Edgar Villanueva is an expert on philanthropy and a member of the Lumbee Native American Tribe in North Carolina. After spending years in the institutional philanthropic sector, he wrote “Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides and Restore Balance,” which looks into how money — which has often been used to disenfranchise people of color and indigenous communities in the U.S. — can become a form of medicine to help heal them.
In honor of Native American Heritage Month, DiversityInc’s Olivia Riggio spoke to Villanueva about what inspired him to write, the concepts he discusses in his book, indigenous communities’ role in the 2020 election and how non-Native allies can help support and spotlight indigenous people and causes.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Olivia Riggo: Give me a little bit of background on yourself, who you are, and how your experiences led you to write “Decolonizing Wealth.”
Edgar Villanueva: I am a member of the Lumbee Tribe in North Carolina. I grew up there in the state, and I’m from a family and community that — importantly pretty common for a lot of Native families — was caught in cycles of poverty and lack of opportunity and access to quality education, and violence and trauma. But, from that community, my mother moved us to the city of Raleigh, where I had access to good schools, and she was really a person that modeled transformation and healing for me to transcend a lot of the things we had gone through in our community. And she also modeled public service … That really kind of pushed me, as I made my way through school, my career path being one that was about service and giving back. My entire career has been in the nonprofit sector. Early on, I did a lot of work with health equity and was politicized around … mostly people of color not having access to information and services to save their lives.
I ultimately found my way into philanthropy. I was recruited by a health foundation 15 years ago and since then I’ve been in this weird sector of institutional philanthropy that is really about moving wealth into communities and supporting the nonprofit sector with money. I’m sort of an atypical person to find myself in that space, in this field that lacks a lot of diversity, it lacks having folks in leadership with lived experience and authentic connections to communities, but some way or another, I’ve continued to work in this space … I’ve gotten politicized about what is happening in this sector and understanding that there’s huge amounts of wealth that are kind of in the storehouses of foundations that I know that people of color, indigenous folks, have had a major role in helping to accumulate this wealth, and this is money that is not going into the tax system …
So, I’ve kind of been fired up and politicized about disrupting philanthropy and asking really hard questions about where this money is going and where it came from and who gets to manage it. It led me to write a book. I often say that writing the book was a healing process for me because being Native and having sort of an identity crisis because of our history in this country and because of having to move away from my community to get access to education and because of white supremacy, basically, I’ve felt this forced assimilation. And especially in moving into philanthropy, which is a sector where there’s a lot of privilege involved, there’s an expectation that you need to assimilate to that way of being. Writing the book for me was about connecting to my culture and my community and remembering those indigenous values and the traditional instructions to make me really the kind of leader that I want to be.
OR: I think the term “philanthropy” has a positive connotation, but in your book, you describe it as “colonialism in the empire’s newest clothes.” How can institutional philanthropy be just another vessel for colonialism?
EV: On the surface, philanthropy is a beautiful word, and it’s a beautiful saying. It simply means “love of humankind.” And philanthropy has always existed in communities through sharing and absolutely in indigenous communities there’s all kinds of traditions we’ve always had around taking care of one another and understanding that we are all … connected to each other and the planet.
What has happened with institutional philanthropy, which is an industry that has really in the last 60–70 years has grown … I feel, in a sense has created a different kind of philanthropy that can potentially be harmful to communities or that is really diminishing and taking out the human connection and love from that word and making it more of a transactional situation that is really continuing the folks with power and wealth …
Historical colonization, which began 500 years ago, has led to separation and division in communities and has led to certain groups having wealth and other groups not having wealth, and those dynamics show up in philanthropy … When you begin to examine the wealth that exists with a lot of foundations and a lot of people that have a lot of wealth and are philanthropists, people of color have played significant roles originally, of course, from slavery and genocide and taking land. Those original sins of our country really privileged white folks to be on top … $900 billion dollars of philanthropic capital. Grants that are invested into communities, only about 7.5–8% goes to communities of color.
OR: You say in your book that “using money as medicine” works in accordance with indigenous traditions and values. Can you explain how that works?
EV: This came about for me because I had been working in philanthropy and was starting to feel a bit disillusioned … A part of that, I think, was having internalized messages around money and it being something that was evil, or dirty, or corrupt. I had an elder say to me, from my community, that the medicine that had chosen me was money. In indigenous culture … anything can be medicine that is actually something that makes people whole or inspires you or helps you to show up as your best self … If the accumulation of wealth in this country has resulted in a lot of trauma … can wealth actually have a role in helping to heal? And I believe the answer to that is yes. If we use money for a sacred purpose, if we think of it as medicine and we’re moving money to where the hurt is the worst … then we can actually help to repair the historical harm that has been done.
