Recently I had the opportunity to facilitate a book club discussion on DeColonizing Wealth by Edgar Villanueva. The discussion was with alumni from ProInspire, an organization dedicated to developing social sector leaders and advancing equity in the field, so we benefitted from people working in a variety of contexts and with different lived experiences. All of us had several impactful takeaways from the book. Below are my reasons that you should dig into it.
- Villanueva challenges us to think differently about money. Money, he writes, can be used for healing. This was particularly challenging (in a good way) for me, someone who had grown up feeling that money was something used to make people who had it feel superior and people who didn’t have it feel unworthy.
- It is a call to value and develop authentic connection. Connection is one of my core values, and Villanueva insightfully wove this value throughout his core narrative. He explains that colonizers tended to view “themselves as separate from the rest of the natural world.” This combative mentality led to the exploitation of both natural resources and people. The reverse of this is connection – something Villanueva highlights as an indigenous value – notably contrasting the separation worldview that in many ways led to trauma experienced by generations of people of color.
- Villanueva shares some eye-opening information. In addition to referencing some statistics on white supremacy culture from White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, the book details some shocking data on the field of philanthropy. Villanueva writes that “[in] 2014, only 7.4 percent of all philanthropy… was given for people of color,” and goes on to explain that according to U.S. tax law, foundations are only required to pay out 5% of their total assets, which means that they are sitting on the majority of their collective $800 billion. Often, these assets are invested in the kind of companies that undo the work of the nonprofits that the same foundations fund. In other words, as Jennifer and Peter Buffett write in their Foreword to the book, “these rooms full of wealthy and powerful white men… were searching for answers with their right hand to problems that they had created or contributed to with their left.”
- Villanueva elevates the voices of people of color who work in the field. The stories in the narrative illustrate some of the more pressing – and sometimes, for someone who doesn’t work in the field, shocking – issues. Villanueva’s interviewees illustrate problems with giving short-term grants to fund programs that are trying to alleviate centuries-long issues caused by still-present systems of inequity. One interview highlights the irony of a common story: an organization hires a person of color in the name of diversity, only to not trust their insight on how to fix problems, hire external consultants to find solutions, and then adopt the solutions that the person of color recommended months (and dollars) ago. And Villanueva’s own story is illustrative of the challenges that someone who is genuinely dedicated to making an impact faces when working with money that has been hoarded by people from the dominant culture who are hesitant to pursue real change.
- The book is full of mic drops. I love when I read a book and experience a “mic drop” moment. These are moments where you stop reading, look up, and go, “Whoa.” This book is full of them. Some of my favorites:
“[Having] a seat at the table is not the same as feeling free to speak in your own voice, to offer your own divergent ideas, to bring your full self to bear on the work.”
“Poverty is the product of public policy and theft, facilitated by white supremacy.”
“The basis of traditional philanthropy is to preserve wealth and, all too often, that wealth is fundamentally money that’s been twice stolen, once through the colonial-style exploitation of natural resources and cheap labor, and the second time through tax evasion.”
- Villanueva offers hope of the Healing to come. In Part Two of his book, Villanueva shares some steps to heal the ills that face philanthropy today. He details a framework to allow people and organizations to grieve, apologize, listen, relate, represent, invest, and repair. These steps left me excited for what’s to come from Villanueva and his groundbreaking work: to learn about how, five and ten years from now, funders and communities are collaborating to put these steps into action and truly use money to heal rather than hurt.