I just finished reading Decolonizing Wealth (2nd edition): Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides and Restore Balance by Edgar Villanueva, and I have so many thoughts to share. This is certainly a book review, but I also shared my thoughts about what I learned reading it. The book centers around philanthropy and how its structure remains rooted in an antebellum worldview of control, divide, and exploit.
Decolonizing Wealth touched me in ways I was not expecting, and so I’ve taken time to reflect on the uncomfortable truths the author exposes; to understand the role I play as a White woman serving the nonprofit sector; and to double down on my personal commitment to listen and learn from those who are different from me.
The book is written from the author’s perspective as an Indigenous person. He is an enrolled member of the Lumbee Tribe from North Carolina who currently resides in New York City. Villanueva interweaves stories from his career in philanthropy with an overview of the sector’s origins which are infected by the “colonizer virus.” The book is well researched and his insights are fresh and give me hope for the future.
Philanthropy Is Sick
Decolonizing Wealth is predicated on the concept that the problem with modern-day philanthropy is colonialism and that the medicine to heal it involves doing what philanthropists (hypothetically) do best: distributing wealth to the people who need it. In this way, money becomes medicine—not the love of money, the distribution of money to “those who were stolen from or exploited to make that wealth.” The author contends that it is this marginalized and oppressed people group who can bring healing to the ivory towers of philanthropy.
The book itself is organized into three distinct sections: (1) Where It Hurts; (2) Being a Healer; (3) How to Heal. This structure is explained in the Introduction so make sure you read it so you can get the most out of this amazing book. Each section builds on the one before.
Part One: Where It Hurts
In this first section of the book, Villanueva shares his personal journey into philanthropy, his experience being the first in his family to “make it”, what it was like often being the only Person of Color in the room. He opens by sharing some pretty interesting and staggering statistics (sources are footnoted in the book):
- 75% of Foundations’ full time staff is white.
- 33% of program officers and 10% of foundation CEOs are people of color.
- Only 4% of philanthropy institutions are led by Black CEOs (even less representation for other ethnicities)
- 85% of foundation board members are White
- 7% are African American
- 4% are Hispanic
- 75% of foundations have no written policy on board diversity.
Edgar explains how the statistics for diversity—as eye-popping as they are—are not really a good measure because real diversity has more to do with access to power and ownership. It can be difficult for People of Color to find success in “ivory tower institutions of wealth” like foundations.
Not only is there a lack of representative role models in leadership positions, internalized stereotypes often impact how Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) are perceived at work by others AND by themselves. Oftentimes, BIPOC are expected to assimilate, code-switch, and keep a low profile because if they don’t, they know they can be replaced with someone who will. This makes it nearly impossible to speak truth to power.
Is this disparity intentional?
The Rise of Philanthropy in the United States
To learn the answer to that question, you have to understand the history of philanthropy in the United States. Borrowing familiar terms from chattel slavery and antebellum life, the author clearly communicates colonization’s wealth-stripping effects on marginalized populations and wealth-building outcomes for those who settled the (stolen) land.
Immigrant or Settler? The Difference Is Real.
Villanueva contends that there is one main difference between immigrants and settlers. He says, “Settlers cannot be considered immigrants because immigrants are expected to obey the laws of the land when they arrive, while settlers make their own new laws of the land.” He illustrates this by showing how the Doctrine of Discovery and the concept of Manifest Destiny were used to justify a violent and exploitative type of colonization called “settler colonialism,” a concept I had not heard of prior to reading this book.
A Culture of Separation & Division
Exposing how it has infected all levels of philanthropy, the author painstakingly describes the nefarious nature of the “colonizer virus” and exposes how it promotes a culture of separation and division:
"Separation correlates with fear, scarcity, and blame—all of which arise when we think we're not together in this thing called life." Edgar Villanueva, "Decolonizing Wealth" Click to read my reflections on this powerful treatise on… Click To Tweet
“Separation correlates with fear, scarcity, and blame—all of which arise when we think we’re not together in this thing called life. In the separation worldview, humans are divided from and set above nature, mind is separated from and elevated above body, and some humans are considered distinct from and valued above all others—Us versus Them—as opposed to seeing ourselves as part of a greater whole.“
Observing that colonization has had massive impacts on both the colonizer and the Native, the author concludes that “settler colonialism makes things much messier.” This, in my opinion, is a brilliant insight—one that not only informs this treatise on philanthropy but explains why so many people are trying to stop immigrants from coming to America.
SIDE NOTE: It’s not surprising that those who view immigrants as settlers don’t them to come into our country. We definitely need to figure out a way to change that divisive narrative!
A New Paradigm
After pointing out the problem inherent in philanthropy due to its colonial roots and foundation of separation, division, and control, the author proposes a new paradigm as the solution—one that revolves around three core principles: connection, relationship, and belonging.
