The following is a conversation between Edgar Villanueva, author of Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides and Restore Balance, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer WNYM in New York City.
Denver: We see disruption around us in one industry after another – Amazon in retail, Uber in transportation, Netflix in entertainment, and Airbnb in lodging. Philanthropy, at least to this point, has been disrupted far less. But that may be beginning to change, as several thought leaders have written books that have gotten people thinking about how we’re actually going about doing this work. One of the most provocative and talked about of those has been Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides and Restore Balance. It’s a pleasure to have with us this evening its author, Edgar Villanueva. Good evening, Edgar, and welcome to The Business of Giving.
Edgar: Thank you, Denver. I’m honored to be on.
Denver: Let’s begin with the first word of the title of your book, “decolonization,” and it may be best for you to talk about that by telling us first – what is colonization?
Edgar: Colonization is something that often, especially in the US, we romanticize because we are taught as young children that the colonizers were heroes…actually a history of this country and the establishment of this country in a way that is not actually real. In the book, I talk about the realities of colonization, which actually was an atrocity. Colonization is about a group of folks coming into a place where they conquer, divide, destroy, steal. Not just leave as one would do in conquering, but colonization…folks actually stay in a place and force existing, indigenous folks to become like them. So, there’s this forced assimilation of mindset, of culture, of language, of being, that is really devastating towards our efforts around diversity because it’s really an effort to push us all to be quite the same.
Denver: You talk about the history of colonization… is it still going on?
Edgar: It absolutely is. We often think of that word as something that started 500 years ago in this country, but the dynamics of colonization, which are about dividing, conquering, exploiting, separating – those dynamics are still taking place today. We’ve all heard the stories about children in cages, for example, down at the border, families being separated. When you look at the dynamics of colonization, it’s very obvious that you can see those dynamics in some of our systems and policies, like our public education system, for example.
Denver: How does philanthropy perpetuate these dynamics?
Edgar: In so many ways. You know you see these dynamics of colonization showing up in our culture and institutions, but in a really unique way when it comes to institutions that move and control wealth. Because colonization has inherently been connected to the accumulation of wealth over time, we, as institutions that control money and control wealth, have to understand our connection to that history. When you look at in philanthropy: Who gets to manage, allocate, control and spend money? Who is actually receiving that money? The history of how that wealth was accumulated: Who was harmed in the process? You see a lot of those dynamics coming to play in our history as a sector, but also in our day to day practices.
Denver: Edgar, put on your social scientist hat for a minute. Why do you think this issue has risen to the fore – diversity, equity, and inclusion – and all that you’re talking about at this particular moment in history?
Edgar: We are living in a time right now where our country is extremely polarized. Politically, we’re so divided. We are seeing acts of hate on a daily basis globally– in this country, in a way that I have never experienced in my lifetime. I think that is so because in this country, we have not come to a place of having a process of truth and reconciliation. We know from social media, to the street, to communities that there is this tension in our country that I think many of us are exhausted from the experience. It’s not who we want to be as a community and as a nation. So, I think that this particular conversation that is one around: Let’s have an honest conversation about our history and what has happened here. Let’s find a way to understand how we all are hurting and are harmed by this history and the reality of what’s happening, and find a path forward that brings us back together. There’s an appetite for that type of conversation.
I’m an insider. And this is the field that I love. I want to really emphasize that I’m not out to take down this industry as some might suspect. I see this as my family that I love, and there’s some dysfunction in our family that needs to be called out and addressed so that we can actually walk the talk of equity.
Denver: No question about it. I obviously speak to a lot of people in the world of philanthropy, and that is at the very top of every single one of their lists. Whether they’re dealing with it effectively or not may be a different question. But as to whether that is really raised as a priority for them, that is certainly the case.
You have written about philanthropy and the dynamics we just talked about. Not just from the outside, you’ve been on the inside, and you’ve gotten beyond the annual report and some of the grants they’ve made and touting their good works, and you’ve looked around in the shadows of these institutions. What did you find there?
Edgar: You’re right. I’m an insider. And this is the field that I love. I want to really emphasize that I’m not out to take down this industry as some might suspect. I see this as my family that I love, and there’s some dysfunction in our family that needs to be called out and addressed so that we can actually walk the talk of equity. So I think that having that insider perspective, the things that I’ve experienced over the years, one, is often the explicit mission of a foundation that is about improving communities or directing funds and support to communities of color and to impoverished communities. When you look at the data around where money is actually going for foundations, often the end beneficiaries of those funds do not reflect those stated missions. So, we have some delusions going on around…
Denver: It sounds like cognitive dissonance.
