(April 15, 2020) Edgar Villanueva is the author of Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides and Restore Balance, published in 2018. Having worked at several U.S.-based foundations, he’s directed the expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars and calls himself a “rarity,” a Native American working in the field of philanthropy. He grew up in North Carolina, a member of the Lumbee Tribe. Following the publication of his book he started a nonprofit focused on providing tools, resources and workshops to funders. The organization recently undertook a rapid response giving project that has raised almost half a million dollars, which is now being distributed. A second edition of Decolonizing Wealth is due in August of 2021 and will reflect a more global perspective on how money and resources are being used to support healing around the world. Villanueva currently works as Senior Vice President of Programs and Advocacy at The Schott Foundation for Public Education. He spoke to editor in chief Gail Picco from his home in Brooklyn, New York on April 14th. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Gail Picco: How are you doing?
Edgar Villanueva: I’m doing okay, all things being considered. I’m in Brooklyn and live about a block from a hospital. It’s just non-stop sirens, and I wonder what’s happening with those people …
Gail Picco: The Charity Report launched just as the coronavirus was catching hold and, like everyone, we are doing a lot of COVID coverage. I’ve been talking to people in the community foundation world here in Canada who have specifically mentioned your book as a catalyst in discussions on how they could best respond to the needs of their community, discussions they say prepared them for their immediate response to the COVID crisis. When you sat down to write the book, did you have a clear sense that you wanted to reach people who work in the foundation world?
Edgar Villanueva: I did my best trying to write the book for everyone. I knew my immediate audience would definitely be funders and folks who do social finance impact investing. But I also really tried to reach those who were not a part of those regular conversations and bring them in to a place of understanding.
Gail Picco: In your book, you talk about how money can be like medicine if it’s used for restorative purposes. At the same time, you talk about it also being like water—which is life sustaining, of course, but can be dammed (or hoarded), and also used in a water cannon fired on protesters. Where would you say we are at in terms of money right now?
Edgar Villanueva: I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how quickly philanthropy has responded and organized itself. In terms of this pandemic, I would give us a good grade. You were saying that community foundations in Canada were out in front. That’s no surprise to me because community foundations are accountable to the community in a way that many other types of private and independent foundation are not. They have relationships and community members on their board. That is not to say independent private foundations are all out of touch, but there is a different type of relationship, the reciprocal kind of relationship those organizations have. The pandemic is impacting everyone. When we’re personally impacted by a situation, we are motivated to respond. Personal impact has driven the field to respond quickly. It’s refreshing to see. I was actually just looking at a site this morning that said that more than $6.8 billion of philanthropic capital has been moved [in the U.S.] as of April 13. Philanthropy has to come to the surface through this crisis.
Gail Picco: Do you think this crisis has made the fractures that income inequality has created over the past couple of decades more clearly visible?
Edgar Villanueva: The fragility of our systems has been exposed in new ways. Folks who have been naive or not paying attention are absolutely seeing that now. My immediate family is all unemployed and I’m supporting family members trying to navigate these systems of unemployment. You can’t get through and the computer crashes.
The silver lining, if anything, is that a lot of the progressive policies and ideas many of us have been championing for so long, like health care for everyone, is actually being seen now as a good thing. I do feel there is a new openness.”
Gail Picco: Indigenous communities in Canada and the U.S. have been especially hard hit during the pandemic. What’s the basis of that, do you think? How can we mitigate it?
Edgar Villanueva: Indigenous communities, where I spend a lot of time working, and other communities of color, are really challenged by this pandemic. And that’s a result of our history, where poverty is a product of public policy and facilitated by white supremacy. Native communities are in a place of hardship, but people are resilient, and have really worked hard, and been innovative, to build economies. But things have been challenging. In advance we know that before the pandemic, 15% of Native Americans were unemployed. And we see health disparities that are completely disproportionate for the population. Those communities are going to feel that pain the hardest.
Social distancing is challenging for tribal people when we live in multi-generational households. Being together is cultural and something that helps us sustain us in a crisis. I’m also hearing from Friendship Houses in urban centers like in New York City really being hard hit by the demand for food, rent relief and access to medical care. We see that the Navajo Nation and some of the problems in New Mexico are hotspots and getting some media coverage and attention.
We were working with a producer of a major morning show here in the US trying to bring some media attention to what’s happening with the Navajo. The response from that producer was that Native Americans don’t pay taxes, so why should they be asking for anything? I read a story in the New York Times where a man in Arizona, close to the Navajo tribe, was and spreading the myth that all Navajos were infected with the virus. He was plotting a hate crime against the tribe. This situation just brings out the worst. And these types of racist mindsets are compounding the problem, as we’re trying to bring visibility and get good resources to people who need it.
Gail Picco: Where does philanthropy fit into this do you think, into our evolving world? Has the pandemic changed your thinking about that?
Edgar Villanueva: Philanthropy has a vital role to play. Organically, philanthropy is about loving humankind. This is where philanthropy should be definitely shining, from neighbor-to-neighbor or even at the institutional level. We have resources that need to be deployed. I applaud what’s happening, but there is a tension that foundations are grappling with around how much resources to deploy, and the need to hold back, and hoard, for later. There’s an ongoing tension between support now and support later? In the US, we have a minimum payout requirement for private foundations of 5% and there’s a lot of statements coming out, which is fine. In those statements, we’re hearing about philanthropy wanting to shift its practices to a trust-based perspective and to relax requirements that impede us from deploying capital to communities. But no one’s sitting around waiting for your statement.
