Edgar Villanueva is on a mission to change philanthropy.
Villanueva, a 44-year-old racial justice activist, became a household name in the donor world in 2018. He said he was moved by the attention gained by his book, which argues that institutionalized philanthropy in America perpetuates practices that marginalize minority communities.
He says he reached that conclusion after many years of working in philanthropies from Washington state to North Carolina, where he is an enrolled member of the Native American Lumbee tribe. In recent years, he has pushed for philanthropies to incorporate more diversity and inclusion on the inside and invest more into minority communities on the outside.
To that end, Villanueva launched the nonprofit Decolonizing Wealth Project in 2018. The group runs a fund supporting minority-led initiatives for social justice causes and has received contributions from billionaire philanthropist MacKenzie Scott.
The second edition of Villanueva's book, “Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides and Restore Balance," was released last week. The Associated Press spoke recently with him about his calls for change and other things. The interview was edited for clarity and length.
Q: You’ve argued that institutionalized philanthropy is infected with a “colonizing virus.” What do you mean?
A: The philanthropic industry as it exists currently, with $1 trillion in assets, came about through a history of inequality. There have been accumulated advantages and benefits for people with wealth, and specifically for white people in the U.S., to be in the position of being able to generate and build wealth in the first place. So folks who had those generational resources passed it down, and those with accumulated benefits have been in the best positions to start foundations and to actually be able to be charitable in a very traditional sense.
We have to bring that history into context as we’re thinking about the gifts — who’s receiving money, who makes decisions about money and who benefits from this entire industry.
Colonization was all about extracting resources and hoarding resources... So I talk about this colonizing virus because it is like a virus that has really infected all of our systems but especially the systems connected to money.
Q: And how can the sector combat such a virus?
A: The way out of this is to think about healing. If trauma is the result of how wealth has been accumulated, I believe that we can flip that and use money and wealth differently, specifically philanthropic capital, which should be deployed to really benefit all people. If we're investing in communities of color and actually prioritizing Black and Indigenous communities that have historically been marginalized, then I believe that we can help close the race wealth gap that exists, in essence using money as a form of medicine.
Q: Charitable foundations are criticized for investing their endowments in companies that don’t align with their missions. Some announced plans to change their strategies. Do you see that happening at a mass scale?
A: I’m hopeful. Probably prior to five years ago, there was very little talk about endowments. I think more and more as we’re talking about effective and modern philanthropy, we are looking at the entire picture of all the resources that are available to foundations. And there’s a major push to align the grant-making practices and the business practices with the investment practices. What is the net value of philanthropy if with our right hand we’re doing some good and with our left hand we’re actually doing harm? It really makes no sense for a foundation to invest in grant making around criminal justice but invest their endowments in private prisons. Return on investment is not always something that can be quantified by a dollar sign.
Q: Philanthropic funding for racial equity initiatives increased following the police killing of George Floyd. Will that be sustained?
A: I think we’re having a breakthrough moment. I feel optimistic about it. A lot of things have been shifting in the past three years, thanks to the work of social movements like the Movement for Black Lives. There’s been a lot of external pressure on foundations, on corporations to invest more in social justice and just in communities of color in general.
At the Decolonizing Wealth Project, we’ve really been fueling this reckoning that’s been happening across the sector for the last number of years. So the conversations, even before the murder of George Floyd, have begun to shift. I think that moment absolutely opened a new level of opportunity for resources to flow.
One of the challenges that we have in philanthropy is sometimes moving money in ways that connect to a news cycle or some type of sparkplug event that happens in communities. It’s human nature to want to respond in the moment, but what we have to continue to push for is to center and prioritize Black, Indigenous and other communities of color in our grantmaking.
Q: You’ve spoken about the need to extend grace to Americans learning about racial inequities. Do you believe there is a lack of grace in today’s social justice movements?
A: I do, I do. But I think it’s been really hard to extend grace in a moment where we are directly in the line of attack. So I do believe there’s a time to fight and a time to really defend our positions and to maybe not compromise or find that middle ground. But I think all of us can, and should, find ways to work towards extending grace to others.
In my own journey, I know that I was raised to be racist. I was raised to be sexist, homophobic, and through a lot of reading work on my own, but also the support of community around me, I’ve evolved over the last couple of decades to be someone who thinks and shows up very differently.
But had I not had that opportunity to find community, to teach me, I don’t know that I would have gotten there on my own. And so we are living in a time of cancel culture. We’re living in a time of identity politics. And it is actually just really challenging after this last political administration and all the things we saw — policies, the attacks on our communities — to extend grace in those moments. So it is a process of healing that we all have to engage in. I try my best to extend that to others, because that’s how I’ve been received through the years.
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