Episode 1: Decolonizing Wealth with Edgar Villanueva

How can we heal systemic imbalances in the world of philanthropy?

Why It Matters

The world of philanthropy suffers from the same colonial structures and deep, systemic issues that affect the rest of the world around us. To truly effect change, we need to heal philanthropy from within.

For our very first episode of Edge & Main, Future of Good’s podcast on the trends, tensions, and transformations of today that will define the world of tomorrow, we sat down with Edgar Villanueva, author of the book Decolonizing Wealth.

Decolonizing Wealth takes a deep dive into the colonial structures and systemic issues that surround today’s philanthropic landscape, and we wanted to explore exactly what we can do to solve and heal these imbalances. Listen to our inaugural episode with Villanueva below.

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Transcript

Philanthropy is in the hot seat right now, to put it lightly, and much of institutional philanthropy is struggling to be relevant in today’s world, so this book is incredibly timely. You’ve been having conversations around the world with philanthropists, grant makers, indigenous leaders, and frontline workers. Take us back to when this book was just an idea. What was that moment that struck you the most and made you go, “Okay, this book is really going to be important for social change”?

It’s been quite a journey. When I began working in philanthropy about 15 years ago, I had a typical experience, as many folks, where I came in as a person who did not have wealth. And I enjoyed many of the perks, right? I had a seat at the table, my voice mattered, and I was able to move a significant amount of resources into communities. And so for a long time, I really enjoyed that and — within that space — did what I could to push for what I felt like was the right thing.

It was probably my second or third year in when I begin to realize things were not quite as they seemed: I began to have a lot of questions about the legitimacy, to be honest, of the work that we were doing. I was seeing a lot of hypocrisy and a misalignment, in many cases, of what we were actually doing versus what we were saying and the optics that we were upholding as a field. And I used to say to myself, “People just would not believe this. I feel like I need to write a book about this stuff.”

I imagine the community thought that we were having lots of philosophical conversations about poverty and those types of things, and it was not the reality of our day-to-day. It was more focused on our reputation and the legacy of our organization and all of these different things that ultimately began to frustrate me. I felt like as I started asking questions about the work and our intent and our strategies that I began to become an outlier and, in some ways, even targeted as a troublemaker.

So, you know, part of this journey honestly started from a place of being frustrated and even angry, because I felt like I had been deceived in some ways about about this industry. Later, I kind of joked that I was going to write a book that was completely ripping back the curtain, exposing all this fraud — and I was really just kidding about it. But later, when I left my first job in philanthropy, I began sharing my story with a lot of people of colour, Indigenous folks, women — just folks who are the minority within this sector — about what it felt like to be who I was working in philanthropy.

And I found that my story was pretty much the same as everyone’s. I wasn’t that special, unfortunately. That kind of made me even more frustrated and angry, because I had been on numerous panels about increasing diversity and philanthropy. Equity started becoming this hot topic, yet the very people who come from these communities that were trying to work inside of these institutions were leaving and not feeling welcomed or like they belonged. That’s when I realized that this was bigger than just me — that this was a major challenge in this sector.

I wanted to do something to really disrupt this and bring attention to the real conversation about diversity, equity, and inclusion that we were not actually having in conferences and on main stages. So that was really what triggered this for me — when I realized this was an epidemic, versus an isolated incident.

 

Why look at philanthropy through an Indigenous lens?

For me — being a native American from North Carolina and an enrolled member of the Lumbee tribe — my identity has always been quite a complicated. I have a very Latin name, and today … I’ve had to explain to at least half a dozen folks about where my name came from, because it just doesn’t all add up.

So that identity struggle that I’ve had as a result of colonization and particularly where my community is based — geographically as the first point of contact in the United States — I have always struggled with wanting to fit in with my community and understand that identity, but also being sort of forced to assimilate into this idea of whiteness and what leadership look like to dominant culture. Some of that pressure, honestly, I even felt from my own family and my community: that I needed to assimilate in order to be successful.