Edgar: Absolutely. Those dynamics are very true. We have a lot of power in this field because of our access and proximity to resources. Sometimes the way we wield that power, and how we show up as partners in community can be actually abusive or harmful to society.
Denver: You make the point in the book that much of the wealth of many foundations was accumulated, from what you described before, on the backs of other people.
Edgar: It’s very true. My first job in the foundation world was in North Carolina for one of the RJ Reynolds family foundations. This particular foundation, of course, that family made their money from tobacco. The foundation that I was working at called the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust was a health foundation. Think about that contradiction… that wealth came from tobacco smoking, and now we were funding health improvement. There’s just a lot of contradictions that we hold in this field, which are the reality of the way things are, that we need to grapple with, and just put on the table for discussion to understand: How have we as individuals, and how have we as institutions with explicit missions of doing good, potentially have harmed communities in the process?
Denver: Foundations, about 5% of their money goes to grants. The other 95% is going to be invested to make more money to be able to give more grants theoretically. And of those 5% going to grants, only 8% is going to communities of color. What would you do to shake up the world of foundations?
Edgar: One, I think, the stat that you just mentioned, Denver, is so compelling. I’ve keynoted about 30 to 40 philanthropy conferences and shared those numbers, and a lot of people are actually shocked. How is it that we as a sector, and many of us are so data-driven, and we love research and reports… This is a missing piece of key data that folks have been agnostic about. One, is really looking at that end outcome if we were really about making change in communities where the hurt is the worst, which is the communities of color. We have to look at our giving and reflect on: Are we moving money into those communities? If not in a way that’s equitable, we have to back up and ask: Why not?
It could be how we’re governed as institutions and who sits on our boards, and the relationships they have. It may be things in our process that are barriers for groups working in communities of color varies with them having access to the funds.
Denver: You look at money, in this case dealing with the trauma and the healing that has to take place, as a kind of medicine, right?
Edgar: I do. I think money in itself is something that I make the case is neutral. It’s a proxy for lots of things, including the relationships and sweat equity that we put into our jobs. I don’t think that money itself is something that is a bad thing. We often misquote – I came from a very religious family growing up in the south, so a lot of quoting of the scriptures and some misquoting of the scriptures. I grew up hearing that money was the root of all evil. I’ve come to understand that it’s not money itself. It’s the love of money that can be evil. If we esteem money more than relationships and people and the earth, then there can be a lot of harm that can happen with that misappropriation of our priorities. It really is thinking about– if money itself is neutral– but it’s how we as humans have used it, and historically we’ve used it in ways that have been terrible and harmful and have left trauma in communities. Can’t we flip that and actually use resources in a way that helps repair that?
…we are putting people of color in these positions, but not doing the work of asking ourselves – What do we need to change in the culture of these foundations that is actually going to create the conditions for people of color to come in and thrive and succeed in their leadership?
Denver: The new CEO of the MacArthur Foundation, and that is certainly one of the most significant foundations in this country; he was recently named, and it is a white male. I read a lot of opinion pieces. Some of them said that this appointment set back the fight on racial equality. Others said, “Hey, we can’t just deal with this on an appointment by appointment basis. We have to look at it from a wider point of view.” What would your opinion piece have said, Edgar?
Edgar: I think it’s a both/and. It would have been a fantastic opportunity for the MacArthur Foundation to put in position someone who is a person of color, especially a woman of color. That would have been a major statement, something that would have been applauded by the field. However, I think sometimes in philanthropy in particular and the broader nonprofit sector, we get so hung up on diversity. Diversity does matter, let’s be clear about that. But diversity is only about representation. It’s the easy work. We can easily appoint people of color in leadership positions or invite others to the table. But the hard work that has to happen in foundations, it’s a little bit deeper than that. That’s actually about looking at inclusion and equity.
We have seen in philanthropy major initiatives to diversify the field, and we’ve had an uptick over the years in diversity, even in leadership positions in the field. However, in the past two years, data from the Council of Foundations showed a decrease in the number of people of color. This is because we are putting people of color in these positions but not doing the work of asking ourselves – What do we need to change in the culture of these foundations that is actually going to create the conditions for people of color to come in and thrive and succeed in their leadership?
