What is your relationship with money?
Do you have a healthy or neutral relationship with money? Or do you fall into the common extremes of worrying about it, constantly thinking about acquiring more money, or avoiding knowing what is happening with your finances or checking out on your responsibilities around money?
And what is your relationship with giving away your money? Is it part of a spiritual practice, a tax write-off, or an extension of your values?
We learn early how wealth can impact our future trajectory, well-being, and ability to earn and save it.
And there are constant opportunities to donate our money–to charities, to politics, to nonprofits, to do something good and get a tax write-off. It feels good to feel like we’re doing something to help.
But we also don’t have to look far to find critiques of social programs supporting those who lack essential resources or critiques of the many tax loopholes the wealthiest in our country benefit from, especially when it comes to philanthropic giving.
Today’s guest helps connect the dots on how our relationships with money and the industry of philanthropy needs to change.
Edgar Villanueva is an award-winning author, activist, and expert on race, wealth, and philanthropy issues. Villanueva is the Principal of the Decolonizing Wealth Project and Liberated Capital and the author of the bestselling book Decolonizing Wealth (2018, 2021). He advises various organizations, including national and global philanthropies, Fortune 500 companies, and entertainment, on social impact strategies to advance racial equity from within and through their investment strategies. Villanueva holds a BSPH and MHA from the Gillings Global School of Public Health at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is an enrolled member of the Lumbee Tribe and resides in New York City.
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Rebecca Ching: All right, y’all! Welcome to episode 91 as I countdown the final 10 episodes before we hit the big 100! Before we get into this episode, which I am so excited to share with you, I just want to encourage you all, if you haven't already, to leave a rating, a review, and share this episode with those that you think may benefit from it. It really helps get the word out and gets this episode recommended to other people. So thank you for those who’ve been faithfully listening. Welcome to all the new listeners, and I am really excited to get into today’s episode!
[Inspirational Intro Music]
Edgar Villanueva: I love this country. I want us to be the country that we set out and aspired to be, and I know that the only way for us to get there is for us to come to terms with history. But the truth is, when we think about money, present day, when we think about wealth, our entire economic system in this country was built off extraction and exploitation.
[Inspirational Intro Music]
Rebecca Ching: All right. Question for you: what is your relationship with money? Yes, money. Do you have a healthy relationship or a neutral relationship with money, or do you fall into maybe some of the common extremes of worrying about money, constantly thinking about it, or wanting to acquire more of it, or maybe the other side of the pendulum where, instead, you avoid knowing what is happening with your finances, or maybe you just check out altogether of your responsibilities around money. And related to money, I’m curious what is your relationship with giving away your money? Is donating your money a part of a spiritual practice or is it a tax write off or an extension of your values?
Now, we don't have to look far to find a news story or article critiquing social programs supporting those who don't have a lot of money and lack essential resources, or we also can find messages railing against the many tax loopholes the wealthiest in our country benefit from in our tax laws. There’s so much around money, and what we have, who doesn't have it, how we get more of it, what we do with it, and we receive constant opportunities to donate our money to charities, to political campaigns, to nonprofits, to do something good or just get a tax write off. We learn early how wealth can impact our future trajectory, our wellbeing, our ability to earn and save it.
Now, I love supporting charities and causes that align with my values and beliefs, and if I’m honest, it feels good to help others. And yet, the more I learn about who holds the most resources in our country and how they obtained their immense levels of wealth, along with the philanthropy industry, the more I feel duped and also complicit.
Now, I am so grateful for the many I continue to learn from on these matters around money and resources and all the systems that hold all these things, and today’s guest is at the top of the list as he connected the dots on how my relationship with money and how the industry of philanthropy needs to change, and how I can do so without feeling overwhelmed but instead energized and aligned and even healed.
He also helped me see how my desire to help others, and feel good in the process, has been used to further the exact systems and practices that I see now as the problem.
I'm Rebecca Ching, and you're listening to The Unburdened Leader, the show that goes deep with humans who navigate life’s challenges and lead in their own ways. Our goal is to learn how they address the burdens they carry, how they learn from them and become better and more impactful leaders of themselves and others.
I grew up in an upper-middle class neighborhood, but my family was in the older part of our community. The homes were not the shiny new homes in the planned communities that were popping up seemingly overnight around us. Friends I grew up with just a few houses away would move to these newer areas, and I would hear my parents talk about the new developments with almost this air of judgment like it was a moral failing. My neighbors who moved to the new developments had a little more money than we did.
