In the fourth of a five-part series this week about trends and research in philanthropy, master’s degree alumna Emily Nelson shares her thoughts on Edgar Villanueva’s talk on decolonizing wealth.
By Emily Nelson
In his talk last month for the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, Edgar Villanueva did not shy away from calling out the inequities he has observed in philanthropy over his many years in the field.
A talented storyteller, Villanueva described philanthropy as “colonialism in the emperor’s newest clothes”; a stodgy and outdated system that focuses on hiring consultants to administer surveys and measure impact, for example, rather than learning about and investing in solutions to lived problems from people of color.
Philanthropy has consistently and systemically left out people of color, even when a lot of times these are the exact people it intends to help. We know from data that almost all (92 percent) foundation CEOs are white, and that less than 10 percent of foundation grants go to people of color. Villanueva calls out these discrepancies as colonialism, because resources and privilege are being held by a small, homogenous group who can choose where these resources are allocated.
Villanueva took some time to really explain colonialism, too. More than conquering, colonization involves occupying another’s land, and forcing the existing people to become like the colonizer in mind, body, and spirit. It is motivated by greed and fear and, like a virus, spreads and adapts throughout generations without healing.
Even today, we are conditioned to see the world through a colonial lens, and to shift our priority to the love of money over the well-being and love of others. What this tendency reveals is that money is not our issue. Rather, it is the power we ascribe to it, and the places we choose to allocate it, that perpetuate colonialism.
Villanueva, who is a member of the Lumbee Tribe, explained that Native Americans see medicine not as something you pursue when you are hurt, but something you partake in regularly to restore balance to yourself and everything around you. Money, Villanueva suggested, can be our medicine. For us to heal and find balance, we must use money for the good of those around us, rather than preserving it for a small group of people. In this way, we can decolonize wealth.
In his book and briefly in his talk, Villanueva has outlined seven steps to healing: grieve, apologize, listen, relate, represent, invest, and repair. However, this is not a quick, no-fail solution. Decolonizing wealth will require cycling through these steps again and again. We live in a world so ingrained in colonialism that it will take time to recognize it, to sit with the trauma it has caused to us and others, and to choose a different, restorative path.
Though Villanueva spoke some hard truths, he did not denounce philanthropy, or villainize and ostracize any particular people or group. Rather, he emphasized that we all have a role to play because our suffering, healing, and thriving are all mutually felt. We must listen to and extend grace to others as we pursue this work.
Villanueva has been called revolutionary for these ideas. However, he noted that he is simply seeking to bring philanthropy back to its roots–philanthropy literally meaning ”the love of mankind.“
I am grateful to him for bringing his perspective to our sector, and I hope that more people continue to join him in working toward change.
Emily Nelson is the manager of donor relations and grants at Early Learning Indiana. She graduated with her master’s degree in philanthropic studies from the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy in 2018.
This Lilly Family School of Philanthropy event was presented by the Central Indiana Community Foundation, Lake Institute on Faith & Giving Distinguished Visitor Series, and the Mays Family Institute on Diverse Philanthropy.