Book Review & Interview | Decolonizing Wealth

As a child I could often be found cuddled in a corner or a couch with a book. I found intrigue and inspiration on pages that took me through history and into the future, to places beyond the imagination and into fresh consideration of home. To this day, I love reading and revere the folks who take time to scribe their wisdom, reflections, dreams and more. I am grateful for and always grow from the journey through their pages.

I recently had the honor of joining/learning from Edgar Villanueva, an EPIP member, leader, former advisory board member and wearer of many other EPIP hats over the years, who released his first book, Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides and Restore Balance, in late 2018. He weaves stories and reflections, reflections on a personal journey into the meaning of philanthropy, and interviews and resources from colleagues and leaders in the field into an accessible and animated read that offers practical tools for personal, organizational, sector-wide and system-wide change.

Just before Thanksgiving, Edgar was generous enough to spend some time speaking with me about the book. His expert storytelling and warm approach poured through the phone, inspiring me even more personally into the questions and wisdom of the book: What does it mean to use money as a tool for healing instead of tool for colonization? What if we imagined it was Day One, and our mission was to build organization and the best model to achieve everyone’s well-being?

One thing was clear in both the book and my talk with Edgar - Decolonizing Wealth is not just a call in. It is a recognition of the humanity all of us and the power of all of us to change the system.

Biz: Can you tell us share the journey that brought you to the book?

Edgar: I’ve really have never thought of myself as a writer. I’ve put out some blog posts and articles here and there but it always felt like it was a harder for me to do that stuff than other people. I am very much a talker and communicate through language orally.

After a few years in philanthropy, I was just so distraught by the realities -- the paradoxes I was experiencing and how it conflicted with what most people think and understand about philanthropy. I had this “I need to write a book about this a tell all, this is crazy, people would never believe this stuff.”

I was kind of just kidding. Then, after a few more years and after I left my first philanthropy job, I realized my experience as a person of color in philanthropy, or as a young person—my  combination of all kinds of identities—was very similar to other people. Folks had the same kind of frustration and feeling of being marginalized. I saw people leaving philanthropy like crazy. I had done this fellowship with Grantmakers in Health. We were in this cohort of the ”rising stars in the field,” but a year after the fellowship several of us were gone. I was like, “this is really unjust.”

At that point I did start informally writing some stuff down, journaling and taking some notes as a part of my own healing. When I got to my second job in philanthropy - where I thought things were going to be much different, because it was a much more progressive foundation - I found things were the same, and even worse actually. No one was talking about the stuff under the hood that was really the guts of this industry. It was like a secret or side conversation. No one talked about foundation culture or abuse of leadership. We were talking about power dynamics between funders and non-profits, but not how that relates to us internally in the field.

When I started my third job in philanthropy at the Schott Foundation for Public Education, I went to Rockwood [Leadership Institute’s Art of Leadership in Philanthropy]. Here I am with folks who have been leaders in the field for a long time now. We were having the same conversation at this Rockwood experience that I had had at my first EPIP retreat!

Nothing had changed. I was like, “I’m so tired of this. We’re having all these conversations In these safe spaces that are the conversations we need to be having on the main stage. I am so tired of pretending.”

We had to get up in front of our class and do a three minute presentation about a big idea or a leadership gift we wanted to give back to the sector. The only thing I could think of was this book. I get up in front of my class and do this short presentation and the class went crazy. They were like, “Yes! You have to do this!” I was shocked and thought I couldn’t do it - I was too busy! But I said, “you know what, I owe it to the group and myself to at least explore this. How does one write a book? I don’t even know.”

I called Ai Jen Poo, who is Executive Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and a friend of mine. She shared some resources with me, primarily a coach who supported her through her process: this phenomenal woman who knows the book business. She was able to help me decide if my idea was a blog post or something should just journal about.

After several conversations she invited me to spend some time with her on a retreat with five other people considering writing books. The goal was to be really clear about your path forward, and maybe even have a title for your book and an outline by then end. Schott, where I work, supported me with professional development funds to cover some of the cost.

By the end of this week, I was so clear this was going to happen. I felt like the clouds had parted and it was so clear. The people in this group were like, “if no one else writes their book, you will!” I had a confirmation in my spirit.

I say the word obedience when people ask me why. I am obeying this nagging thing inside of me. I am obeying my ancestors, my community, my colleagues and friends in this work who are like “do this!” and I’m like “ok, ok, ok!”

Biz: Can you tell us about your process, your research, and how you chose the format you did?