Now, both my parents grew up in modest upbringings and I would regularly hear judgements towards those with more resources. Looking back, I suspect that judgment was layered with some deep envy and deep frustration that things were so hard for them financially. But as a kid, this confused me. I quickly internalized how many people connected money (a bigger house, and a larger plot of land) to your worthiness and status, and that obtaining these markers of status connected to what so many desired: power and influence.
When I started to work on Capitol Hill in The Senate, the attacks on those who depended on social services also came into focus as I waded through the rhetoric attacking these individuals along with corporations who protected the resources though lobbying for tax write offs and legal loopholes.
The haves and the have-nots, the countless charities, nonprofits, schools and other organizations fighting for grant money, donations, and financial support from the federal government also immigrated into all that noise because in my role overseeing all things scheduling and advance, I would move through the invitations for meeting requests with my former boss from all of these incredible causes, raising money for research and treatments and cures to social causes like support for domestic survivors and kids in need along with museums and so much more.
I would sift through many charity and philanthropic organizations asking my former boss to co-sponsor their respective event. Now, the list of co-sponsors in all of these events was a list of who’s who in the DC and often New York City power circles (the “haves”) helping raise money for those in need (the “have nots”). And I would feel overwhelmed by the need and what seemed like limited resources. As I would share my concerns with my fellow DC staffers, I noted how hardened some of my colleagues seemed around everyone lobbying for money. They would talk about certain groups and people with distancing or cynical or othering language that left me often feeling like I needed a shower. There was this sense for many of these folks that if you didn't have resources, you weren't working hard enough and you were to blame for your struggles by some, not all through.
My boss was always a champion for those who did not have a voice. But his voice was sadly not the norm even back in the day when I worked in DC. Many of those without access to power would hire connected lobbying firms. It’s still a practice today. And I connected with some really fun and dynamic people through these different businesses, and some were great. Others fit the stereotype of the lobbyist to a tee. And I would watch lobbyist after lobbyist come into the office with representatives from the group they were paid to lobby for walking in behind their dynamic reps. And I got to meet some really cool people like actors and musicians, artists, authors, scientists, activists, and many more over the years.
But one meeting still echoes in my heart and mind 25 years later. I don't recall the lobbyist’s name, but I remember their clients. They were leaders from a handful of individual Indigenous tribes seeking appropriations, approval for casinos they wanted to build and how to protect their growing resources from these casinos.
I don't remember much that was said in the meeting, but I do remember how I felt when I made eye contact with the dynamic, incredible presence of these Indigenous leaders. And I’m unsure of what they were feeling, but now as a trained trauma therapist, I now know the look I saw in these eyes, which was burdened with trauma, was checked out, defeated, and numb. They were lobbying to protect the money they made and their casinos and not to be taxed on land that was already stolen from them. I felt a chill in my soul during that meeting that I only recently connected with how completely problematic and even violent that whole dynamic was, along with all that led to that moment.
I’m seeing now, unlearning and learning continued to be a huge deconstruction process for me and one we all need to pursue with humility, curiosity, and compassion when we look at money, the systems that hold our money, the things that we value, the things that give us security and who has them and who doesn't have access to them. Today’s guest challenges us to see, check this out, money as medicine that can heal the traumas from colonization and exploitation. Yeah.
Now, if you’ve been around me the last couple of years, you have heard me at least once, probably twice, talk about this book authored by today’s guest. It’s been such a helpful, generous, and convicting book that gave me an actionable roadmap to understanding the interaction of colonization, capitalism, and philanthropy, and what I can actually do (what we all can do) to change our relationship with money and the systems around money. He’s also founded this incredible organization that is changing the existing systems that move and control wealth, whether it’s through philanthropy, investing, all here in America.
Now, Edgar Villanueva is an award-winning author, activist, expert on race, wealth, and philanthropy issues. Edgar is the principal of the Decolonizing Wealth Project and Liberated Capital, along with the author of the best-selling book (the one I brag about a lot and tell people they need to read) Decolonizing Wealth. Edgar advises various organizations including national and global philanthropies, Fortune 500 companies, entertainment all on social impact strategies to advance racial equity from within and through their investment strategies. Villanueva holds a BSPH and an MHA from The Gillings Global School of Public Health at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is an enrolled member of the Lumbee Tribe and resides in New York City.