We cannot fix the problem until we listen to the oppressed and marginalized. He explains that “those most excluded and exploited by today’s broken economy possess exactly the perspective and wisdom needed to fix it.” The fix does not involve dismantling and/or rebuilding philanthropy. It will naturally occur as we adopt diversity and inclusive practices which could bring real and lasting change to the sector.
“Evolution and innovation arise from difference and variation, not from sameness. These are fundamental principles of life.”
In this respect, Villanueva’s proposal aligns perfectly with that of Hamza Khan in his book Leadership Reinvented: Inclusive diversity is absolutely essential for innovation and resilience. This is the best way to move funders out of issues-based silos and build stronger coalitions.
The goal is to bring together diverse people who work together on common missions despite their differences. “It’s not about making more room at the table. It’s about building ourselves a whole new table, one where everyone who sits there belongs.” The culture of philanthropy must evolve from one of separation and division to one of mutual respect, curiosity, acceptance, and love.
Working with people who are different from each other—especially those with different cultural backgrounds who feel comfortable expressing their authentic thoughts and feelings—will organically generate new perspectives and potentially catalyze real and lasting change.
From Individualism to Collectivism
What Villanueva proposes is not about the individual or a hierarchical pyramid structure. It’s not about command and control. This new paradigm revolves around the realization that everyone has leadership potential and that inclusion and belonging are essential to overcoming separation.
“We have to reconnect with the fact that we’re part of something greater, that we belong together, and we’re all in this thing called life together.“
The author encourages us to move away from “either/or” thinking to “both/and” because it’s core philosophy of Native Americans and critical to their survival despite centuries of colonization, suffering, and trauma. Rather than destroy philanthropy as we know it, the “both/and” approach will allow the sector to evolve and improve. It’s one of the keys to healing philanthropy.
Part Two: Being a Healer
Reflecting on his personal journey into philanthropy, the author shares how writing the first edition of his book really changed him (in a good way). He began to see himself as a healer—someone who is able to connect with people when he shows up fully as his authentic whole self. And he began to see money as “medicine”—not literally like a dollar pill or liquid coin—but conceptually based on the Indigenous belief that medicine is “a way of achieving balance.” Villanueva sheds light on this concept as follows:
“An indigenous medicine person doesn’t just heal illnesses. He or she can restore harmony or establish a state of being such as peacefulness…In the Indigenous worldview, many kinds of things can be medicine: a place, a word, a stone, an animal, a natural phenomenon, a dream, a life event like a coffee date with a friend, or even something that seems bad in the moment, such as the loss of a job.”
He continues by explaining that “anyone can find and use medicine just by allowing intuition and feelings to determine whether something can serve as medicine. You listen for its sacred power. You don’t force it. ‘You don’t choose the medicine,’ the elders say. ‘It chooses you.'”
When Villanueva personally recognized the medicine that chose him was 💰💰💰 money, and it as such it could be used to help people thrive, he understood his calling to be diagnosing the colonizer virus infection in philanthropy and using money to facilitate healing both in the nonprofit sector and our society as a whole.
Part Three: How to Heal
Part three of the book offers a detailed 7-step recipe for decolonizing wealth and heal ourselves from the “colonizer virus.” Instead of unconsciously continuing a culture of divide, control, and exploit based on the separation mindset, Villanueva encourages us to embrace a new paradigm where we connect, relate, belong. A paradigm that will require us the shift from “either/or” thinking to “both/and.”
He explains this new paradigm is based on evolution—the kind that “occurs both by holding on to the adaptations that keep us thriving and by abandoning elements that keep us from thriving.” Healing is not about destroying the current system, it’s about keeping what works, getting rid of what doesn’t, and evolving.
Healing will require us to bridge the gap by creating opportunities for change; making room for leaders who lead with compassion; addressing the problems of racism which impact all of us; and allowing each of us to grieve what’s been taken from us.
Rethinking Our Relationship to Money and Resources
Villanueva concludes with this thought: “Healing cannot occur unless everyone is part of the process. Let it begin.”
And I say, let it begin with me. Join me?
Together we can work accelerate the healing process in philanthropy as we move away from separation and division to inclusion and connection.
Let’s build a bigger and better table with ample space for diverse humans who will help us forge equitable pathways to more funding for those who helped create the wealth in the first place. In this way, decolonized money becomes exactly the medicine we need to bring healing to individuals, organizations, and communities across our nation.
I hope you all take the time to read Decolonizing Wealth (2nd edition): Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides and Restore Balance by Edgar Villanueva. I’ve highlighted so many sections of it, and there is a lot I’d like to discuss. This book is a keeper! Highly recommended.
Graphics & Photo credits: All photos licensed for use on this blog by Laura Zielke unless otherwise noted below. Interview of Samoset with the Pilgrims. Public domain.
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