Native Wisdom: A Review Of Edgar Villanueva’s Decolonizing Wealth

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Native Wisdom: A Review of Edgar Villanueva's Decolonizing Wealth
By Michael Seltzer, Distinguished Lecturer, Marxe School of Public Affairs, Baruch College. This article was originally published on June 20th by HistPhil.

In 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. He places a spotlight on how colonialism has been perpetuated and the importance of eliminating its persistence in today’s wealth and philanthropic circles in particular. It is perhaps the most refreshing and insightful of the recent spate of books on foundations. Villanueva is a rare combination: both a grant maker and a member of the continent’s first tribes. Drawing on Native American wisdom, he presents an eye-opening prescription of how foundations can dismantle the power divide that has historically separated funders from those nonprofit organizations that seek their support. Invoking an understanding 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—though he offers this prescription less as a checklist for funders to complete than as an invitation to embark on the journey of decolonization.

Differentiating himself from many of philanthropy’s contemporary critics, Villanueva does a great service by focusing our attention specifically on the grantor decision-making process. It is hardly a secret that change in the ways that foundations operate is overdue. What is so refreshing is that Villanueva brings the lens of decolonization to that call to action, drawing from his own experience as a member of the Lumbee tribe, the very first people on the North American continent to experience directly the arrival and invasion of Europeans. He reminds his readers that white supremacy on the North American continent has origins in the 1400’s and wastes no time in drawing the connection from that long shameful legacy to current organized philanthropic practices.

In his blueprint for foundations’ grantmaking practices to address that legacy of philanthropic colonization, he puts forth a powerful set of arguments as to why those most affected by foundations should be more intrinsically involved in their decision-making processes. He drives home that foundation officials have to go beyond current practices to bridge the divide between grantors and their grantees.

His book quickly goes beyond a deconstruction of how foundation practices are embedded in colonialism. He points out that the solutions can be easily found in the practices and traditions of the continent’s indigenous peoples. He notes: “All of us who have been forced to the margins are the very ones who harbor the best solutions for healing, progress and peace, by virtue of our outsider perspective and resilience.” His “otherness” uniquely enables him to ask difficult questions. He addresses, for instance, the places where foundations locate their offices. Are they located in the neighborhoods where they extend their support? Are they welcoming or intimidating? Even more challengingly, he probes the extent to which foundations must come to grips with the sources of their wealth. Should they actively seek out ways to address the business abuses of their founders? In many ways, Villanueva is championing and reviving a point of view with a long tradition in organized philanthropy in the United States, but with a powerful new idiom and moral authority.

Most importantly, Decolonizing Wealth calls for foundations to give up or share control in 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. Some grant makers have brought in activists to advise on how to best design new initiatives and to serve on advisory committees. 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, other 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. A handful of foundations have added leaders in the fields that they fund to serve as trustees. Yet, in the case of some family foundations, those who served in such roles are term-limited while family members are not.

In San Diego, the Jacobs Family Foundation provides support to partners and projects that comprise The Village at Market Creek, a 60-acre community development plan in the Diamond Neighborhoods that was created by teams of community residents. The foundation’s philosophy is to use its entire asset base to leverage funds and technical assistance for its partners and grant recipients. In addition, it has located an office in the neighborhood.

Another example is The People’s Fund (now known as the Bread and Roses Community Fund) in Philadelphia which focuses on supporting grassroots social justice organizations. In the 1970’s, all grant decisions had to be voted on at an annual meeting open to both “grantee partners,” donors and other supporters. Twenty-five years later as a program officer at the Ford Foundation, I became more familiar with its strongly-held belief that those who were most affected by social and economic challenges are in the best position to craft the optimal solutions.

In 2011, while reading Janny Scott’s book, A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mother, I learned about the work of Ann Dunham, President’s Obama’s mother, a program officer in the Indonesia office of the Ford Foundation in the 1970’s. As a trained anthropologist, she did not sit in the Jakarta office solely to review proposals. She went out “in the field” visiting communities to talk to local villagers and their elders about the challenges they faced. Through these conversations, she was able to craft grants that responded to communities’ expressed aspirations.

In a similar fashion, in the mid-80’s, the Ford Foundation 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 could be best utilized to stem its devastation. (I was privileged to be one of those who served in this capacity as the founding executive director of Funders Concerned About AIDS.) More often than not, these changes were brought about due to the actions of well-placed individuals rather than from a structural analysis on the part of staff and board (with the exception of the People’s Fund).

Most recently, the Novo Foundation, established by Jennifer and Peter Buffett, set out to fulfill a long-term vision of the New York City’s women’s movement to create a women’s building. Other similar places have existed for decades in cities as diverse as Rome and San Francisco. However, New York, which has always been a locus of women’s organizing dating back to the 19thcentury, lacked such a hub. The Novo Foundation stepped up and purchased an unused women’s jail on Manhattan’s West Side to serve as the site. Its leaders decided to engage a variety of stakeholders, including formerly incarcerated women, to make significant decisions about its use—“a circle of women leaders who bring wide-ranging skills, perspectives and experience to the project.”

These examples suggest there are fragments of participatory decision-making that Villanueva champions, but surveying the field, it’s clear that they have been the exception rather than the rule. Villanueva’s book is a powerful call for more foundations to undertake a more intentional journey in this direction.

The message is simple to comprehend: the ultimate beneficiaries of foundation grants should be at the decision-making table. If our ‘field’ is to take seriously Villanueva’s call to action, then action is the next step. One hopeful sign that such change might be in the future can be seen in the fact that more than 40,000 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 have engaged in colonization; publishing case studies of participatory philanthropy; enlisting other voices as ambassadors; and continuing to gather and share emerging practices. We must continue to explore new ways of doing our work that create greater equity between the institutions that hold the money and those who seek support. Let this time in philanthropy be the moment of change.

-Michael Seltzer

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