Now, pay attention to when Edgar shares his metaphor of the colonizer virus, how he explains it, and how he notes we all have it. Listen for when Edgar talks about our understanding of building wealth and how our entire system was built on extraction and exploitation and how we can take actionable, connecting steps to change how we do wealth and capital in our country. And notice when Edgar talks about the importance of grief as a starting point in decolonizing wealth. Now, please welcome Edgar Villanueva to The Unburdened Leader podcast.
Edgar Villanueva, welcome to The Unburdened Leader podcast. I am really looking forward to this conversation!
Edgar Villanueva: Thank you for having me! It’s an honor to be here.
Rebecca Ching: I want to start off talking about colonialism and hearing from you how does colonialism impact how we think about wealth and who controls that wealth.
Edgar Villanueva: Yeah, great question and a great way to start. Colonization and colonialism are forces that have been at play in our country here in The States and around the world for so long that the dynamics of and the impact of these forces are almost unseen or unfilled. We haven't lived or experienced living in a place where these dynamics weren't at play, so they seem really normal to us.
Also, when we think about colonialism and colonization, they are both concepts and parts of history that you may have learned about in school that were against really socializing us to this idea of conquering and actually making heroes out of the people who led these types of violent attacks historically.
And so, you know, colonization is sort of glorified and even countries who have been sort of the colonizing powers historically are quite proud of their accomplishments. You know, I’m thinking back to a few years ago when I was in Portugal, in Lisbon, and just kind of walking around, there were just giant monuments just so proud that they came across the seas and conquered and sort of brought their way of life and being to other places.
And so, when we think about all of the effects, historically, of colonization -- and I want to say it’s not just historical. The acts of colonization are still happening all the time all around us, but there are dynamics of colonization that are very pervasive and have impacted our ways of being, our ways of seeing the world, how we behave as leaders, how we behave within our families. I often call it the colonizer virus because it’s almost like this infection that has penetrated every aspect of our culture and our institutions. It’s about dividing and conquering, commanding and controlling, and above all, exploiting.
How this pertains to wealth is pretty clear in some ways when you think about why countries set out to colonize, why they set out to conquer. The gist of it is really all about money. It seems like everything comes back down to money, but it was about going into places who had resources and taking those resources and bringing those back to the crown or keeping them for their own ways and exploiting the planet and people at all costs.
The horrible thing about a lot of this is that it took place under this sort of God-given superior kind of complex, right? So this kind of modeled faith and those types of ideologies and these types of violent acts it becomes even more convoluted, difficult to unpack. But the truth is, when we think about money, present-day, when we think about wealth, our entire economic system in this country was built off extraction and exploitation.
You know, when we begin to trace the origins of wealth, pretty much any wealthy family in this country, a lot of wealthy corporations and institutions, you don't have to look too far or go too far back to find that what contributed to that bounty of wealth is enslaved labor and the taking of land from Indigenous people, a near genocide of Indigenous people. And even for folks who are like, “Well, my family didn't own slaves,” or whatever, those families still benefited from policies and cultures and ways of being that allowed this to happen back then that continued to show up in our policies and economic policies today.
And so, if your family benefitted from the GI bill, for example, or some type of land grant in the past, these are all policies that were affected by the colonizer virus that contributed to allowing certain groups if people (namely white people) in this country to amass wealth and made it really difficult for people of color to do this same. And even when people of color have played by the rules and have participated in capitalism, as in Tulsa with Black Wall Street, even then wealth has just been destroyed.
And so, it’s been really, really challenging because of the dynamics of colonization and mindsets around that for our communities to build wealth. And so, it’s all inherently connected from the first moment that colonizers touched the shores of this country to present day.
Rebecca Ching: Yes. And let me follow up with you talked about the colonizing virus. You wrote about that in your book, and you speak about that a lot too. I know for a lot of folks the reflex of being like, “Well, how do I get it out of me? How do I cure it? I don't want to be this bad person!” And then, “Oh, my gosh, if money is bad and everything bad --,” how do people keep from shutting down and how do people heal this virus that we’ve all breathed in our whole lives?
Edgar Villanueva: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, one thing that I’ll say is I don't think that money is bad if we can talk a little bit more about that. I kind of grew up with that connotation. I grew up in this particular church that they used to preach, “The love of money is the root of all evil,” and I kind of thought, “Oh, wow, money is this bad thing. I shouldn’t aspire towards building wealth.” And my mother was a domestic worker, I was often in the homes of people who had wealth in our community, and I would think, “Well, they don't seem like bad people,” you know? “They just happen to be born into these families,” or whatever.
