From Whole Selves to Deep Relationships – Six Teachings from Decolonizing Wealth by Edgar Villanueva

Take-aways on every page.

“We are all related, all connected. The Native way is to bring the oppressor into our circle of healing. Healing cannot occur unless everyone is part of the process. Let it begin.” (p.181)

In my first job after graduate school, I coordinated a fundraising campaign supporting social priorities in the Greater Vancouver area that raised over a million dollars over two campaign cycles. After that role, I moved to Toronto, and worked at United Way Toronto supporting community projects in a donor engagement capacity. Because of these experiences, over the past few years I’ve been a part of reviewing grants within different organizational environments. The more I am involved in gathering and disseminating money, the more interested I become in how to do philanthropy well.

So I was thrilled when I came across Edgar Villanueva’s book “Decolonizing Wealth”,  a book that is a clarion call to rethink the way foundations and philanthropic organizations operate, relate to others and seek to create change in the world.  The subtitle of the book: “Indigenous wisdom to heal divides and restore balance” is a theme throughout, and Villanueva’s thoughtful, generous reflections on how we need everyone in order to create a decolonized world left me with softer perspectives, a wider heart and a desire to live my life in deep relationship with others.

The book is divided into two sections. The first section, titled “Where it Hurts”, outlines problems with the philanthropic sector, and evokes slavery with each chapter title to powerfully remind us that wealth in North America is more likely than not created through systems of oppression, and acts of theft and violence. In this section, Villanueva describes how philanthropy itself is based on colonial notions of separation and scarcity, notes that philanthropic organizations typically mirror colonial principles, outlines how funding largely does not reach people of colour, details how philanthropic organizations often do not share power meaningfully with those more marginalized, and critiques the sector for generally not addressing intersectionality well and creating unnecessary barriers to funding through the way applications are administered.

Reading about the pain and problems in the sector, it seems an impossible task to reform philanthropic spaces. But this is a book of hope, and in the second part of the book titled “How to Heal”, Villaneuva outlines seven steps (grieve, apologize, listen, relate, invest, repair) on how to heal and decolonize our relationship with wealth in order to use money for social good. Villanueva’s arguments are compelling, and are supported by the deeply personal stories he shares, his interviews with numerous practitioners in the field, and the scores of articles, books and scholars he references. This book invites readers to read more and there is so much this book offers for its reader to look up and continue learning.

Though this is not an exhaustive list, here are some of my take-aways from the read.

1. We cannot create social change without healing ourselves. This message, that the way to a decolonized world is to heal oneself, is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. adrienne maree brown in her brilliant book “Emergent Strategy” teaches us that “as we are, so it (our work, our movement) will be”, Austin Channing in the brilliant Good Ancestor Podcast with Layla Saad talks about being a good ancestor by healing oneself and thriving, and in this exceptional book, the road to decolonizing philanthropy begins with yourself. Without healing ourselves, and addressing our grief and internalized oppression, our pain will keep surfacing and injure ourselves and others. The stories Villanueva shares about painful relationships he has had with people of colour in the philanthropic sector are brave and courageous, and highlight the trauma that is caused when it feels like there is only space for one or two BIPOC individuals. The Indigenous wisdom he shares about embracing integration rather than binaries,  and seeking to relate to all people and relating to others from a spirit of reciprocity rather than altruism are incredible gifts to counter this mindset of scarcity and fear.

2. We need spaces and rituals for grief, healing, and coming together. In addition to doing our own work to heal ourselves, we also need spaces to grieve together and to heal together. This does not mean that people of colour are responsible for doing the emotional labour of caring for those who are more dominant, but it does mean that we need mechanisms to collectively and institutionally grieve (in caucus-ed groups ideally) in order to stop cycles of abuse and trauma and for healing to occur.

3.Decolonizing philanthropy (or any sector for that matter) requires rethinking organizational design. When I am in a new organizational environment, I can’t help and look around and notice who holds leadership positions in the organization. I’m a career educator, and I know that who we see as leaders within an organization matters. Reading “Decolonizing Wealth” however, opened my eyes to a more important organizational dynamic – how organizations themselves are designed. As Villanueva describes, organizational design structures “how power is held and by whom, who makes decisions and how decisions are carried out, what the relationship of the organization is to resources, and what constitutes success” (p. 43). He details what colonial organizational design looks like and explains:

Pyramid processes are top-down, closed-door and expert driven. Populating the base of the pyramid with the greatest numbers and the least power, were the Them – the Others, basically, less human and less valuable, due to receive fewer rights and resources. In between were middlemen, (only more recently middlewomen) who implemented the vision and kept the bottom aligned to that vision. In these organizations, the experience of the least empowered people/roles – often relegated to less intellectual, more physical tasks – is that their time has less value and is therefore compensate with less pay. Their thoughts are also less valued, their voices discouraged. Their experience of work feels more anonymous, more interchangeable, less meaningful, than the experience at the top of the pyramid. Their individuality and personal creative expression is likely not welcome in, and possibly prohibited from, the workplace.” (p.44).

