Published 2 years ago.
About a 10 minute read.
Image: Helena Lopes/Pexels
In this excerpt from his bestselling book, "Decolonizing Wealth," award-winning author and philanthropic advisor Edgar Villanueva provides a glimpse into how money can help to disrupt some of the deep, systemic inequities in this country, instead of continuing to feed them.
In my own Native American belief system, we are all relatives. We are also all
infected with what I call the “colonizer virus” — which urges us to divide,
control, and exploit. Nowhere is the virus more symptomatic than in how we deal
For some, reading this book may feel like I’m yanking off the Band-Aid. There
may be moments of discomfort. I invite you to sit with it, in the understanding
that I am motivated by love and that things have been just as uncomfortable — if
not really painful — for many of us, for a very long time. In order to heal what
hurts, to come back together as one human race, and to restore balance to the
land, we need to decolonize wealth. This book will explain how we can begin to
heal ourselves, using money as our medicine.
I am that rare phenomenon: a Native American working in the field
of 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. The field is adamant that it knows best, holding tight the purse
strings. It fails to get with the times, frustrating the younger folks. 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, 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.
Join us for a transformational experience at SB Brand-Led Culture Change — May 8-10 in Minneapolis. This event brings together hundreds of brand leaders eager to delve into radical lifestyle shifts and sustainable consumer behavior change at scale. The trends driving cultural acceleration are already underway, and you can be at the forefront of this transformative movement.
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, it is 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 that 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 experts vs poor, needy, urban,
disadvantaged, marginalized, at-risk people (take your pick of euphemisms for
people of color). The statistics speak for themselves: 90 percent of foundation
are white, 85 percent of foundation
are white, while no more than 10 percent of foundation
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.
In Part 1 of this book, “Where It Hurts,” 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 C-suite of financial services is 90 percent
and 70 percent of venture
are white, as are more than 87 percent of angel
On the receiving side, loan requests from Black entrepreneurs are three times
more likely to be
denied than are
requests from white entrepreneurs. In 2020, a measly 2.6 percent of venture
went to African American and Latinx 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 as good (or more) to get half as much (or less).
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.
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.
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.
In part 2 of this book, “Being a Healer,” I describe a number of forms of
medicine and how various people were able to recognize the medicine that had
chosen them. In particular, there’s a kind of medicine to which we all have
access: our own story. For me, the medicine that is my story only became clear
to me later; what chose me first was money. It has taken me a long, long time
(patience is a virtue in Indian country) to accept that. Because 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, and
so on. It’s just a stand-in for the materials used, the services granted, the
responsibility shouldered. Money is a tool to reflect the obligations to each
other that people develop 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.
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, it leads to evil 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 money’s fault. Inherently, money is
value neutral. Humans have used money wrongfully. We’ve made money more
important than human life. We’ve allowed it to divide us. 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.
In part 3 of this book, “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:
Grieve. We have to stop and feel the hurts we’ve endured.
Apologize. We must apologize for the hurts we’ve caused.
Listen. We must acknowledge the wisdom of those excluded and exploited
by the system, who possess exactly the perspective and wisdom needed to fix
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.
Represent. We must build whole new decision-making tables, rather than
setting token places at the colonial tables as an afterthought.
Invest. We need to put all our money where our values are.
Repair. We must use money to heal where people are hurting and to 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.
The Lakota say Mitakuye Oyasin (“all my relations”), meaning we are all
related, connected — not only to each other but also to all the other living
things, the inanimate things, the planet, and the Creator. The principle of All
My Relations means that everyone is at home here. Everyone has a responsibility
for 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.
The second edition of Decolonizing Wealth is available
Published Oct 11, 2021 2pm EDT / 11am PDT / 7pm BST / 8pm CEST
Edgar Villanueva is an award-winning author and globally recognized expert on issues of race, wealth and philanthropy. He advises a range of organizations, including national and global philanthropies and Fortune 500 companies, on strategies to advance racial equity. He is an enrolled member of the Lumbee Tribe and resides in New York City.