OR: I’ve really only heard of money — especially in progressive circles — being connected to capitalism and that being connected to colonization. Speak a little bit more on how your teaching helps shed money’s association with the colonizer.
EV: I think … capitalism was so created with racism embedded in it … But … when I think about money and wealth, I think that we can separate that out. That wealth is not a bad thing. That money is not a bad thing … If money is a neutral thing — anything can be weaponized. Money was created to serve as a proxy to represent the sweat we spend on working and to represent relationships, and it’s really neutral. It’s really the power that we give money, or how we use money, is really where things can be destructive or beneficial to our society. I’m separating that concept out from capitalism, in a sense … I’d ultimately love to see philanthropy not exist in its current form. I think philanthropy is inherently connected to capitalism, and we definitely need to think of major economic reforms that would help to shift … I want everyone to have wealth. I don’t think it should be concentrated … with just a few people … It’s really a call for reparations to repair what has happened historically.
OR: In your book, you discuss the seven steps of healing: grieve, apologize, listen, relate, represent, invest and repair. How can money play into these steps in a way that’s regenerative and not extractive, and how can that help the indigenous community?
EV: Essentially, the seven steps come from a tradition of restorative justice and thinking about, with or without money, how can we come together as a community to have a process of truth and reconciliation as a country to promote racial healing? One is that we actually have to understand what has happened. We need truth, we need the stories of the people that have been harmed. With that comes grief … the heaviness of really coming to terms with that history. I would bring money into that through understanding that financial institutions and organizations and people with wealth, part of the work that they have to do is also to understand … where did the wealth come from? … I think grieving is necessary to come into a place of real change. From grieving, the next step there is apologizing … In the U.S., we, as Black folks and indigenous folks, have never really had an official apology from the government, for every broken treaty, for the exploitation, for the trauma … Moving money is really important. I’m very much in support of reparations but I also think we need to have an era of storytelling and truth and reconciliation and apology … Otherwise, I think that we’re just throwing money at a wound and not doing the deep healing work that has to come along with it … From there, walking through those steps, relating, representing, investing and repairing … that is where we begin to think about making decisions, new ways to deploy resources, new ways to get into relationships and do right in communities. And when we do all of that work, the money, the resources, power, all those things will begin to shift in a way that is more balanced.
OR: What message did the 2016 election send to indigenous communities, and what role could the indigenous community play in 2020?
EV: For me, it was a terrifying moment. This president is one who has been known to make Native-specific racial slurs, he has been supportive of the expansion of pipelines through tribal land and there’s been a consistent pattern of disregard for Native communities. Most recently, you may have heard, with it being Native American Heritage Month … this month there was a brand new proclamation that November would be National American History and Founders Month. Really, just a very intentional erasure of our community. We’re working to use this month as an opportunity to bring awareness to the resilience and heritage that we have as Native people …
I think the opportunity is great for 2020. What has happened was that in Native communities, we’ve been organizing, we’ve been holding political power — we had two women elected to Congress recently — so there is a fight back, and there’s an organization in our communities to think about how we come together to be seen and be heard and to protect this planet, to protect our rights and sovereignty … There are numerous efforts to get out to vote, to educate people on the numerous issues in our community … We’ve had to fight voter suppression efforts that are happening in places like South Dakota, but we are, I think, more politically savvy and powerful than we have been in a long time. I think the world is looking toward indigenous leadership on the forefront of various movements like climate justice.
OR: What are some ways that allies to the indigenous community can help, especially during Native American Heritage Month, but really throughout the year?
EV: Be inclusive of Native people in your work, in your advocacy … We do have small numbers, so we really rely on allies to be in solidarity with us, so whatever work that you’re doing, whatever you may be passionate about, connect with a Native organization or a Native leader that’s doing that work and find a way to help amplify our advocacy efforts … I think also just moving resources. We are grossly underfunded by philanthropy. We only get 0.03% of philanthropic dollars. And so, I know that myself and a lot of my allies who are leading movements and organizations across the country are always grappling for resources. So, if people feel inclined to give, I started a fund just a few months ago called Liberated Capital, and it’s a giving circle that we invite everyone to give and support.