Edgar: I knew this could not just be a book critiquing and complaining about philanthropy. We have those already. I needed to get to clarity that what am I bringing that is a unique perspective to transform all of this. What is Edgar’s solution to the problem?

And, to be honest—I had no idea. I really didn’t know what could be different beyond some of the things we always say - we need to share power and offer long term general operating support, hire more people of color. I had to push through that and get something that was more transformative.

So, I decided to do was to go on a journey interviewing people. I interviewed people who are very forward thinking in the field, people of color, women and folks who have felt marginalized by philanthropy. I interviewed movement people, activists who are dismantling all kinds of oppressive systems in our society. And I interviewed lots of indigenous leaders and native people back home. The unexpected thing for me was that that journey was so therapeutic and more healing for me than I expected.

This interview process gave me more clarity about why I do this work and then my actual identity. To have the opportunity sit with the elders and talk about philanthropy, which of course is not a word people at home recognize, so I had to find a different way to ask. I said, “As indigenous people, how do we see taking care of one another? How do we see giving?”

Through all that process, this wisdom kept coming to me and I was like “God, my own frustration and pain in this field is because I have assimilated so far from a culture that is not my own and because I felt like I had to survive and get promoted in this work, while all along the answer was right here all along in my own community to feel good about myself and good about my work.”

Then I was like, “the world needs to understand how we view being in community and caring for one another and being in relationship.”

Also, what I discovered through the process, was how I have been acting from a place of pain and I need to heal from that to get to a place of wholeness. We are all traumatized from the systems. We don’t even know it. We are perpetuating things. So I looked at indigenous models of healing and restorative justice and thought about how I can apply that to our sector and that’s how I got here.

Biz: I giggled to see Titanic has an entry in the index. It demonstrates the extent of your personal story helping shape the book. How does it feel to have yourself so integrated into the book?

Edgar: I’m from Raleigh, NC and humor and storytelling are a Southern and Native thing. I wanted this book to be a reflection of all of that, which I embody, and to be an easy read. For it to be a little funny and witty and a little sassy here and there. This stuff is heavy, and my intent is not to take away the seriousness of it all, but we have to keep the joy in there and in our healing process.

With Titanic, specifically… Well, I grew up in a very conservative family that was anti-Hollywood. We didn’t have a TV. Movies were forbidden. And I went to a seminary right out of high school that was the same way, the same denomination—Pentecostal—and we weren’t allowed to go to the movies or engage Hollywood kind of stuff at all.

I remember, I think it was Christmas break, I had come back to North Carolina and I snuck off to the movies with a friend and it was when Titanic had come out. So, one I didn’t get to see movies very often, and two - I was like “this movie is soooo good!” I was obsessed with it. I went to see it a couple more times.

For me at that time, I related to the movie and felt like I was Rose. I was caught in this very religious community and life. All these expectations were put on me. At that time, I was dating a pastor’s daughter and I was on this path where I was gonna be a youth pastor and get married then I was gonna take over the church! My life was literally planned out. And I was feeling like oh my god, this is not — I don’t think I want this life anymore. I wanted to jump but didn’t know how to get out. So, that movie has been a point of reference for many, many things in my life.

When I got into philanthropy, and we had these super fancy offices on the estate of R. J. Reynolds in North Carolina, I remember getting those looks like how Francis Fisher looks at Leo - and now in that role I am playing Leo, I am coming in, I put on my nicest suit - and there was this question, “Who is this young, brown person who came in and has the key to the treasure box?” And you know some people didn’t like it.

Biz: I’ve heard it said that the best designed things are simple. But it’s also clear to me that this is complex work. As you’re experiencing the field receive this book and you look ahead, do you think the work ahead will be hard or difficult or complex or that there is a simplicity it as well?

Edgar: You know, I am very overwhelmed by how the field is receiving this book. I’m already in my second printing, which means it’s already sold over 5,000 copies. Before the book even came out there was so much buzz around this book. I was speaking at conferences, and at one point I was like, “Wow, it’s something they way the book is being celebrated and they haven’t even read it! What if it comes out and people don’t even like what I wrote?”

But I think that even without reading the book, many [people in the field] know my story and many share my story, many know what I stand for and represent. I decided when I was going to do this I was going be bold and speak truth to power, even if it meant I never got a job in philanthropy again — and that is a fear I had. I just feel like there is something about that level of boldness that people appreciate it and that it’s inspirational for people.