I’m watching and wondering and have a concern that in this moment we are focused on the charity model of philanthropy and responding to direct needs, and it feels good. Personally, [I know] it feels really good to write a check for $5,000 that will help 20 people with [their housing]. And it could be really easy for us to get lost in that feeling and have a narrow vision of the role of philanthropy; to forget about the way the system is currently structured has created these inequalities in the first place.
While we’re responding to immediate need, [we need to ask] what are the long-term systemic changes needed to help communities living in poverty, communities of Native people and people of colour who are experiencing the brunt of the pain caused by systems that have begun to collapse. What are the economic opportunities and policy opportunities here for us to be investing for the long term? The other night I was watching a documentary about how super conservative folks have been investing in policy work and creating a narrative around things like affirmative action that is on the brink of being dismantled in the United States. That type of strategic investment and that long-term view of what could be different is something I think philanthropy needs to engage in. We absolutely have to be thinking about the long-term potential.
In the US, we have an administration that has deployed some stimulus funding, but in the middle of all of this, they are still cutting access to food stamps. That’s the opportunity for philanthropy to begin to think about long-term investment. What is the world that we want to live in 10 or 20 years from now? How do we [help] create an infrastructure and invest in leaders who are going to get us to that place?
Gail Picco: When you’re at home in Brooklyn, hearing the sirens and doing all the work that you’re doing for the foundation, what do you think about where we might come out on the other side of this?
Edgar Villanueva: What I hope happens on the other side of this is that we see that new philanthropy is possible. In a moment of crisis, it was easy to change in terms of relaxing reporting requirements, our obsession with metrics and providing general operating support.
We’ve been saying it for decades. General operating support is the most strategic type of funding you can provide. And it took a crisis to push people to do it. I hope that the urgency with which foundations came together to collaborate around responding to this pandemic sticks, and they let go of the need to be the branded foundation or the leader, and that we actually can work together and get behind the community.”
Edgar Villanueva: I am also hopeful the lights have been turned on around wealth inequality, and that here’s going to be increased accountability and critique of the wealthy—and putting foundations in that category—if we are not responding appropriately to communities.
As the lights are being turned on, people are seeing what’s happening around wealth inequality in a new way. [Foundations] are going to have to really demonstrate public benefit.”
Edgar Villanueva: I hope with what I’ve been preaching—around using money as medicine that can bring healing to our world— there is going to be an understanding of trauma in our community. There was already was trauma in a lot of communities, but it’s going to be magnified. We cannot approach grant making in the future without a lens that is not trauma informed. My fear for my community is that the trauma [it has historically experienced] has been re-engineered and retriggered, and it’s coming back to the surface. I’ve read that entire tribes could possibly be wiped away. There’s so much trauma after all the healing work that we’ve done, and I’m worried.
Gail Picco: Now, I know this is difficult, and probably depends on the day, but could I ask you—if it’s not too personal—about your primary concern right now. What are you thinking about?
Edgar Villanueva: My mind bounces around on that–I used to work in public health–but what’s keeping me up at night right now is the major concern [I have] for my community and the potential loss of elders. In some communities, there’s only two or three people that speak the language. We’ve worked hard to put language revitalization programs in place but losing an elder in a native community means we may not be able to be replenished in terms of our culture, our way of being. I am also an ambassador for the Boys and Girls Club of America Native Services Programs and, through that work, I’m hearing about the impact on young people. Rates of suicide are already off the charts, so I am really concerned about the trauma this is imposing on our young people and the generations it may take us to recover.
Gail Picco: I’m going conclude by asking you for some words of wisdom for foundations in Canada. But perhaps first I could ask what would you say if you could speak to Indigenous communities in Canada, Indigenous youth in particular?
Edgar Villanueva: I would say to indigenous youth that there are people who are thinking of you and love you so much. And we are really depending on our young people to step up and to be superheroes right now. To protect our elders, and to practice all of the recommendations around social distancing. Our young people have capacity in this moment to become our protectors. That’s a call to action.
To the foundations of Canada, I challenge and ask the philanthropic community of Canada to take leadership. I brag about the philanthropic community of Canada when I’m speaking around the world because of Truth and Reconciliation and how many funders have centralized that work and are supporting communities. I think Canadian philanthropists are in a place to really listen and understand what communities are asking them for, and what they need to do to respond. Unfortunately, here in the US, and in other places around the world, we’re not beginning with that type of relationship. So, we have to catch up.
Also, I think the rainy day that we’ve all been thinking about is here. Release those funds. There will be money in the future. There will be wealth in the future. There will be money for foundations in the future. Let go of whatever that need is to preserve the institution or identity. The rainy season is here. We need to flood these communities and begin to invest in long term infrastructure.“
Gail Picco: This has been great. I’m so glad to have had the chance to talk with you and to let you know your work has been a catalyst for conversation in Canada. We’d like to check back when we’re through this fog or coming close to the end of the fog, to see how what we’re talking about today is panning out, because I’m not sure the income equity will happen without a little bit of fight. It’s going to be interesting to see how it all unfolds.
Edgar Villanueva: I’ve been saying to foundations for a while now that we have an opportunity to get it right before people come with torches and pitchforks (laughing). We are tax-exempt organizations and have a responsibility to support the public and we’re not doing that. We’re actually hoarding resources or investing our resources in private industry more than the public. There’s going to be a call-out on that.