Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides and Restore Balance

In Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides and Restore Balance, Edgar Villanueva, vice president of programs and advocacy at the Schott Foundation for Public Education, asserts that colonialism is not a thing of the past, but lives on, like a virus, in existing systems and structures, including philanthropy and social finance. In the book, Villanueva, an enrolled member of the Lumbee Tribe and a veteran of the philanthropic sector who has worked in program positions at the Marguerite Casey Foundation and Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, examines how colonization has affected the sector and his own life, and offers a prescription for rectifying its most pernicious consequences.

One of the first things he does is draw a distinction between colonialism and immigration: immigrants come to a new country expecting to abide by the existing laws of the land; colonialism, in contrast, is all about imposing control over new lands and expropriating their resources — by force, if necessary. Colonialism is about establishing dominance over others, which Villanueva likens to a "zombie invasion" in that "[c]olonizers insist on taking over the bodies, minds, and souls of the colonized."

To make his point, Villanueva points to the history of Indian boarding schools in the United States. In the late nineteenth century, as the so-called Indian wars were winding down, the federal government forcibly separated tens of thousands of Native children from their families and communities and sent them off to schools where their "education" included being stripped of their cultural identity. Children were not allowed to use or be called by their own names or to speak their Native language. The philosophy, as the founder of the first off-reservation boarding school put it, was to "kill the Indian, and save the man." The psychic, social, and cultural trauma experienced by Native children in these often-brutal environments was compounded by malnutrition, forced labor, and other forms of physical abuse that went unmarked and unaddressed.

At its heart, though, colonialism is about white supremacy; it is, writes Villanueva, "racism in institutional form," and all institutions and systems in the United States, even the most well-intentioned, have been distorted by its legacy. In the first half of the book, Villanueva provocatively describes the way this has played out over time using the slave plantation as an analogy. Overseers are generally white men or white-controlled institutions, the owners of wealth and power whose ill-gotten gains derive from the exploitation of land, resources, and people. People of color working within these institutions are like house slaves, often silenced or pushed out if they do not go along with the status quo. Communities of color are the field slaves, supplicants for assistance whose need was caused by exploitation.

According to Villanueva, the goal of the colonizer is to accumulate as much wealth as possible. In the U.S., that wealth was created by centuries of genocidal policies, land confiscation, and slavery, followed by a century of discriminatory laws and practices that denied communities of color access to white-controlled sources of wealth.

But if the love of money is the root of all evil, money itself, for Villanueva, is value neutral, neither good nor evil. Which means it can be used to help facilitate healing from trauma and restore harmony to a world out of balance. In the second half of the book, Villanueva suggests what this "decolonizing" of wealth might look like.

It begins with an acknowledgement of our history, deep grief over how the colonizer mindset has affected us all (regardless of the color of our skin), and genuine apologies. It also requires moving money to where the trauma is deepest — something that can only be known by those who have experienced it. Just as federally qualified health centers must have a governing board comprised of a majority (at least 51 percent) of patients in order to qualify for federal funds, Villanueva wonders what things would look like if half of all foundation staff and boards were comprised of individuals from the communities being served. One example: the Potlatch Fund, a Native-led nonprofit in Seattle, Washington, allocates all of its grant dollars to Native peoples, and its by-laws require that two-thirds of its board seats be held by Native Americans. He then points to the emergence of participatory grantmaking in philanthropy and participatory budgeting at the municipal level as signs of the growing democratization of institutional decision-making.

At the same time, a foundation's investment strategies cannot be divorced from its mission. Institutional philanthropy cannot expect to drive meaningful change when only 5 percent of the assets it controls is allocated to grantmaking while the other 95 percent is invested in pursuit of financial returns — often in the very companies creating the social and environmental problems foundations are trying to address. Aware of this conundrum, the F.B. Heron Foundation, in 1996, began taking steps to use its corpus more intentionally as a means of generating greater social impact. Half a dozen years later, in 2012, the foundation made the decision to invest a hundred percent of its assets in service to its mission. What might happen if every foundation committed to using its assets the same way?

Inevitably, decolonizing wealth must address the issue of reparations — an issue, writes Villanueva, that institutional philanthropy, with more than $800 billion sitting in endowments, has the means to address. Of that $800 billion, only 5 percent is distributed in the form of grants each year, and only 8 percent of that is explicitly targeted to communities of color. A sector created to do good, says Villanueva, simply must do better. To that end, he floats the idea of a "reparations tithe" — a voluntary commitment by foundations to direct 10 percent of their assets to the establishment of a trust fund that would provide grants to Native American and African American communities in support of asset- and wealth-building initiatives.

Villanueva closes his book by reminding readers of the Native principle of "All My Relations" — a world in which everyone and everything is interconnected and interdependent. "All My Relations means that everyone is at home here," he writes. “Everyone has a responsibility in making things right. Everyone has a role in the process of healing, regardless of whether they caused or received more harm. All our suffering is mutual. All our healing is mutual. All our thriving is mutual.” Like two other recent publications, Anand Giridharadas' Winners Take AllThe Elite Charade of Changing the World and Rob Reich's Just Giving: Why Philanthropy Is Failing Democracy and How It Can Do Betterhis book is a valuable critique of the ways in which philanthropy perpetuates inequities, hierarchy, and oppression and an urgent call for it to engage more deeply in the healing process.

Grace Sato is a Knowledge Services manager at Foundation Center. For more great reviews, visit the Off the Shelf section in PND.