“It’s Time for an Intervention.” Edgar Villanueva Has a Message for Philanthropy

Photo: Dee Browning/Shutterstock

We give money its power and create the worldview it functions within, so we also have the power to use it more equitably—as a kind of cultural medicine.

That’s the central message in a new book by Edgar Villanueva, who has spent 15 years in a variety of roles in philanthropy, which he viewed through the lens of his background as a Native American who grew up poor. His book, Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides and Restore Balance, is addressed to the “people who direct the flow of money”—who are, he points out, mostly white men.

He is quick to assure his readers that he is motivated by love in his writing, and he asks them to sit with any discomfort that arises, laying a groundwork for the inclusion and truth-telling that pervade the book.

Throughout the text, Villanueva asks us to consider that the financial and philanthropic systems in place in the U.S. are based on enduring colonial structures of power. He draws from and shares research, interviews, metaphors, and personal experiences, weaving together a narrative of pain and potential healing that offers evidence-based suggestions and concrete calls to action for American funders. The book is rich in both fact and anecdote.

“I tell stories,” Villanueva writes. “Hello, I’m a Native American! Storytelling, ideally spiced up with a bit of humor, is how we transmit wisdom.”

In his perspective, once we look clearly at the collective trauma of people of color in the U.S. and understand the inequities of our financial systems, we have little choice but to change and evolve. While women, the LGBTQ community, and people with disabilities are mentioned in the book, Villanueva’s main focus is on the overarching racial divides that suffuse colonized societies, and postcolonial ones where the structures of colonization remain.

“The basis of traditional philanthropy is to preserve wealth, and all too often, that wealth is fundamentally money that’s been twice stolen; once through the colonial-style exploitation of natural resources and cheap labor, and the second time through tax evasion,” Villanueva writes. He sees philanthropy and wealth management as cultural activities plagued by white supremacy, savior complexes, and internalized oppression.

These are hardly new arguments. But Villaneuva makes them with fresh force at a moment when issues of equity are drawing ever more attention within philanthropy.

It’s time for an intervention.

Villanueva tells Inside Philanthropy:

We have to be honest about the sources of wealth and how wealth was accumulated in this country—a great part of it was on the backs of people of color, and now those communities are benefiting from just a very small percentage of dollars… Once you know, how can you not be equitable about how you're distributing the money?

While some might argue that Villanueva’s premise about the origins of philanthropic fortunes feels overly broad, he’s spot-on about philanthropy largely bypassing America’s poorest communities. Foundation funding focused on people of color has never exceeded 8.5 percent, Villanueva reports, urging: “Philanthropy, honey, it’s time for an intervention.”

Villanueva says a separation worldview anchors the culture of colonization underlying our financial systems. This separation perspective, he argues, largely began with the human concept of controlling and owning lands and animals, which collided so catastrophically with Indigenous principles of coexistence with other creatures and of belonging to the land. Within the separation mindset that Villanueva links to colonialism, a “me/us” versus “the rest of the universe/them” paradigm arose, leading colonists to “divide, control, and exploit.”

In contrast, Villanueva, a member of the Lumbee tribe, says that in an Indigenous worldview, we are all related. In the Lakota language, he notes, Mitakuye Oyasin means “all my relations,” and the concept of an interconnected diverse human family resonates throughout the book.

Philanthropy and the decolonization of wealth

The concept of decolonization—the process of undoing colonization and its remnant structures, through which Indigenous people reclaim their power, identities, and rights—is becoming more prevalent around the world in various forms. Movements have sprung up around the decolonization of food, ideals of human beauty, and the arts.

Of course, money runs deeply through all of these systems. Villanueva identifies structures of colonization in many facets of philanthropy: the preferred architecture of foundation buildings, the token inclusion of people of color on foundation staffs, the restrictive formats of grantmaking, and the presence of an internalized oppression, in which people of color carry forward the colonizer’s mistreatment, applying it to themselves and each other.

In order to decolonize systems of finance and philanthropy, Villanueva says we must acknowledge the harms that underlie them and those that persist, such as restrictive hiring and lending processes, the lack of inclusion and transparency, and other discriminating formats.

Among his many suggestions, Villanueva espouses giving practices such as participatory grantmaking, horizontal power structures, and other inclusive methods, all of which aim to counteract top-down philanthropy and empower members of the communities receiving funds.

He writes:

Deep authentic knowledge does not come from reading some stats, reports or articles; it doesn’t even come from a site visit to the community or interviewing someone from the affected community. It comes from living inside that community and experiencing that issue for oneself. Period.