And so, my own journey around money and sort of the trauma that could be associated with money and especially the connotation that it’s a bad thing has been something, a part of my healing journey, and a big part of what I write about is understanding that it’s not really about the money. It’s about us as people who created money as a tool for exchange. Money is like a proxy for energy and what we value, and I do think that money can be sort of deployed in ways that are healing and that are in service to with values of reciprocity for all of us.
The way that we begin thinking about healing from these dynamics of colonization, I’m so glad you asked because it is true, we’re all affected. Regardless of your background, we have all been socialized to a certain way of being. The way that I even test this on myself, this sounds pretty explicit at some level, but when we watch the evening news and we see what’s going on even in the US, that children are being taken away from their homes and put into cages, literally, that thousands of Indigenous women are missing and murdered, we are so kind of numb to these realities that we watch this news and then we get in bed, and we sleep pretty soundly, right? I’m like, well, we’re not outraged. We’re just so used to it. I think part of it is like, “What can I do?” But it just really speaks to that we are all impacted. Whether you are a descendant of folks who may have been colonizers or descendants of folks who have been impacted by this history, at some level we have all internalized sort of these dynamics of ways of being and have sort of been complicit at some level in the way that it’s been.
I think when we begin to think about how we decolonize or how we heal from this, I’ll use the analogy of any sickness or disease, right? The first step is actually knowing that we have it and being able to identify how dynamics are operating in our lives and how either our acknowledgement and being proactive about doing something about it is helping or even if we choose not to, how that also is like a form of harm.
So the first steps are really taking note of what has happened in this country and what our family or our ancestors, that history, how that relates with the history of this country, and taking ownership or responsibility for that history because it’s gonna take all of us really coming together and owning the history that we’ve inherited and thinking about how we can begin to heal from that and to make the changes needed. So even taking that ownership and acknowledging the realities of what has happened in this country is a super hard step.
Rebecca Ching: Mm-hmm.
Edgar Villanueva: It didn't seem to be hard five years ago, but it’s even more challenging today when books are being banned from classrooms where we’re not allowed to even have these conversations and even that sort of acknowledgement of history is under attack, which is very, very unsettling for me since I truly, truly believe that the only way for us to move forward as a country and to have racial healing is to begin to acknowledge what has happened historically.
Rebecca Ching: Oh, gosh, okay. So a couple follow-up questions to that too. Thank you for that. What are, then, some after acknowledgements that we’re all breathing in? We all have the colonizing virus. We all have this and owning that and getting curious about just our surroundings and our story and how we benefited from it. What would be another, then, next step action? Whether it’s a small business owner, a leader in a company, a teacher, a therapist, what would be a small next step after that kind of awareness and ownership of what really has happened and is happening?
Edgar Villanueva: Several things could happen. What I’ve seen some examples of are institutions, for example, who begin to acknowledge their role historically and even companies around being complicit or even contributing to their racial tensions and trauma that we’re experiencing today. I often encourage folks to have some type of grieving, right?
Rebecca Ching: Mm-hmm.
Edgar Villanueva: When you begin to explore these questions in your own life, in your family’s life, in a place that you work, to acknowledge and understand that, “Wow, this great organization I work for has actually harmed or contributed to harm in the past,” we often will grieve that, and I think that’s a really important step before we jump to try to fix things that we have to allow a grieving process to happen. Grieving is something that people do in different ways, and it can manifest in different ways. Sometimes it sort of shows up in the form of doubt, like, “Oh, no! That actually didn't happen.” You know, “My great-great-great-grandfather was a good man --.”
Rebecca Ching: Denial.
Edgar Villanueva: Denial, right? Or anger. “Why are we even doing this? Why does this matter?” And so, it begins to show up in different ways, but I really think that when we begin to open wounds and bring truth to light, that grieving is so, so important.
Rebecca Ching: Mm.
Edgar Villanueva: If we don't feel bad about some of the things that have happened and a little bit maybe ashamed, then I don't know what to do with that. If you don't have the humanity to be like, “Oh, my god! This is horrible, and I feel terrible about it,” only that type of feeling or emotion that is evoked, I think, can help get us to the next place.