Denver: I think a lot of those folks are put in to a situation where they need to assimilate, and they have to hide their real authentic selves. I’m sure you’ve encountered a lot of those types of situations. Give us an example of one, if you would, and tell me what that does to a person when they have to do that, day after day after day.
Edgar: It’s really exhausting. Most people of color know the term “code switching” as something that you, from day one, you’re told the way you behave at home, with your family, with your friends –you have to leave that at the door when you get to the workplace, or to schools and places that lift up white-dominant ways of being. In my career early on, I worked at a foundation, and funny enough, it was actually led by a person of color. Sometimes that doesn’t matter if the culture hasn’t changed.
There were lots of things said directly or implied about how I dressed… down to the kind of shoes that I wore, the kind of car that I was driving because I was not coming into our organization, as I had assumed, to do work in the community and focus there. I was actually now a part of this legacy and a reflection of the wealth of this family, and I needed to behave and look a certain way. Not that I came in looking all raggedy or whatever. But it was still, “Wow, someone actually feels a certain way about the kind of car that I drive, or that I’m wearing wing-tipped shoes.” That type of forced assimilation on people of color and others over time really takes a toll. It’s like an extra tax on us. The sad part is, for institutions that really push a mainstream – not just the way we dress – but a mainstream way of thinking , or how we define leadership or success in our organizations, we are missing out on an opportunity to really bring the best of folks into a place that would really create those diverse work environments that we really want.
We have to think about: Where does power sit in organizations? Who is around the table that’s calling the shots? Is there a way to shift decision-making in organizations that equally, or more equally, distributes power among folks, so that within an organization, everyone feels like they have the potential to bring ideas without retaliation, that there is more of a conscientious way of being and making decisions?
Denver: What does a decolonized workplace environment look like to you?
Edgar: We have to think about: Where does power sit in organizations? Who is around the table that’s calling the shots? Is there a way to shift decision-making in organizations that equally, or more equally, distributes power among folks, so that within an organization, everyone feels like they have the potential to bring ideas without retaliation, that there is more of a consensus way of being and making decisions?
Denver: What advice would you have for a fast-growing organization? Because I run into them all the time, and DEI is on the top of their list, and they want to do something at the outset before they have to undo something 5 or 10 years from now. What words of wisdom would you pass on to them?
Edgar: DEI is not a side hustle for an organization. I think that we have to embed values about equity, especially racial equity, into our work, into our mission and our purpose, our way of being as we’re building our organizational culture from the get-go. I do find that it seems easier to work with newer organizations around building that culture than shifting institutions that have been around for a long, long time, because we know culture is really hard to change.
Denver: You put it really well, as you say, it’s not a vertical. It’s a horizontal. So, it has to go across every function of the organization. It just can’t be over there in the office in the corner. It has to be everywhere.
One of the things you float in the book is this concept of a reparations tide on the part of foundations. How would that work?
Edgar: I’m really excited about the conversation about reparations happening in our country right now. We’ve seen it become a part of a presidential candidate platform, which is…
I think having a victory around reparations in this country will be challenging because as a country, we have not grappled with our history. We’re not sorry as a country. We haven’t apologized yet. So, to convince Congress to pass legislation for something that has happened, without being sorry for what has happened, I think is going to be challenging.
Denver: David Brooks wrote an article about it in the New York Times the other day, in favor of it.
Edgar: Absolutely. I feel like all of a sudden this has come to the main stage conversation out of nowhere. Although, I know there are folks who have been working diligently for this behind the scenes. I think that reparations – two thoughts. One is, reparations is a response and a way to try to repair something that has been harmed. In my book, in the second half, I outline seven steps to healing which are not a be-all, end-all process but – to get to a place to right a wrong, there’s a process that needs to proceed that. That is the process of ”truth and reconciliation.”
I think having a victory around reparations in this country will be challenging because as a country, we have not grappled with our history. We’re not sorry as a country. We haven’t apologized yet. So, to convince Congress to pass legislation for something that has happened, without being sorry for what has happened, I think is going to be challenging. I think foundations have a unique role they can play. We could fund research, and we could fund activities and programs that will help make the case for reparations. Often, that’s a role that philanthropy has played…is to be sort of a laboratory to prove that something can work and create models that can be adopted by the government. We also, with our platforms in the spaces that we have in communities, can create spaces that have these conversations about our history and begin to grapple with the work that needs to happen before we may get to reparations.
