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Native Wisdom: A Review of Edgar Villanueva’s 'Decolonizing Wealth'

July 26, 2019

Cover_decolonizing_wealthIn his book, The Wretched of the Earth, published in 1961, Frantz Fanon noted what he considered to be the necessary conditions for the overthrow of colonialism: "To tell the truth, the proof of success lies in a whole social structure being changed from the bottom up." He added that "establishing a social movement for the decolonization of a person and of a people" was critical in disrupting the legacy of colonialism.

Almost sixty years later, Edgar Villanueva picks up on Fanon's call to action in his book Decolonizing Wealth. In the book, Villanueva places a spotlight on how colonialism has been perpetuated and stresses the importance of eliminating it from circles of wealth and, in particular, philanthropy, making it perhaps the most refreshing and insightful of the recent spate of books on foundations.

Villanueva is a rare combination: both a grantmaker and a member of the Lumbee Tribe, one of eight state-recognized Native American tribes in North Carolina. Drawing on Native American wisdom, he presents an eye-opening prescription for how foundations can dismantle the unequal power dynamic that historically has separated funders from the nonprofit organizations they support. Invoking the understanding common among indigenous people of medicine as "a way of achieving balance," he outlines what he terms "Seven Steps to Healing" — Grieve, Apologize, Listen, Relate, Represent, Invest, and Repair — with the caveat that the steps are less a checklist for funders to complete than an invitation to them to embark on a journey of "decolonization."

Differentiating himself from many of philanthropy's contemporary critics, Villanueva does readers a great service by focusing their attention on the grantmaking process. It's hardly a secret that change in the ways foundations operate is long overdue. What's so refreshing about Villanueva's approach is his application of a decolonization lens to that call to action, drawing on his own experience as a member of the Lumbee, the very first people on the North American continent to experience directly the arrival of and subsequent colonization by Europeans. In the process, he reminds readers that white supremacy on the North American continent has its origins in the 1400s and establishes the connection between that long, shameful legacy to current organized philanthropic practices. His blueprint for addressing that legacy offers a powerful set of arguments as to why those most impacted by the activities of foundations should be more involved in foundations' decision-making processes and why foundation officials have to go beyond their current practices and take steps to bridge the divide between grantmakers and grantees.

Villanueva moves quickly from his deconstruction of how foundation practices are embedded in colonialism to solutions, noting that they are easily found in the practices and traditions of the continent's indigenous peoples. "All of us who have been forced to the margins," he writes, "are the very ones who harbor the best solutions for healing, progress and peace, by virtue of our outsider perspective and resilience." At the same time, his sense of "otherness" empowers him to ask difficult questions. He addresses, for instance, the question of where foundations choose to locate their offices. Are they located in  neighborhoods that foundations have targeted for their support? Are they designed and run in a way that is welcoming or intimidating for grantees? Even more challengingly, he probes the extent to which foundations must come to grips with the sources of their wealth, at one point asking whether foundations should actively seek out ways to address the business abuses of their founders? In many ways, Villanueva is both championing and reviving a point of view with a long tradition in organized philanthropic practice in the U.S., but doing so with a powerful new idiom and moral authority.

Perhaps most importantly, Decolonizing Wealth calls on foundations to give up or (at a minimum) share control of their decision-making with the people most affected by those decisions. Over the last several decades some family foundations and public foundations have taken modest steps in this direction. On July 28, 1961, for example, the Taconic Foundation invited a handful of civil rights leaders, including the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., to its offices in New York City to brief its trustees, foundation officials, and representatives of both the White House and the U.S. Department of Justice. The aim of the meeting was to bring other funders to the table to support voter registration efforts in the South. Other foundations have discovered the double value of adding grantee representatives to their board and hiring individuals from "affected communities" as program officers, while a growing number of foundations are tapping leaders in the fields they support to serve as trustees. (At many family foundations, those who serve in such roles typically are term-limited while family members are not.)

In San Diego, the Jacobs Family Foundation provides support to local partners involved in the Village at Market Creek, a sixty-acre community development plan for the city's Diamond Neighborhoods area that was created by teams of community residents. The foundation’s philosophy is to leverage its entire asset base for the benefit of its partners and grant recipients, and as a step in that direction the foundation has located an office in the neighborhood. Another example is Philadelphia-based People's Fund (today known as the Bread and Roses Community Fund), which has long supported grassroots social justice organizations. In the 1970s, all grant decisions made by the fund had to be voted on at an annual meeting open to "grantee partners" as well as donors and other stakeholders.

Twenty-five years later, as a program officer at the Ford Foundation, it was my turn to be exposed to the strongly-held belief (in the case of Ford) that those most affected by social and economic challenges are in the best position to craft optimal solutions to those challenges. Then, in 2011, while reading Janny Scott's book A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mother, I learned about the work that Ann Dunham, Obama’s mother, did as a program officer for Ford in Indonesia in the 1970s. A  trained anthropologist, Dunham did not just sit in the foundation's Jakarta office and review proposals. Instead, she got out "in the field" and talked with local villagers and their elders about the challenges their communities faced. As a result of those conversations, she was able to craft grants that more directly responded to the aspirations of the people and communities Ford was there to help.

In a similar fashion, in the mid-80s, Ford engaged as consultants a number of frontline responders to the AIDS pandemic, including health officials, the chief executive officer of GMHC, and gay men either infected or affected by AIDS/HIV, to suggest strategies that would be most effective in stemming its devastation. (As the founding executive director of Funders Concerned About AIDS, I was privileged to be one of those who served in that capacity.) More often than not, such changes were due to the actions of well-placed individuals rather than from a structural analysis on the part of staff and board.

More recently, Jennifer and Peter Buffett's NoVo Foundation stepped in to help the women's movement in New York City create a place where women can gather. Similar places have existed for decades in cities as diverse as Rome and San Francisco. But New York, which has been a locus of women's organizing dating back to the nineteenth century, lacked such a hub. To correct the situation, NoVo stepped up and purchased a former correctional facility for women on Manhattan's West Side to serve as the site for the project and engaged a variety of stakeholders, including formerly incarcerated women  — "a circle of women leaders who bring wide-ranging skills, perspectives, and experience to the project" —  to make decisions about its use.

These examples suggest that the kind of participatory decision-making championed by Villanueva exists in philanthropy, but that they remain the exception rather than the rule. Which makes his book an even more powerful call to foundations to be focused and intentional as they embark on this journey.

In the final analysis, Villanueva's message is simple: the beneficiaries of foundation grants should be at the decision-making table. And if the field is to take seriously his call to action, then action is the next step. One hopeful sign that such change might be in our future can be seen in the fact that more than forty thousand people, including many foundation officials, have flocked to hear Villanueva speak since his book’s publication last year. Logical next steps to build the movement to decolonize organized philanthropy would include sharing stories of foundations that are on this journey; seeding programs at foundation gatherings in the Americas, Europe, Australia, and other continents whose governments are engaged in colonization; publishing case studies of participatory philanthropy; enlisting other voices as ambassadors; and continuing to collect and share emerging practices. We all must continue to explore new ways of creating greater equity between the institutions that hold the money and those who seek our support. Let this time in philanthropy be the moment of change.

Michael Seltzer is a distinguished lecturer at the Marxe School of Public and International Affairs, Baruch College, City University of New York, board  chair of the Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa-USA, and a long-time contributor to PhilanTopic. A version of this review originally appeared on the HistPhil blog. To read more of Michael's posts for PND, click here.

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