I’m very troubled when I see people refusing to just kind of feel anything about our past. “Well, that was so long ago!” And I’m like some of these things were so long ago, but there were also things that were very recent, and at least that the impacts of these things are still with us.
With my own community, when I think about the legacy of Native American boarding schools in America, the very last boarding school just closing in the late seventies, I was alive when it closed! I’m not that old, and I was alive. I have relatives and friends whose parents and grandparents experienced the atrocities of these boarding schools, and so, for any of us to dismiss ourselves from, “This was so long ago, has nothing to do with me --.” It’s not about blaming. I’m not on a witch hunt and looking for someone to blame or penal, disown. I think that, again, all of us have to take responsibility, and I love this country. I want us to be the country that we kind of set out and aspired to be, and I know the only way to get there is for us to come to terms with history. When we don't grieve it and acknowledge it, it just continues to fester --
Rebecca Ching: Yes.
Edgar Villanueva: -- underneath sort of the soul of our country, and we just see things getting worse instead of getting better. We’ve just got to rip the band-aid off and deal with the pain that kind of comes with that.
So I just wanted to say that because I think that we don't know how to grieve, and even as individuals, I’m like, wow. I see people suffer great loss, and they're back at work the next day.
Rebecca Ching: I know. I know.
Edgar Villanueva: I’m like take time. I think, collectively, the pandemic was really interesting because I think that was the first time where I’ve seen our country sort of experience this collective grieving and coming together.
I remember I was living in Brooklyn at the time right next to a hospital, and at 7:00PM coming out and banging on the pots and pans and cheering for our healthcare workers. As horrific as that time was, I was like, “Wow, this was beautiful to witness,” and as a country, we’ve all been impacted and there’s this collective loss. We all knew someone that we had lost because of COVID. And so, I think that grieving is just something that we have to kind of experience and learn to do in order to move forward as a country.
So the same for companies, same within families. Once that’s in place, there’s a lot of other things that folks can do. I’ve seen people actually move into this stage of wanting to apologize. Some great examples that I’ve witnessed: The American Library Association a few years back put out a beautiful apology. They’ve been around for over 100 years, and if you’ve been around that long, there’s probably some stuff in your past. And so, they absolutely acknowledged how they have been complicit in and also had contributed to sort of the racial divide and apologized for that, kind of came public with it.
The LA Times newspaper I talk about often (same situation ) is over 100 years old as a company, and came out and said, “As the owner of this company, I want to acknowledge this newspaper has in fact perpetuated propaganda about racism and has not been fair in our hiring practices,” you know, and just a whole laundry list of things and said, “You know what? We’re sorry. We are genuinely sorry, and we’re committed to not doing this harm in the future.” There’s something really beautiful about apologies.
Rebecca Ching: Mm-hmm.
Edgar Villanueva: When you find yourself a part of an institution or a business and sometimes maybe you didn't do something horrific, but it’s also like, “I’m sorry that I didn't do more before now,” right? People who have experienced harm, people who come from communities like mine often really just want to be seen and heard. We want to be validated that our experience is real and it’s not our fault, you know? What we hear often is, “Oh, if your people would stop drinking or would work harder or would do all these things, your community would be better off,” and no one is taking responsibility for what has happened to us. Where we were not drunks before this stuff happened, and we are literally healing from very recent traumas and abuses to our communities.
And so, not to cop out on personal responsibility, right, but the power of hearing an apology and an acknowledgment of, “This should not have happened, and we are sorry,” and with that the promise of not doing further harm is just really, really important. I think even in our personal lives and personal relationships, we need to say I’m sorry more often, right? If you do somebody wrong, whether it was intentional or unintentional, just apologizing and getting back to some of the good old-fashioned ways of being in relationship with each other I think are a big part of beginning to heal from a lot of things from the past.
Rebecca Ching: No question, and I have a couple reflections. An apology is powerful when it’s thought out and met with meaningful and helpful action and not one that just makes it go away. So I want to make sure I note that.
And then I’m really glad you brought up grief. That makes a lot of sense that, okay, there’s the step of ownership, awareness, and then moving into grief, and you're absolutely right, especially here in The States, we grieve terribly. Anyone who works with me knows this is something I believe deeply is that, while grief is one of probably the most painful emotions to feel, it also is the most clarifying (what matters, what doesn't, what’s important). All of a sudden grief brings me, with its pain, such clarity in my life - what matters, who matters, my values. And so, if we don't metabolize our grief, we can't move onto meaningful action and change. So I feel like that is so important. So, as individuals, we could do that, and as whatever system we’re in, if we don't do that personally, we can't hold space for others who are navigating different stages of that awareness. So I really appreciate you bringing that up.