When I got into philanthropy, that type of pressure to assimilate was multiplied, because in this space, it’s a bubble of wealth and privilege in a very white space. So although I knew that I was hired and brought into the field in part due to my community experience and my background, I also knew that in order to be successful, I had to leave that at the door. So as part of this journey, after feeling disillusioned quite a bit, I went back home to North Carolina, where I spent time with elders and just really explored for my own healing: a process of trying to remember who I was. What are my values, what does it mean to be a good person and to take care of one another, see to it that my neighbour is okay, and what are our traditions around this stuff?

And what I came to to learn through those series of conversations with many people who don’t even know the word philanthropy — who definitely don’t know about this sort of industrial complex that we work within — were many values that have always been inside of me and a part of my DNA, but that I had lost somewhere along the way.

What I realized was that this path to healing, and this path of being in community, is a way that is about reciprocity and how we are so inherently connected to one another. It really was my own healing journey. And I began to realize this is actually what we all need. This is not because I’m native — these are values that should be embedded in all the work we do in this sector, given that we are about the love of humankind and philanthropy. So I began to realize that the path to success, not only for my own leadership but for this sector, actually resided in Indigenous wisdom.

 

In the book you talk about colonized organizational design, a term you come back to throughout the book. What do you mean by that?

The dynamics of colonization, when we begin to explore how colonization happened historically and how it continues to happen, are really rooted in dynamics of separation, exploitation, division, the haves and the have-nots. And those dynamics show up in all kinds of ways.

I call it the colonizing virus because it just seems to be affecting everything, from our institutions and culture to policies to systems. It shows up even in design, which is something I had not really realized until recently. I was thinking about colonization and writing this book, and I came across colonial architecture as a form of architecture. And then I begin to like look at photos of what that looks like, and I was like, “These look like financial institutions and foundations.” We go to their offices, very cold office spaces, very quiet, lots of straight lines and large pillars.

They don’t feel accessible, and my mind went back to my first job in philanthropy, which was actually on a plantation in North Carolina. This was the estate of RJ Reynolds, who was a tobacco tycoon, and belonged to the wealthiest family in North Carolina at one point. It’s just so crazy now, when I think about it, but our offices were on this plantation, which is now a beautiful park. The main house is an art museum. Wake Forest University owns all of it.

But we had this house in this very wealthy, elite part of town, and we were asking some of the poorest people across the state of North Carolina to drive to our offices to come inside and to meet with us in this beautiful building full of antiques and artwork. Just the space alone, it was so intimidating — let alone if we actually understand the power dynamics and, you know, folks are coming there to ask us for our money. It’s just layers and layers of complexity. But yes, even in the way that we situate our buildings presents problems for accessibility and barriers to our proximity to the community that benefit often from funding or philanthropic resources.

 

As we’re making this journey, which will be quite a transition to decolonizing philanthropy and decolonizing wealth, there are going to be some serious tensions — architecturally or otherwise — that we’ll have to come to terms with. What are some of the biggest tensions, in your mind, that we’ll have to grapple with as we make this transition?

There are many. The commitment to decolonize our thinking — whether that’s in philanthropy or other sectors of doing good — is a lifelong commitment. Because it is quite complicated in many, many ways. It’s unlearning and shifting our thinking — a change of the heart, a change in our values, in many ways — that then can be reflected in our everyday work and the decisions that we’re making.

I think one of the challenges is that we’re living in a time of identity politics and we’re seeing a resurgence of white supremacy around the world in many ways. It feels like we’re moving into — especially in the United States but also in other places — a place where folks are sort of reconnecting to ideas of white supremacy out of fear, which is a direct outcome of colonization. This is intentional.

So I think that for many of us in this sector, one of the main barriers is really being able to think about our history and about ideas like white supremacy in a way that separates those ideologies from people. When we say white supremacy, for example, many times white folks begin to get anxious and kind of clench up, because they are feeling like they might be attacked or called out. In the work that I do, I try to help folks understand that false ideas of white supremacy are ideas that are made up. We know it’s not true. We’re trying to demystify or debunk and disrupt those ideas of thinking.

