Recommended Reading: Decolonizing Wealth
Updated: Jun 2
A guest blog post by AFP-Canada's founder and Stephen Thomas' president, Paula Attfield.
Being personally linked to the phrase “white supremacist” was a bit of a shock. I had an immediate visceral reaction, one that was not only emotional — disbelief, denial — but also physical — heat rising to my cheeks. That said, there was something in the Zeitgeist in my environment in the spring of 2019 that kept bringing the impact of white supremacy on philanthropy to the fore for me. I began a quest to learn more.
As part of this journey, one of my first stops was to read Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides and Restore Balance by Edgar Villanueva. Villanueva, currently the Senior Vice-President of the Schott Foundation for Public Education, has held many positions in the philanthropic sector throughout his career, including at the Marguerite Casey Foundation and Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust. His focus in this book, therefore, centers around (mainly private) foundations. The ideas presented by Villanueva challenge our notions of philanthropy. He argues that it perpetuates the “us” versus “them” mentality. And reinforces the divide between the “haves” and the “have nots”. Villanueva argues that colonization is like a virus. It has spread through our society in all its aspects, economic, social, and political, and certainly not excluding the world of philanthropy. In Villanueva’s words, “We have to be honest about the sources of wealth and how the wealth was accumulated in this country – a great part of it was on the backs of people of color, and now those communities are benefiting from just a very small percentage of dollars…” Villanueva asks, “Once you know, how can you not be equitable about how you’re distributing the money?“ Colonialism, he argues, is about imposing control over new lands and by expropriating resources – typically by force. But it’s more than that. Colonization“takes over the bodies, minds, and souls of the colonized.” Villanueva calls this a “zombie invasion”. While zombie invasions and viruses might be strange metaphors, one can’t argue against the notion that the wealth of the nation was built on the backs of exploited people. At the heart of colonization lies white supremacy which has effectively enabled institutionalized racism to thrive. Villanueva, who is himself an enrolled member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, relays stories of indigenous people having their land stolen and of their children being forced into boarding schools and ultimately stripped of their culture. He paints a vivid picture of the trials and tribulations faced by Native Americans under colonialism. Villanueva also explores the brutal impact of slavery: plantations run by white men who gain wealth by exploiting the land and human resources. This tradition has been systemically institutionalized and plays out, over and over, in modern society and is rooted in early colonialism and the systemic racism it fostered.
He draws a clear the connection between the past and the social inequities faced today by people of color – particularly Native and African-Americans. Citing facts and statistics around the small numbers of these groups that actually rise to leadership positions in business, for example. He draws on his own personal story to add to his overall narrative. Shedding light on significant issues faced by people of color within the nonprofit sector. The ultimate aim of the colonizer is to amass wealth – as much as possible. In the United States that was accomplished through genocidal policies, stealing of land, and slavery, followed by hundreds of years of discriminatory practices in laws that deny people of access to white-owned wealth. And today there remains a massive wealth gap between African-Americans and whites. How then do we re-balance the scales of justice?
Villanueva says that it begins by facing the truth, offering sincere apologies and then ultimately moving wealth to where the trauma has been the deepest. Money can and must be used for good – to wipe out the virus. And, ultimately, it should be those who have been most hurt by colonization who should be part of the solution-making process. Unfortunately, right now, this is rarely the case. Typically, people of color do not serve on foundation and nonprofit boards or in leadership roles at philanthropic organizations in any significant numbers. Only 5% of the assets controlled by private foundations is given away in grants. A whopping 95% is reinvested to make more money and, to make matters worse, that 95% is often invested into the very companies whose missions further fuel societal inequities.
Quite the conundrum. Villanueva tells us that overall there is $800 billion tied up in endowments and only 5% of that (the legal minimum) is distributed to worthy causes each year. Further, of that, only a minuscule 7-8% is targeted to communities of color. Modern day foundations have themselves been infected by the virus.
This is a national tragedy in my opinion, and one that is a smack in the face to any intention to reconcile historical wrongs and institutionalized racism. The money is not getting to the communities where it is needed the most. Interestingly, Villanueva makes only passing reference to capitalism – more or less giving it the thumbs up. While Decolonizing Wealth may push the boundaries of thinking a little too far for some, I suggest we need to take these thoughts further if we really want to right the inequities of society today. Capitalism has deep roots in colonialism. Any solutions to address the inequities of colonialism must address all systemic problems. Unfettered capitalism allows the rich to get richer while the poor get poorer: there is no fundamental equity there. The egregious income and wealth inequality we are suffering today is obvious to all. Villanueva offers up 7 steps to healing for Foundations in particular, but I see these tips being applicable to all of us, regardless if our role in society:
1. Grieve – understand the pain cause by colonization. Feel the hurt with compassion and empathy.
2. Apologize – saying a meaningful “I’m sorry” can go a long way.
3. Listen – especially to those who have been hurt.
4. Relate – connect with others (even if you don’t agree with everything).
5. Represent – go beyond tokenism within your decision-making circles.
6. Invest – wisely using values that will help decolonize wealth (and for foundations, aim for more than 5%).
7. Repair – use money to heal.
The only thing missing for me in this book is a call to action for fixing a fundamentally flawed system – beyond foundations. It’s going to take much more than private foundations and philanthropy fixing their ways to correct the problems that Villanueva addresses in Decolonizing Wealth. But first things first. Let’s acknowledge that the system is fundamentally flawed, and then intentionally work towards solutions. Undoing centuries of wrongdoing will take sustained action. Truthful, intentional action. Thank you to Villanueva for raising these issues in Decolonizing Wealth. It’s a good read for anyone working to better our society and our world, especially those of us who work in the philanthropic sector.
Paula Attfield has been a fundraiser for over 25 years and serves as President of Stephen Thomas Ltd (ST), a full-service marketing and fundraising agency serving the non-profit sector. Paula is a long-time volunteer for the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) and currently sits on the Board of the Toronto Chapter and ex officio on the AFP International and Canadian Foundation for Philanthropy boards. Paula is a founding member of AFP Canada and currently serves as Chair of the Board.
Juliana M. Weissbein, CFRE is a respected leader and decision influencer in regard to fundraising operations best practices. With over a decade of experience, Juliana thrives on professional growth, team success, measurable results, and inspiring fundraisers to utilize data-based strategies. Juliana currently serves as the Associate Director of Development Operations at Planned Parenthood Federation of America. She is AFP Global's 2019 Outstanding Young Professional Fundraiser and is a member of the AFP Global Women's Impact Initiative. Juliana is immediate past chair of the AFP New York City chapter’s Emerging Leaders Committee and currently serves on the chapter’s board chairing their mentorship program. She resides in Brooklyn, NY and never turns down a good kombucha.