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"Decolonizing Wealth" by Edgar Villanueva

In Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides and Restore Balance, Lumbee tribal member and Schott Foundation Vice President of Programs and Advocacy Edgar Villanueva proposes strategies for righting philanthropy’s wrongs.

First, he identifies the harm philanthropy has caused, and continues to cause, to people of color. For one thing, a large portion of foundation dollars originally come from excess wealth extracted from Indigenous land and slave labor. Now, philanthropy grants a slim percentage of those dollars to Black and Indigenous communities and communities of color, despite these communities needing it the most.

Even so, Villanueva doesn’t consider money inherently bad. He believes money has the potential to be “medicine” – to heal the wounds it’s inflicted. The author proposes seven steps for a healing process: grieve, apologize, listen, relate, represent, invest, and repair. These steps won’t always be linear, Villanueva cautions. And, people of color can’t leave their oppressors behind. It’s not possible to heal without everyone.

Before passing any value judgements on Villanueva’s book, I think it’s important to position myself as a reviewer. I’m a white woman with virtually 100 percent European DNA. I know I have Jewish ancestry. I also know I have ancestors who owned a plantation in Jamaica. I’m currently communications manager for a foundation based in Oregon, but I’ve only worked in philanthropy for four and a half years – nowhere near Villanueva’s fourteen. So, take my words with that grain of salt.

Decolonizing Wealth is both practical and optimistic. Villanueva’s steps aren’t revolutionary. He doesn’t call for anyone to destroy existing institutions. His vision for decolonization is a “both/and” process. It combines the “traditional way” and the “colonizers’ way” (104).

The first two steps, grieve and apologize, ask folks to own up to histories that have been hidden in the closet, gathering dust. For example, many philanthropic organizations in the Pacific Northwest acquired their assets through timber harvested from Indigenous land. Per Villanueva, the Indigenous people displaced from this land and the people who profited, and continue to profit, off the stolen timber all need to grieve. Furthermore, the descendants of the people who stole that timber should apologize to the people they stole it from.

I’m hesitant to agree with Villanueva’s suggestion to apologize. Too often, people stop at an apology, thinking that is enough. I strongly believe settlers should recognize and admit to their ancestors’ and their own wrongdoing. We should also do everything we can to rectify that wrongdoing – primarily through actions. Apologies assume a chance for forgiveness, and settlers shouldn’t expect forgiveness. We have caused too much pain and trauma.

Steps three and four, listen and relate, are about building respect and relationships. Philanthropists needs to listen deeply and meet people where they are; get to know them, learn from them, and value their humanity. This I wholeheartedly agree with. I would add, philanthropists must approach listening and relating openly, with a willingness to accept anger and distrust and to be called out on mistakes.

Steps five through seven are game-changers. They demand action.

Five: “At least half of the people who make the decisions about where money goes . . . should have intimate, authentic knowledge of the issues and communities involved” (147). Yes, and, to me, this isn’t ambitious enough. White people have held the clear majority of decision-making positions since we settled in this country. At this point, purely reflective democracy won’t balance the scales. People of color need to be overrepresented in decision-making positions to make up for the last few centuries.

Six: “Assets must be 100 percent mission-aligned” (157). There is so much possibility in this statement. If philanthropic organizations divest hundreds of billions of dollars from coal, oil, and corporations and reinvest in clean energy, small businesses, education, etc., that alone could rectify so many wrongs.

Seven: “Reparations are due” (160). Villanueva presents a few examples of how reparations might be made. One example: every philanthropic organization contributes 10 percent of its wealth to a pooled fund for Native and African American-led asset-building projects. This suggestion is also full of possibility.

The big question: Will philanthropists act on these suggestions? Some, sure. I know a few foundations, including the one I work for, that have already started. Most foundations, though? I’m skeptical. Philanthropy moves slowly and is largely set in its ways. If only some act, will it still be enough? Villanueva concludes unequivocally, “healing cannot occur unless everyone is part of the process” (181).

Villanueva, Edgar. Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom to Health Divides and Restore Balance. Berrett-Koehler, 2018, Oakland, CA.