To Heal Philanthropy. What Newcomers to the Sector Can Learn from Edgar Villanueva

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Decolonizing Wealth” should become a mandatory read for anyone who decides to make institutionalized philanthropy their career path. Or better yet, anyone considering the sector as part of their work experience, even if that consideration itself lasts a split second.

The reasons for that are simple, Edgar Villanueva, who has been engaged in philanthropic work for the last 15 years (and would most likely, and rightfully so!, criticize the way I framed the sector as a career-building opportunity), presents a sympathetic and thoughtful approach to pains of what institutionalized giving has become. This approach, presented from a caring perspective of indigenous wisdom on healing, brings much needed criticism to a field that tends to see itself as a means to solve all the world’s problems, yet remains very much removed from everyday reality of the people it is set up to help.

In his criticism, whose ultimate goal is to help philanthropy become more self-aware and understand the errors of its ways, which are rooted in colonialism and white supremacy, Villanueva not only pinpoints mistakes and shortfalls (including his own), but also offers advice and solutions (or medicine, in its most holistic, native definition) that could bring about change the sector so desperately needs. Arguing for better philanthropy is to argue for more generosity, thoughtful investing, trust between grant-makers and grantees (or partners, as some foundations prefer), long-term and unrestricted support, as well as boosting representation of marginalized groups among philanthropic staff. As Villanueva points out, one cannot simply become an expert through reading reports and mere site-visits or, in some cases, hiring consultants whose analyses fuel strategic planning and funding decisions, very often without giving credit where credit is due.

As someone who joined the philanthropic sector shortly before my thirtieth birthday, after a decade of activist work for the trans community in Poland and Europe more broadly, the issue of proper representation, as well as its intersectional aspects, was one that not only spoke to met, but also gave me the most pause. That pause came from a need to position myself within the context of who I was as a reader and as a somewhat junior (currently ending my second year) in the grant-making world.

My whiteness in this space is undeniable and brings many of the flaws and shortcomings Villanueva patiently describes and for which I am more than grateful. As a relatively fresh immigrant in the United States, I can’t see myself on the same level as colleagues and counter-parts who enjoy the privileges of citizenship, although this is one of the features I am interested in hiding the most, working on hiding my accent almost every waking hour. At the same time my queerness, non-binary identity and my trans status do position me somewhere in the positive light of representation. At least for my work supporting trans communities. This aspect looks very different when it comes to supporting intersex groups. In that space, I am and will remain an outsider. A dyadic person who could maybe call themselves an ally. Or rather, who could receive this label from those who see my work in such a light. These aspects of my existence need to be, however, confronted with the fact that I support communities in different parts of the globe, some (if not most) are regions which I have neither worked in or, not surprisingly, do not have any lived experience in.

I believe, and that is what Villanueva’s book also helped me understand, that being aware of those various intersections of my identities and experiences is important not just to establish thoughtful work practices but also to maintain a self-critical and self-skeptical approach to my own decision-making. Self-criticism can be extremely hard in a sector where everyone is supposed to be an expert and is, in fact, treated as one. For now, being a professional in philanthropy is seen as coming up with answers and resources to societal problems, but what “Decolonizing Wealth” also calls for is bringing more questioning to this work and more trust with those who are changing the world with the resources they are given. Sometimes this may mean being open to structures and strategies that are completely unknown to philanthropic “ivory towers”, a term that Villanueva chose specifically for its connotations with whiteness and creation of sterile environments, removed from everyday reality. This is where one’s awareness of their position in society comes into place. Self-awareness removes one from the artificial category of ‘an unbiased observer’ and helps one open up to voices whose lived experiences may already contain the answers to problems deemed unsolvable. And sometimes, as Villanueva reminds us, removing oneself from a philanthropic role to give space to someone more fitting because of that exact experience can be a solution on its own.

It is impossible to say that “Decolonizing Wealth” is a collection of ready-to-use answers to all the problems and issues that modern philanthropy is facing. It is, however, a continuous reflection of how to change the sector, and the concept of philanthropy itself, by engaging in practices rooted in a worldview that colonization tried to obliterate. The change, as Villanueva notes, happens through healing. Healing in itself, however, is a multi-step process and requires not only the recognition of hurt caused but also the hurt endured. Because it is not just the system that needs to be well. It is every single one of us, whatever connection to philanthropy might be.

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