Then I want to just circle back. At the beginning you mentioned that you don't think money is bad. Like money is almost neutral. And so, I’m thinking about this. Right now at the recording of this interview, there’s a big strike going on in LA with the writers’ and the actors’ unions, and I read some and haven't had a chance to fact check it yet, but basically saying if the top ten movie studio CEOs gave up two percent of their salaries, all of the financial demands and needs of both unions would be met and then some. And so, yeah, just in light of money isn't bad, and then in something like this, I’d love for you just to comment on that.
Edgar Villanueva: Absolutely. You know, what we’re witnessing with this situation and this strike with writers and actors is a clear example of the colonizer virus at play here where an industry has built and is hoarding an enormous amount of wealth though exploiting people, right, through their labor, which is often not fairly compensated and all the things that writers and actors are lifting up and naming, even down to this whole thing about AI, if you’ve been following closely.
A part of what the studios are wanting to do is to have the likeness of a person, basically use your image through the use of AI to be in other productions or future episodes or shows and you're not even getting compensated for that, right? Which is so ridiculous. So it is completely extractive and abusive and all the things. I can't think of enough adjectives to describe it. And it’s coming from a place of greed and greed in power, which is always what sort of motivates this type of exploitation.
And so, in this case, it’s not about the money per se. If money were the bad thing, the actors and writers wouldn't want more of it, right? It is about the hoarding of the resource, the hoarding of power. It is about redistributing money and paying people more fairly, but it is also about sort of dignity and rights and all of the things that folks are asking for that are just sort of basic human rights in this industry.
So what I say is I’m not anti-wealth. I think that we should just have ways for everyone to share in it and have it because we all need money. We all need a certain level of wealth to thrive and to take care of our families. And so, this strike is not being motivated by greed for resources from folks. But it is actually a pushback on the exploitation and the oppression that they are feeling within this industry. And so, yeah, by saying, “Money is not bad,” is not an endorsement on millionaires and billionaires who are hoarding money, but what we are addressing here is sort of a behavior, a scarcity mindset, a controlling mechanism, exploitation of people on the planet to just hoard those resources.
Kind of going back to where we started when I used to say that at church they would say, “The love of money is the root of all evil,” right? And so, again, it’s not like money is the root of all evil. It’s the love of money that is the root of all evil, right?
Rebecca Ching: Mm.
Edgar Villanueva: I’ve had this conversation with a number of friends and folks who don't come from wealth who sometimes carry a little bit of guilt as they begin to make money.
Rebecca Ching: Mm-hmm.
Edgar Villanueva: And I say it’s not a bad thing to want to make money. It’s not bad at all, and often, it’s the spirit in which you're doing it, and so, it is sort of our spirit and our intent and our orientation to wealth that is really the thing that matters and where we need to grow and have a different worldview about resources.
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So this is a great way to move into your belief around decolonizing wealth is about embracing Indigenous practices, and I’d love for you to talk about what this looks like and how can non-native people use these practices in ways that are not appropriating or exploitative.
Edgar Villanueva: Sure, you know, the word decolonizing or decolonization is -- I’m kind of seeing that word pop up a lot these days, which I appreciate, and I think it’s important to understand that from an Indigenous perspective, often when we talk about decolonizing, it is very much a political act. It is very much about returning land and sovereignty and everything that has been lost because of colonization for Indigenous people is really about reinstating that. I just want to name that because there are folks who really toe that line, that it is not decolonizing unless it is at that level.
For me, I do take a different approach. I absolutely support the political view and aspects of decolonization. At the same time, I understand that we are living in this century where we are super interconnected as people. Our businesses are intertwined. Our lives are very, very much intertwined, and it’s hard for me personally to get my mind around undoing 400 years of colonization. What does that look like? I do think there are lots of ways that we can respect and defend tribal sovereignty, which is really, really important, and that is what we as native peoples really cling to and hold on as a thing that we cannot lose and that we are working to regain more and more of in the process of decolonizing.
But another way to think about decolonizing that is less political, where we all have a role, is to kind of, again, understand what has transpired because of hundreds of years of colonization. What is the trauma that has resulted as a result of all of this exploiting and destroying and hoarding resources, and how do we heal from this? And so, if colonization has resulted in trauma for all of us, decolonizing for me can be seen as sort of a process of healing from that trauma, right? And so, I kind of use decolonizing in many ways in a very synonymous way or fashion as healing.
