Indigenous wisdom for a new philanthropy

Nate PetersenBook Reviews

In Edgar Villanueva’s Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides and Restore Balance, the world of Western philanthropy is thoroughly and beautifully critiqued as being a cog in the machine of colonization and white supremacy. Villanueva belongs to the Lumbee tribe of North Carolina and is recognized across the United States as being an expert on social justice philanthropy. He is the Vice President of Programs and Advocacy at the Schott Foundation for Public Education and serves as Chair of the Board of Directors of Native Americans in Philanthropy and is also a Board Member of the Andrus Family Fund. Through storytelling, Villanueva uses his own experiences and those of his peers to express a deep concern for the foundational assumptions that are inherent to the philanthropic sector.

Villanueva calls his readers to a higher standard of philanthropy through the Indigenous principle of “all my relations”, which is the understanding that we are all interconnected to one another, our environment, and the Creator. By relating to the communities and organizations we serve as members of the same family, rather than in the institutional, transactional manner that is the norm, we can address the systemic illusions of there being Haves and Have Nots. Essentially, we are all in this together.

The topic of white privilege and white supremacy will certainly stir up many emotions for those in philanthropic sector, but now is an opportune time to dialogue about such a deep-seated reality. The West is experiencing a generational shift in its thinking about race, gender, and income inequality. Naturally, this is a challenging read for those of us who work in the field of grantmaking, because most of us are well-intentioned white folks, but white folks nonetheless. Villanueva’s words are a healthy and all-too-rare reality check for those with the resources to give generously.

As we look back to the origins of the wealth that is now being given to social programs through grants, the stark reality is that wealth was (and continues to be) often acquired on the backs of low wage workers and people of colour. Today, the investment portfolios of foundations are wrapped up in lucrative opportunities that can surprisingly threaten the health of communities and the environment in places that are out of sight and out of mind. There is an obvious contradiction in how the means to create and maintain wealth can exploit the same people that our philanthropic efforts strive to support. Villanueva does not attack and alienate his audience but recognizes the generational trauma that needs healing across the board. He says, “We must heal ourselves by each taking responsibility for our part in creating or maintaining the colonial virus. We must identify and reject the colonial aspects of our culture and our institutions so that we can heal. …instead of divide, control, exploit, we embrace a new paradigm of connect, relate, belong.

To truly grapple with the implications of our past and our present is to realize that we have responsibility to rethink how we invest and who truly benefits from our actions. Villanueva writes, “Money is like water. Water can be a precious life-giving resource. But what happens when water is dammed, or when a water cannon is fired on protesters in sub-zero temperatures? Money should be a tool of love, to facilitate relationships, to help us thrive, rather than to hurt and divide us. If it’s used for sacred, life-giving, restorative purposes, it can be medicine. Money, used as medicine, can help us decolonize.” Perhaps the rising tides of our social awareness will be enough to change the system of philanthropy from one that sustains the status quo to one that helps mend our societal divisions.

Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides and Restore Balance is a great resource for anybody that is looking for an alternative direction for philanthropy. It will be of great interest for next generation investors and innovators alike.