Edgar Villanueva

Edgar Villanueva is the author of the book, “Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides and Restore Balance” to be published October, 2018. (Pre-order here.) Edgar is an enrolled member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, the Chair of the Board of Native Americans in Philanthropy and the Vice President of Programs and Advocacy at the Schott Foundation for Public Education. We asked him four questions to share this perspective with the North Star Fund community.

When you say “Decolonizing Wealth” can you tell us what you mean?

Edgar: Before we start unpacking this, you have to understand what colonization means. Colonization is this idea of folks who go into a land with a God-given “superiority” and force-assimilate the indigenous people in that land.

A big part of my book talks about colonization, its impact and the trauma that it has left behind. Genocide, stolen land and slavery have imposed so much trauma. In this country it has had a lot to do accumulating wealth.

And trauma not just for the community that was colonized but for the colonizers.  We don’t talk about this a lot, but settlers broke ties with their lands of origin, to their cultures to subscribe to the narrative of the American Dream, to be part of colonizing this land. I unpack that colonization is all about dividing and controlling people, and money has been a tool to separate and cause hurt in our communities.

But money is neutral. It’s about how money has been used. Money can also be used as a tool of healing and love and belonging.

All our systems and institutions are infected with this colonizer virus. Decolonizing wealth means accepting that institutions that control wealth are inherently broken, and people with wealth—and philanthropy—have benefited from this broken system.

Philanthropy sits on $80 billion of assets. Only 7-8 percent of what is moving is moving to communities of color. It’s stolen twice. This money is already not in use for the public good, and even through philanthropy it doesn’t create public good in communities of color.

We can’t undo what’s been done. The best we can do is recognize the history, the hurt and pain that it has caused, then heal, repair and use resources in a way that doesn’t cause further harm.

In the book we explore the dynamics, understanding the history of trauma of building these institutions. And I ask, how can we use money as indigenous medicine to restore balance?

What about your life or experience has shaped your approach to philanthropy?

Edgar: I’m from a very poor tribe in North Carolina. My mom was a domestic worker, taking care of people with wealth.  She would sneak me into work with her at times and I would flow between our lives and the lives of the people she worked for. I found those people to be generous, kind and loving. They asked me about school, they gave me advice. I saw there is trauma in every family and community. I also know there are wealthy folks with good intentions.

Many of the people I met were born into the families where they had wealth, just as I was born into my family. I do believe that we can be in community with people with wealth.

As a program officer, it’s the job to be driven by solutions, to listen to people impacted first-hand. But then to translate to people who don’t have proximity to these issues. I have been in philanthropy for 14 years and have been responsible for the distribution of 140 million dollars.

But it’s impossible for me to be removed from my roots and where I came from. I’m the first person in my family to graduate from high school. Now I help my family and community, and it keeps me grounded in the work. The values of Native life have shaped me. It’s relationship-based, and money can be a tool of relationship building, not just a transaction.

How is your work about shifting power?

Edgar: Power—the way that capitalism exists in our country, wealth is equated with power, and there’s a lot of truth to that. The 1% hoard power as well as wealth. But I push back on that narrative because a bit because we have the power of community, and power in numbers.

We can use money to facilitate power, and we can move money to liberate people who have power and resources to help those of us who have been exploited by the system. We have wisdom to know how to repair the system.

Privilege can blind people to solutions. When systems fail, communities of color feel it the hardest. But the wisdom from that experience that has enabled us to survive gives us a unique perspective to contribute to solutions.

That’s where a shift in power is not necessarily connected to shifting money. Power is rooted in who has a vision, who has solutions that will free us all. That’s where power is vested in community.

What’s one thing that people can do to decolonize philanthropy?

Edgar: Lately I’ve been ending my talks with the Lakota principle: that all of our suffering is mutual, and all of our thriving is mutual. The world is hurting and it’s going to take all of our resources to heal. Money can be medicine to help facilitate that.

In the book I name a lot of things people can do. If you’re a person working in philanthropy, take a long gaze in the mirror, ask, “Am I doing anything that is perpetuating this problem, the problem of separation, of division? Or am I using the resources at my disposal to bring people together?” To do this, you have to sit in the uncomfortable place.

I did a talk at a foundation where a program officer told me afterwards, “Now I’m asking, am I moving money in the best possible way? Getting at trauma?” And that’s what I wanted: making a funder think, “Am I doing all that I can do?”

I started this project and using this language two years ago, and now everyone is talking about “decolonizing” in our sector. The title of the book sounds kind of scary, and it is supposed to be provocative. But I’m comfortable with anyone who wants to speak truth and who wants to use whatever they have: money, resources or lived experience, to make things better. We all have some pain, we can heal if we come together.

Learn more about Edgar and his work at http://decolonizingwealth.com/