It’s not about any individual or person. Those false ideas harm all of us, including white people. And so I think that fragility that sometimes comes with whiteness and privilege is a major barrier. We have to continue to have these uncomfortable conversations and for folks to say, “You know what, this is not about me. I’m here now. Whiteness is something that is not about me.” It’s about have a false notion, a construct that — although being not real — we have designed policies and systems around, and that is the common enemy. The common enemy is white supremacy: not a particular group of people, but an idea that has harmed all of us.

 

Let’s look ahead 10 years from now. In the book you talk about old power and new power. We have a good sense of what old power looks like. If we are making progress over the next decade in decolonizing wealth, what will new power look like in your mind?

I think new power will look absolutely like a shared power.

There will always be power — there always has been power. There will always be wealth — there always has been. But I think I’m imagining a society or a community where that power and that wealth is shared, that is not concentrated in to the hands of a few but is something where we all benefit and feel enabled and empowered.

Currently we are far, far from that. But I think being able to be self-determined as individuals, as communities, and being able to sit in that power and reclaim the power and the resources that are connected to the power, in many cases, is my vision for the future. That’s what this balance that I talk about in the book is really about: restoring that.

 

Can you point to any organizations and foundations that are taking significant steps today in sharing power?

Yeah, absolutely. I work at the Schott Foundation for Public Education. Schott is a great model where I get to practice a lot of these concepts. We have a history of really trying to be aware of how power and race are operating and make decisions in how we’re structured and governed and how we’re doing our work in ways that reflect the values of decolonizing wealth.

Schott actually began about 27 years ago as a family foundation. And some number of years ago — about 10 years ago — the family decided to convert the foundation into a public charity, in essence giving up their power and their seats around the board as sole trustees, inviting in folks with lived experience and community expertise around the issues of public education.

So now we have a board that is much more democratic. We also have been really unashamed about our focus on race and gender and intersectionality, really strategically and intentionally going directly to fund organizations that are led by people of colour, that have boards that are majority people of colour, and who are working in communities of colour. We’re not race exclusive, but we are race explicit, understanding that using money as medicine is about moving money to where the hurt is the worst. And we know when we look at outcomes for people of colour, the hurt is the worst.

 

Sometimes, in environments, places, and conferences, one of the ways that people of privilege might be expressing their power is through time. So for instance, if they invite an Indigenous speaker, but say, “Listen, you have 10 minutes on stage, okay?” That’s an expression of power to be able to say, “Here’s your 10 minutes.” What’s your take on that? How do we begin to take back that power of time?

This is a challenging question for me because I’m so colonized when it comes to time — I live in New York City, so every minute counts. But I think it’s a beautiful example, and two thoughts come to mind with this example.

One: you know, often people of colour and Indigenous folks are invited into spaces, as you said, and given these time limits. And it’s really hard, because when you haven’t had an ear for someone to hear your side and your perspective, it’s really hard in 10 minutes or less to really try to educate and feel like you’re getting your point across to folks who are sitting in places of power. So it’s really a struggle.

I think it’s a genuine effort: folks who make these invitations are trying to be inclusive by inviting folks in. But if we unpack what it really means to be inclusive just a little bit, it’s kind of interesting — because I’ve been thinking about inclusion lately almost as a form of forced assimilation. If we are being inclusive by saying, “We’ve already set the table, we already have a conference, we already have the time set, you are being invited to come into this place,” how inclusive is that really? Actually, we are basically saying, “We want you to assimilate here, into a space and a culture and an agenda that we’ve already created.”

So to be totally inclusive, we have to unpack that and think about: is there a way to actually build a whole new table that, from the beginning, we are all sitting around together and co-creating co-designing that? Being inclusive is not about adding another seat to the table or adding a person to the agenda for five minutes. That’s an attempt to be inclusive, but we also might be guilty of actually forcing some type of assimilation if we’re not really thinking through those things.

 

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