Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides and Restore Balance by Edgar Villanueva

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Edgar Villanueva, a Native American of the Lumbee tribe grew up in a low-income, rural North Carolina community. After completing his Masters in Health Care Administration at the University of North Carolina, he went to work for the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust (KBR). Located in Winston Salem, NC, KBR’s money came from the estate of tobacco tycoon, R. J. Reynolds and was largely controlled by Wachovia Bank where its money was housed. With over $530 million in assets KBR has historically given most of its grants to organizations designed to provide health care to low income people. Because most of the leadership of the foundation came from within Wachovia Bank, KBR was funded by “old money” and served the charitable interests of the that elite group. Thus, the money went to large hospitals and established health institutions, rather than smaller, community-based organizations.

As a young, Native American from a low-income background, like most persons of color in foundation work, Villanueva was “out of his element.” But instead of cowering or just staying quiet and trying to fit in, Villanueva asked a fundamental question: What would it mean for foundations like KBR to allow the people most directly affected by issues of poverty, violence, inadequate health care and the like, to have a major voice in deciding how a foundation’s money is distributed and used? Despite their charitable intentions, foundations reinforce the colonialist mindset which created their wealth. The foundation Haves view recipients of their largesse as “Other,” as those who take their charity but from whom they are otherwise separated. Drawing on his Native American culture, he suggests that foundations should seek to truly understand the perspective and experience of those they are seeking to help, and give them a significant say in how money should be used.

Villanueva goes even further and says that while foundations are giving at least 5% of their earnings away (required by law), no one is asking how the other 95% is being invested. What good does it do to give money to organizations to solve a problem, if the way money is invested and earned is contributing to that problem? For example, what good is it to give money to groups addressing issues of climate change, if a major portion of investments are in fossil fuels like coal and oil, that contribute to that problem? The measure for foundations is not just how much money was giving away, but how was that money earned.
In the second part of the book Villanueva calls out the white supremacy and settler colonialism that is at the heart of the world of the wealthy and of foundations. He shows how white supremacy has led to the great wealth of some and the significant disenfranchisement of many. In response he describes a seven-step process for rectifying the imbalances of wealth and power. While written specifically for those who work in foundations, this process also applies to wealthy people in general and less wealthy but comfortable white folks seeking to grapple with the history of white supremacy at the heart of the nation’s history, past and present.

While he has a chapter for each of the seven steps, briefly they are as follows:
Step 1 – Grieve – Stop and feel the hurts that have endured and our ancestors have caused Native Americans, African Americans and other peoples of color
Step 2 – Apologize – for those hurts in concrete ways.
Step 3 – Listen – to those closest to the pain, to those exploited and excluded by the system, and learn from their wisdom and resilience.
Step 4 – Relate – to those from whom we are separated by history, race, economics and much more; seek to understand rather than making our point.
Step 5 – Represent – Build a whole new decision-making process that is designed to include the excluded in decision-making processes.
Step 6 – Invest – our money where our commitments and values for equity, racial justice and the like are best used
Step 7 – Repair – Use our money to heal hurts and stop the hurt from continuing.

Villanueva’s overall message is wealth, or the lack of it, need not be the thing that defines us socially, politically and economically. Those who have wealth can use it for healing, IF they open themselves to significant relationships and involvement with those closest to the pain, the victims of injustice in our society, the marginalized and those whose voices aren’t counted in society at large.

I have only touched on a small portion of the wisdom in this book about wealth, racism, colonialism and relationships. Our views of money and wealth need to be reassessed and redirected. While a short book, Decolonizing Wealth gives those who have even a modicum of wealth a powerful message that we must go against the grain of our “winner take all” society. Instead we need to follow the indigenous wisdom that tells us that no matter where we fall on the socioeconomic scale, we are all part of the same circle, and thereby connected and accountable to each other.

View all my reviews