In his new book, "Decolonizing Wealth," Native author and philanthropist Edgar Villanueva confronts the colonial dynamics at play in philanthropy and builds a framework centered on communities of color.
How has philanthropy developed over time and how has it been used to uplift colonialism?
There have always been generous people, so I’m not undermining some of the good intention that has happened through the years of philanthropy and the role it has played in supporting progress in this country. But our DNA as a [philanthropic] sector is very much similarly connected with the DNA of colonization. And that is the idea of hoarding wealth, using colonization so it has the mantra of dividing, exploiting, and conquering. In a way, [wealthy people asserting that they’re] superior in order to grow wealth.
When you look back at some of the early work, like the Rockefeller Foundation, it sort of started out of a crisis for the corporation in needing to save face. So the idea was let us do a [public relations] stunt. From there, folks decided, “Well, not only can we do some corporate giving to make ourselves look good and cover up some of the wrong things that we’re doing, we should pass a law that gives us a tax break for doing that.”
That’s in our DNA as a sector. And it’s also in our DNA as a country. By any means necessary, we have stolen land, commited genocide, exploited low-wage workers, all of that to become one of the wealthiest nations in the world. And it’s a fact and a truth that we want to sweep [this history] under a carpet and whitewash [it]. Those are the parallels I’m bringing out in our history and also in our sector so we can acknowledge that and deal with it. Deal with the trauma that it’s caused us as a [colonized] community, society and a sector, so that we can, at minimum—through philanthropy, investment, banking and all the institutions that control money—stop more harm from happening and also try to use our resources to repair the harm that has been done.
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