And so, in terms of the role for non-Indigenous people, that looks like acknowledging your own trauma that is a result of colonization because, again, we all have it.
Your trauma may look very different from mine. I’ve worked and spoken with a lot of white people who know their family’s history, know that their family’s owned slaves, they know that their family’s received land grants that was land that had been Indian land, and they have their own process of healing from that and not letting the burden of that history define who they are or weigh them down forever, right? We want to be free from all of this. And so, decolonizing for them is actually coming to terms with that and then putting, again, like you said, some action behind the apologies, and that is thinking about shifting how they value their resources in power in the service of healing.
And so, all of this is grounded in an Indigenous worldview and perspective and way of being, and I think that that worldview is something that is available for us all to put on, right? It’s not saying you become an Indigenous person. No headdresses please, and all of those kinds of things, right? But understanding that a different way of seeing the world in the way that many Indigenous people see the world, that is something that we share freely, and honestly, myself as an Indigenous person being born into a very colonized world, not being raised in my community, having limited exposure to ceremonies and teachings. This is something that I have had to learn. Thankfully, it’s kind of in my DNA so it’s a little accelerated learning maybe. But we all live and breathe and walk every day in a society that is very contra-this way of being. And so, it is like an exercise. It is a very conscious decision every day to think differently and to believe differently from the ways that have been upheld, not only through our teachings in schools but in the books we read and in the media. It is just constantly reinforced.
And so, Indigenous worldview is something that is available for us all to try on and to try to experience seeing the world in a very different way.
I’ll share that, in a journal that we put out called Money is Medicine, there is a little chart, and in this chart we kind of show how there’s a Western worldview for kind of seeing and believing different things, and then there’s an Indigenous worldview. And I have that chart up here, and it’s something that I read often, and I think about. Sometimes I’m like, “Wow, I’m being really Western right now about a certain thing. Let me lean into trying to have an Indigenous worldview about a thing.”
So, for example, one of the things I hear is time. The Western worldview constructed around time is that it’s very linear, it’s very future-oriented, and it’s a framework of months, years, and days that really reinforces this linear structure in terms of thinking about time. In the Indigenous worldview, time is nonlinear, and it’s more cyclical. It’s like thinking about the seasons. Literally today, we had a conversation with my team around, “Okay, we’re in summer looking towards fall. How should we be behaving differently,” right? As we’re talking about fall coming, fall is a time of shedding. It’s a time of letting go of stuff. It’s a time of slowing it down and beginning to think about moving towards a more quiet kind of phase.
I’ve never really done this in the past, to be honest. I am like wide open all the time, let’s go, work, work, work, deadlines. I’m kind of Western when it comes to time, but I’m finding liberation and freedom and joy and to beginning to restructure how I think about my year as it pertains to the seasons, and this is a season where we should be following nature and kind of making changes in our lives and leading in a different way that is going to be more restorative and actually more productive for us at the end of the day. So it’s an invitation to everyone to try it on.
Rebecca Ching: Mm.
Edgar Villanueva: I think society would be a lot better if we can lean into some of these Indigenous ways of being and seeing the world.
Rebecca Ching: I’m laughing inside because I’m like fall is a time of shedding? I’ve got two kids in school. It is a time where it’s like, okay, the logistics, the coordination, the clothes, the buying. I’m like what would it be like to do that rhythm that we’re in but also think of -- I’m gonna be reflecting on that a little bit.
Where can folks access this workbook you just referenced? Is that something that we can attach in our show notes or is it something we could link people to where they could buy?
Edgar Villanueva: Sure, absolutely! Our website is www.decolonizingwealth.com, and if you click on our shop there, you’ll see the journal available for sale there.
Rebecca Ching: Wonderful. Wonderful. I just want to make sure to definitely highlight that. And so, I want to shift to talking about the heart of your book, Decolonizing Wealth, at least for me what was most convicting was the consequences of colonialism in the world of philanthropy. I’m deeply still in grief as I reflect over a lifetime of mindset and views on this. I just would love for you to share how you’ve noticed the consequences of colonialism particularly in the world of philanthropy.