Denver: As you say, I think in the second half of your book, you have a lot of positive recommendations in terms of making things better. Who would be some of the philanthropic models that right now you’re most inspired by?
Edgar: I’m really inspired by foundations who are making a commitment around their 95%. We have for so long been agnostic about what happens with foundation investments, the 95% that is invested in Wall Street. I worked in the sector for many years before I even knew that that part of the organization existed. Most of the time, you have investment folks where it’s outsourced and as a program officer, you have no idea what your investments look like.
Denver: You meet the investments people at the Christmas party, and that’s about it.
Edgar: The fact that we are now really looking at the entire spectrum of what’s happening in philanthropy– from the investment side to the program side– and thinking about using all the resources in a way that are really mission-aligned is where I’m really excited. Nathan Cummings, for example, is a foundation that recently came out with a decision to that 100% of their corpus will be invested and mission-aligned. That’s the work that needs to happen, the next frontier.
It seems totally dis-illusional to not be using all of your money in a way that’s mission-aligned, especially since we have tax breaks for this money. The fund should not be tied up in Wall Street, in private prisons and fossil fuels and these harmful extractive industries. The other thing that I will lift up, there are funds – a lot of these are intermediary-kind of organizations that rely on partnerships with larger foundations, but foundations like the Schott Foundation where I work, Groundswell Fund, the Potlatch Fund – these are smaller funds that have deep relationships in community and are able to move funding in a way that is a lot more reflective of the values of equity. How do we actually get that type of culture into mainstream, larger-dominant foundations, and especially with the new wave of tech funders, as something to explore? But there are great models that we can all learn from that I mentioned.
Denver: I think those smaller ones is a place to start because, again, they show proof of concept, and that’s how things generally get going. As you say, much more shared decision-making in those organizations. Anytime you bring the people who are closest to the problem, they’re going to be the ones who are closest to the solution, and probably the sector has not done a good job of listening… Having them actually have a say in what is going to happen.
You are a Native American from the Lumbee Tribe in North Carolina, pretty big tribe, 60,000 members. Tell us a little bit about them.
Edgar: We are based out of Southeastern North Carolina in Robeson County. We are the largest tribe east of the Mississippi River. We are recognized by the State of North Carolina. We were recognized in the 1950s by the federal government, but without any type of benefit. Since the 1950s, we’ve been in a battle with the federal government for full recognition and all the benefits that entails. We are a vibrant community. We are in coastal North Carolina, the very first point of contact for colonization in this country. I say often that the fact that any strand of anything indigenous remains in eastern North Carolina is really a miracle. It’s a lovely community right on I-95, exactly in the middle of… if you’re making a trip from New York to DC, we’re right smack in the middle. If you’re ever in that area, check it out.
What does it really mean to be in community and to take care of one another? What are our ways around that? Some of the values that I was reminded of and have really tried to practice; and this is what we mean by decolonizing – just to think a little bit differently. That’s all that really means is to shift your thinking. One is the idea of all my relations…that we are all connected. Our thriving is mutual; our suffering is mutual. If we had a fundamental understanding and belief that we are all connected to other people and this planet, the decisions that we make every day will be a lot different.
Denver: I like your Chamber of Commerce pitch.
Writing this book provided you with an opportunity to reconnect with your community and speak to some of the elders. What did you discover in that process?
Edgar: Even in our communities, people of color, indigenous communities – we sometimes internalize oppression. We feel even the pressure from our own communities to assimilate because our parents want us to be successful. For many years, my family had moved away from the community to Raleigh, North Carolina. I was the only Native in public schools and didn’t have any Native colleagues or friends until I got to college. I felt like I’d given up a lot of the identity in order to feel like this is who I had to be to be successful.
My journey back after feeling lost at a certain point in my late 20s, and disconnected from purpose in some ways, I began deeply reconnecting with my community back home. The process of this book really provided that opportunity for me to sit and talk with elders and ask them questions like: What is philanthropy? What does it really mean to be in community and to take care of one another? What are our ways around that? Some of the values that I was reminded of and have really tried to practice; and this is what we mean by decolonizing – just to think a little bit differently. That’s all that really means, is to shift your thinking. One is the idea of all my relations… that we are all connected. Our thriving is mutual; our suffering is mutual. If we had a fundamental understanding and belief that we are all connected to other people and to this planet, the decisions that we make every day will be a lot different.