In addition to how organizations are structured, colonial, white supremacist organizations also can be identified by particular characteristics, and Villanueva points us to the work of Jones and Okun to explain this further:

“In their Dismantling Racism workbook, Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun identified other characteristics of white supremacy culture, including perfectionism, sense of urgency, defensiveness, quantity over quality, worship of the written word, paternalism, either/or thinking, fear of open conflict, individualism, worship of unlimited growth, objectivity and avoidance of discomfort. They note that these “are used as norms and standards without being pro-actively named or chosen..Organizations which unconsciously use these characteristics  as their norms and standards make it difficult if not impossible, to open the door to other cultural norms and standards. As a result, many of our organizations, while saying we want to be multicultural, really only allow other people and cultures to come in if they adapt or conform to already existing cultural norms.” (45)

Although organizations structured in highly hierarchical ways may be all that we are exposed to, Villanueva encourages us to remember that these are choices, and we can choose differently:

“Colonial, white supremacist organizational practices seem inevitable because they were so universally adopted over the next centuries, and they still govern the great majority of our institutions, but they were design choices. This means that other choices are available, even when they seem far-fetched. We know what spaces and organizations look like, feel like and function like when they are inspired by the colonizers’ principles of separation, competition and exploitation. How would they be different if they were based on principles like integration and interdependence, reciprocity and relationship.” (45)

This part of the book is powerful, and calls us to recognize that what is needed in philanthropy (and in other sectors that need to decolonize) is not minor changes, but rather a revolution in how this sector operates. This book deepened my commitment to learn more about decolonizing organizational design, but more importantly, this book inspired me to expect more, to believe in my own gifts more, and to commit more deeply to building new tables:

“Up until now, diversity and inclusion tactics have been about getting different kinds of people in the door, and then asking them to assimilate to the dominant white colonizer culture. But the issue is not recruitment of diverse humans – the “pipeline” focus of the past, laying a seat at the table, as is often said – the issue is creating a culture of respect, curiosity, acceptance and love. It’s about fundamentally changing organizational culture, what constitutes acceptable behaviour, and the definitions of success and leadership. It’s about building ourselves a whole new table – one where we truly belong.” (65)

4. Funders need to seek out spaces of hope where good things are happening.

One of my favourite stories from the book is when Villanueva describes how at his first role, an organization called KBR, they moved from a granting process where potential grantees would come to them and meet with program officers and apply for grants, to a process where program officers would go on the road in order to find organizations that would benefit from funding, but might not have the capacity to go through the granting application process, or may not be aware that they could be eligible for funds. This required rewriting job descriptions and because program officers then had to find new organizations each cycle, it changed their understanding of what their role was as funders. Changing how they did their work helped them understand that the goal of their work wasn’t to simply fund the “usual suspects” it actually was to uncover incredible work occurring in communities in order to support social change.

In addition to seeking out spaces of hope, Villanueva argues that funders actually need to ask different questions and utilize appreciative inquiry to find out not only what isn’t working, but also what is and needs support to grow:

“Organizations evolve in the direction of the questions that funders most persistently and passionately ask. Rather than asking what’s wrong, what needs to be fixed, what’s broken, what if philanthropy asked a community what it is most proud of and how it could support that? Questions about what is working well are energizing: their answers spread the stories of solutions and the design of those solutions.” (p.131) 

5. Difference is needed to heal our planet. So often the conversation around inclusion and difference sounds like a moral argument – we should have more diverse organizations simply because it is the right thing to do. This is true, but Villanueva expands this conversation by reminding us that if organizations are going to survive and actually do the good they hope to do in the world, they need divergent perspectives. Those who are deemed “Other” have skills that the dominant majority simply doesn’t have. He explains:

“Those most excluded and exploited by today’s broken economy possess exactly the perspective and wisdom needed to fix it. Ironically, the separation paradigm that locked us out and made us Others actually cultivated our resilience strategies. To survive the trauma of exploitation, we always had to believe that the dominant worldview was only one option, even when it seemed ubiquitous and inevitable. This has made us masters of alternative possibilities. [..]We become expert navigators of difference, cultivating this level of awareness in a way our white colleagues, especially the monolingual ones, never have to. It’s a burden, but it’s also a superpower, as it turns out.” (p.63-64)

6. We need to go beyond “diversifying” spaces to actually shifting power.

To truly heal philanthropy, Villanueva argues that we need to create different power relations in this sector, and shift power to create different and equitable power structures in which everyone is powerful. That means participatory granting processes, this means foundations committing to investing their wealth in mission aligned ways instead of simply giving away grants and it means making commitments to giving money to people of colour.

“It’s not enough to just not allow the bulk of our assets to fund the bad stuff, we have to take those assets and invest in the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible. If you believe, as I do, that the best solutions to the current economic and social problems are coming from the very people who were disempowered by the colonial command-and-control, dominate-and-exploit system, then these are the people in whom we need to invest.” (157).

When power is shared, this leads to better outcomes because funders need to have knowledge of the issues they are funding:

“Effectively moving money to where the hurt is worst – using money as medicine – requires the funder to have deep, authentic knowledge of the issues and communities that will be putting the funding to use. Deep authentic knowledge does not come from reading some stats, reports or articles; it doesn’t even come from a site visit to that community or interviewing someone from the affected community. It comes from living inside that community and experiencing that issue for oneself.” (143)

Ultimately, this book is powerful because it feels like a work of love. It is a book that offers strong critiques of the philanthropic sector, but these critiques and solutions are offered in a spirit of such fierce kindness and hope that the ethos of the book is perhaps its strongest lesson. We need more dialogue like this, that does not shy away from the truth, but also fully believes that the change needed is within the capacity of everyone. That sees everyone as connected. This book has helped me think more about how I communicate and how I listen, and I am so glad for the lessons and education that the author so generously provides.

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