by Wade Rathke
August 21, 2021
Pearl River When we last spoke to Edgar Villanueva a couple of years ago when the first edition of his book, Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides and Restore Balance, arrived his critique of institutional philanthropy and the giving practices of the rich might have been a step or two ahead of the time. Now, almost three years later, as we talked again on Wade’sWorld, the times still have not caught up with him and his project, but at least it is on the agenda for conversations in foundation board rooms and sitting parlors of the rich, whether they act on the issues or not.
Edgar wasn’t exactly a whistleblower after many years working in philanthropy, but he was a truthteller about many of the practices and perversions of so-called “giving” by the rich. Decolonizing wealth reminds people that philanthropy is not just a gift from the goodness of the rich’s hearts, but in addition to being a tax break on their wealth, the gift is often tainted by its own history. He points out that part of the fabric of these well-appointed offices includes white supremacy, savior complexes, and internalized oppression as well.
His work and his book triggered a burst of interest by some in trying to reconcile these issues. Central to the decolonizing discussion has been the recognition of the justice that requires reparations for these current and past inequities, extractions, and appropriations. Rather than the minimum 5% distribution of a foundation’s assets annually, Edgar’s argument is that there should be a tithe of 10%. When I asked if there were any takers, since I doubted that there would be a long line of philanthropists signing on, he mentioned a foundation in Minnesota with a billion in assets that had pledged 10% or $100 million to be given there to Black and Native and other groups and projects where the groups would also decide the beneficiaries to ensure communities were served. Edgar has also organized something called Liberated Capital which raised $5 million over the last year to distribute in much the same way to Black and Native communities.
Since Edgar is still deeply involved in philanthropy, I asked him how he and his project navigated the problem of not biting the hands that feeds them. He acknowledged the problem, even as we talked about the great work done by the National Committee for Responsible Philanthropy that faces the same dilemma. Decolonizing will only accept foundation grants for general support, which have become increasingly rare. They will also not get involved in regranting to a funder’s particular group, which is the bane of many existences in dealing with donor-advised funds where the strings can easily strangle.
Who knows what might be possible on his inside-out, outside-in strategy, but the message should be hard to ignore, no matter how wealth resists?
Wade Rathke is founder and chief organizer of ACORN and ACORN International. You can find Wade’s recent past posts here Chief Organizer Reports. And you can link to his website here Chief Organizer ACORN/ACORN International.