We also have a value around this seven generations. Meaning, that everything that we do now is going to impact seven generations to come. These are selfless ways to exist in the world and to think about how we move to the world and have our being. Those are some concepts. The final thing I’ll just lift up and is a really core, indigenous concept for a lot of communities is the idea of reciprocity. We don’t believe in charity. In a Western world, you weigh – “I’m up here, I give to you over here.” Our giving is really about, ”I’m giving to you because I’m in relationship with you. I’m giving to you in your time of need because I know in my time of need, you’re going to do the same. So, there’s a comfort and a peace in knowing that you exist among an ecosystem that’s going to take care of you, should something happen.
Denver: There’s no power dynamic there.
Edgar: There’s no power dynamic. We don’t have that in the broader culture of this country, so that leads to hoarding and ideas of scarcity and separation.
Denver: Another book that’s gotten a lot of attention like yours has been Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World. What’s your take on that?
Edgar: I think it’s a fantastic book. Anand and I had a chance to do a talk together recently. He’s been super supportive of my work, which I appreciate because he is a well-established author. I think the book is very provocative and direct and has shook a lot of the beliefs that we hold in this country around doing good. Shook us to our core. I think everyone should read it. I think the books pair very well together because Anand has brought in an outsider perspective. I’m bringing in an insider’s perspective. I think one of the differences between the two – my book very much brings a lens of race to the conversation that is not prevalent necessarily, although we know the elites that Anand was talking about are mostly wealthy white men. The other thing is, I tried in my book to bring more solutions or ideas. I started in an angry place, to be honest, when I was writing this book, and at a certain point I thought, What would I do differently? What’s Edgar’s idea for changing this sector? Because I do work in it, I wanted to bring some practical ideas for how we might advance within the current system, although we know the entire system is problematic in some ways.
Denver: I think constructive pivots like that are really beneficial. A little solutions journalism instead of : What’s wrong? We have a lot of that.
This book is about racial healing. For many white folks actually have really accepted this book and have lifted this book up as a tool to help them in thinking through their privilege. Many folks have said to me, “This is the first time I’ve read something or have understood the history of the country in this way that has opened me up to a way that I can actually change and respond to do something about it.” I think that’s because this book is couched in love. It is all about bringing people in and meeting people where they are, and bringing… acknowledging the pain that we all experience, regardless of our backgrounds or race, as a starting point for our conversation and a path to healing.
Let me close with this, Edgar. You have been all around the country, now. You’ve been sharing the message of this book. Any pushback that you believe holds merit? On the other hand, any places where this has been so embraced that you’re actually beginning to see people act already on these recommendations, giving you hope that change is not too far away?
Edgar: It’s very interesting. I have not had a lot of pushback because one, I think the field of philanthropy and in the nonprofit sector… we are often very polite, and we all assume that we’re good people doing good work. I’m very open to hear from folks who have opposing views. The only type of pushback that I’ve received has been from some who say that I am just out to completely dismantle philanthropy, and I’m not acknowledging the good that philanthropy has done. That’s just not true.
There are other books coming out that are really lifting up giving and best practice philanthropy that I think are wanting to position themselves as a counter argument to my book. My book is not about that philanthropy is bad. It is calling out truths and the reality of what this is and some of the contradictions that exist that we need to accept, but I absolutely believe that there is a path to doing this work in a way that is more effective and actually better off for communities.
The big surprise for me, Denver, has been the amount of folks who have said this book is so much bigger than just about philanthropy. This book is about racial healing. For many white folks actually have really accepted this book and have lifted this book up as a tool to help them in thinking through their privilege. Many folks have said to me, “This is the first time I’ve read something or have understood the history of the country in this way that has opened me up to a way that I can actually change and respond to do something about it.” I think that’s because this book is couched in love. It is all about bringing people in and meeting people where they are and bringing… acknowledging the pain that we all experience, regardless of our backgrounds or race, as a starting point for our conversation and a path to healing.
Denver: Edgar Villanueva, the author of Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides and Restore Balance, I want to thank you so much for being here tonight. As you said, this book will get people thinking differently and looking at things differently, and that is always a precursor to any kind of action. It was a real pleasure to have you on the show, Edgar.
Edgar: Thank you for having me.
Denver: I’ll be back with more of The Business of Giving right after this.
The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @bizofgive on Twitter, @bizofgive on Instagram and at www.facebook.com/businessofgiving.