the author of Decolonizing Wealth, and a nationally recognized expert on social justice philanthropy. He has consulted with numerous philanthropies on advancing racial equity. He is an enrolled member of the Lumbee Tribe and resides in New York City. He has been featured in The New York Times, Colorlines, and Non-Profit Quarterly.  Go here for more about Edgar’s book and upcoming events. 

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