Similarly, Chris Cardona, a program officer for the Ford Foundation told Inside Philanthropy that without organizational diversity there’s “a lack of access to lived experiences, which leads to assumptions about what folks’ needs are, what benefits are best for them, that doesn’t take into account that voice for them directly… I think also that for foundations, as well as for nonprofits, with representation, there’s an element of legitimacy and credibility in today’s world in particular.”

And as we’ve noted before in IP, participatory and grassroots endeavors are becoming more prevalent in the philanthrosphere, seen in innovative projects like the Brooklyn Community Foundation’s Neighborhood Strength initiative, the Marguerite Casey Foundation’s weaving networks, and similar examples. Villanueva agrees there’s movement in the right direction and finds hope in these changes.

Some of the stories in the book reveal how hard it is for people of color to thrive in a field where they are underrepresented. According to a data analysis by Community Wealth Partners, only 22 percent of foundation staff in the U.S. are people of color. Villanueva tells us:

Up until now, diversity and inclusion tactics have been about getting different kinds of people in the door, and then asking them to assimilate to the dominant white culture… Tradition and the status quo are worshipped, resulting in conformity, formality, and arrogance in many organizations. Anyone who pushes against that culture immediately becomes a target.

However, Villanueva points out that people whose ancestors have been enslaved and colonized have unique abilities. Those who have learned to live in two cultures at once are adaptive and resilient. Along with being the only people with the firsthand knowledge of their communities’ struggles, they often possess potent interpersonal skills that span boundaries and bridge different languages and cultural realities.

Villanueva cites the Truth and Reconciliation processes that have been tested in South Africa and Canada to heal longstanding wounds like apartheid and the mistreatment of Native peoples: These are examples of ways to honor people of color and foster healing.

He told IP he is currently in talks with a group of community foundations in Canada called The Circle to understand how funders there participate in reconciliation. He says The Circle is very similar to Native Americans in Philanthropy, a network of which Villanueva is the board chair. As we recently reported, Native Americans in Philanthropy co-created an online tool to help more funders understand and connect with Native American-related causes, which, according to a 2011 study, receive about 0.3 percent of total foundation giving.

Coinciding with the closing of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC), The Circle created a declaration of action “committing to ensuring that positive action on reconciliation will continue.” Villanueva says it “basically acknowledges the history and says, ‘We will remember, and we will conduct our business accordingly.’” He is now working with them to brainstorm a way to ask U.S. funders to sign a similar proclamation stating, “We have done our homework, we know the history of this country, we know the role that the wealth of this foundation played. We acknowledge that, and we will remember that, and we will fund accordingly.” He believes reconciliation is possible and that philanthropy “can definitely have a role in supporting that,” leading the way for governments.

Money as medicine

Villanueva observes that philanthropy, whose Greek roots mean “love for humanity,” is an intrinsic Native American principle. As one of his mentors once told him, “It’s not a Lumbee way, Navajo way, or a Maori way. It’s an Indigenous way that cuts across continents; the original way of being and giving.”

For example, for Natives in the Cheyenne River Territory, there is no word for poverty. The closest explanation they have is “to be without family.” In fact, it’s hard to get away from the theme of family and belonging in Villanueva’s work. He quotes Stephen Jenkinson, a Canadian scholar who refers to being non-Indigenous—an uprooted settler of any kind—as being “an orphan.”

As a child, Villanueva learned to care for others from his family. His mother and grandfather were both poor, but went out of their way to help others in the community. His mother started a bus ministry for local youth and nurtured many in her home as well. Villanueva’s grandfather, to whom the book is dedicated, was a “drunk and womanizer” who later converted to Christianity and ministered to hundreds of men in jail, many of whom Villanueva met at his grandfather’s funeral. Some of Villanueva’s relatives are also in jail themselves, he says for “heinous crimes.”

But, he says, you don’t give up on family. “Regardless of what wrong anyone has ever done, they’re still your family, you still love them,” he tells us.

Philanthropy is “the family that embarrasses and infuriates me,” he writes, “But, it’s still my family… It’s from this place of calling this family to a better self that I write.”

Villanueva considers money to be a type of medicine, referencing an Indigenous view that anything can be medicine, like a place, object, event -- or even a book.

This book is a prescription from Villanueva to his fellow philanthropists, one intended to spur on a healing process in the collective financial body: “What if we could liberate money to be used as a tool for love? Yeah, but what if we could?”