I think that we are in a place in philanthropy specifically where people want to have a deeper, raw, honest conversation. We’ve been talking on the surface of reform and change for a long time now. We’ve been kind of talking about change at the fringes around things like general operating support, long term commitment and power dynamics and reform the tax code and increasing endowment percentages. These are very valid things that should continue to be discussed and done. But I think that, whether it’s the political climate, whether we are seeing the tide come in on years of conversation and years of seeds that have been planted by lots of of who are progressive in the space, I think that we’re just seeing the fruit of that open.

This book is just part of a bigger conversation and bigger movement to transform the space. This book is a tangible tool people can hold in their hand and use to push those conversations further.

I’ve gotten so many emails and notes from people - some who I know and some who I don’t even know - who are saying “our board is reading this book” or “our foundation is going through a strategic planning process and this book is going to be the framework for this retreat.” One group of funders sent me a photo of quotes from the book all around the room using for the planning process. And [I’ve gotten] personal notes, like one from a person of color who was like “I thought I was the only one who ever felt or thought this way.”

The other part that is maybe surprising for me and I’m delighted about [is] how white folks are responding. I wrote this book with sort of wealthy white folks or folks sitting in positions in power—boards—in mind. I went with a publisher intentionally that was more mainstream and has done a lot of business books for white men because I wrote this book in a way that brings them in, instead of pointing fingers or pushing them away. The response from that group has been amazing! People are telling me that for the first time this book has given them new language or understanding of our history that they didn’t have, or knew but didn’t know how to use or grapple with. I’m hearing this book is a tool for organizing their own families and communities. That is something I did not plan to do.

I started out mad at philanthropy and now this book is a product like nothing I imagined and that’s just fantastic!

Biz: When I met you at EPIP, you were the first person who taught me the meaning of the word philanthropy. I’m always struck by the centering of love, and yet how colonized our sense of that word is. This book, to me, is an offering of love. How do you root in love, or define love?

Edgar: You know, I think in a lot of ways, we all struggle to love ourselves as much as we should. For me, the past years and the things I’ve been through in philanthropy have made me doubt my own leadership and made me feel less than at times. I had trouble coming to terms with my southern accent! I went to a speech therapist for nine months to try and change the way I talk. Stuff like that shows how we’re dominated with images of what good is and how we should be. I think part of it is learning to love ourselves and accept ourselves and understand that the standard that is lifted up for what beauty is, what good is — those are all myths that we’ve been fed.

When we come into that acceptance of self it’s gonna permeate all our relationships. Since I’ve gone through this journey with this book, my relationship with my family has improved, my relationship with my co-workers—the love overflows.

There is something about these institutions in philanthropy, and even broader in the business world, where people are not allowed to feel. It’s like our humanity has to be checked at the door. We’re not allowed to have feelings or to be spiritual people or any of those things.

I was meeting with this investment firm in Seattle a while back—a huge investment firm that manages millions and millions of dollars. They brought me in for a conversation. I asked them questions about their culture: “Do you guys have conversations? Do you ask what you did this weekend? Or when an incident happens — like an unarmed person is killed, do you all talk about that at work? Does that all come up” And they’re like, “No. You come in, you do your job, you leave.”

I think we’re dehumanizing these organizations. We are stripping away that humanity. That finds its way into our work.

So we’ve got really structured about reviewing grant proposals and the analysis and due diligence without seeing beyond the paper to the people.

More than any sector, we [in philanthropy] should be able to do this. We are in this business of helping people, we have resources, the name of our field literally means love of people, and so I think we shouldn’t be afraid of that—of those emotions, feelings, spirituality, all those things that can really inform us. If we see people as full human beings it’s going to have an impact. Because not seeing people as full human being is at the root of all the horrible things that happened. If people are not human we can enslave them, kill them, whatever. So it's really important that we lead our communities in centering humanity and whole people in the work that we do.

Biz: Any final thoughts before we close?

Edgar: I want to give a shout out to EPIP. I always say I’m the EPIP poster child from my path and success story. For the EPIP members and even folks on my team who are involved in the EPIP chapter in Boston, I’m constantly pushing them. I think what makes us better and what is going to push our analysis is finding our people, our squad in the work who are always going to be there.

EPIP is where I pushed my analysis about this work in those spaces, and where I found folks who are some of the very people I interviewed to do this book and who have supported me from day one, so I want to lift up the EPIP family for what it is and what it’s offering to the field.

Biz: Thank you.

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