Edgar Villanueva: You know, it’s really easy to see the colonizer virus at play in philanthropy, and yet, it is really sad because this industry in particular literally the world philanthropy means “love of people,” right? And so, we should be placing value on people more than anything, and it is a charitable industry, and so, if the colonizer virus is at work here, it’s definitely at work in a lot of places.
So where you see the colonizer virus sort of aspects is, one, you have to ask yourself who has money in the first place to be a philanthropist, right? And so, obviously, when we look at folks who start foundations, by far, it’s wealthy white folks and corporations who have the resources to even be considered a philanthropist or to start a foundation. And that is a direct product of history and policies, again, that have allowed for accumulated advantages of benefit for white people. And so, those are the folks who have the money who create sort of the foundations. And then because they have the money and power, they then get to decide who gets the money, and they also get to decide if you get the money, what you must do to get their money and the criteria.
And so, what we see even there is that currently we know by far when we look at trustees of foundations or the people who sit on boards, more than 90% of foundation boards are white people. When we look at leadership of foundations or the executive suite more than 90% are white because what happens if just human nature. Rich, white family starts a foundation. They hire somebody they know to run the foundation, right? And so, then, when you look at who’s receiving money, what we know from data in all of the billions of dollars in grants that are flowing from this trillion-dollar industry, less than 10%, only about 8% of the grants go to organizations led by people of color who are explicitly working on issues of equity.
And so, essentially what you see happening in the broader spectrum of philanthropy is basically rich, white people giving money to rich, white organizations. And not saying that those organizations aren't doing good work, but does Harvard really need another check right now, you know? They're doing all right over there, you know? A great university but also the wealth, even in philanthropy, is really consolidated.
And then what we see also happening is, again, sort of in the how. Imagine being the executive director of a nonprofitable organization. Imagine being a Black woman and you're doing work in the Black community. So all the extra labor and work that it takes to get funding when you're not on the inside circle, right?
Rebecca Ching: Mm.
Edgar Villanueva: Imagine finally getting the grant, right? And then you have these folks who are not from your community, who are not truly in tune with the needs and what you're trying to do now telling you how you have to do your work. And so, there’s this forced assimilation to sort of a way of doing work or sort of bringing to scale the idea of some millionaire or billionaire, you know? It’s like modern day colonialism, and it’s really interesting in this country that a billionaire can say, “I think our public schools should look like such and such,” right?
Rebecca Ching: Yeah.
Edgar Villanueva: And then, “I have the money that I’m now going to fund school districts and nonprofits around the country to implement a program or an idea based on how I think schools should be.” I think that’s a little bit of a threat to our democracy, what we the people have decided. This is how public-school things will be decided. Local school boards, parents, students through a publicly funded mechanism, which is problematic in itself (that’s a whole nother topic), but that is how we have decided that public education is a public good and should be financed and decisions should be made in a very democratic type of way.
But yeah, philanthropists have the power to come in and shape their systems and to bring their way of thinking into a place that really diminishes what we the people think should happen.
The other thing that a lot of people don't recognize is that philanthropy in this country is a very unique beast. You don't see this type of philanthropy happening in other places in the same way because in The US, you get a major tax write off for starting a foundation or by putting money into a donor-advised fund. I’m not against that, per se, but what’s happening behind that is there’s a lot of motivation for wealthy folks to do philanthropy but what happens in foundations and what happens in donor-advised funds, which is sort of an account you can open at a bank where you get a tax deduction, there’s not a lot of accountability around how those resources are actually used. The vast majority of capital that is put into a foundation or put into a donor-advised fund never sees the light of day. [Laughs]
And so, for example, for a private foundation, say you’re a foundation that is concerned about the environment, right? Say you have a billion dollars in this foundation or five hundred million, the federal government only requires that 5% of those assets are paid out to the community.
So most foundations are only making 5% of their assets. They're only moving 5% a year in grants to the community. So what is going on with the 95%? Because they got a tax write off for all of it. The 95% is then invested in public markets in private business to grow that endowment to be bigger and bigger and bigger, right? And so, there is more interest in the sector in growing money and having a bigger endowment, which is what you keep, than the actual amount of money that is going out the door to community.
And then the other thing that is really unsettling for me is when you look at what these foundations are investing in, and what we know from data is that about 85% of those investments in private markets are invested in harmful and extractive industries. So back to my example with the environmental foundation, that foundation may be moving 5% of its money to organizations doing great work to protect the planet, yet the 95% could be invested in fossil fuels and all types of other harmful and extractive industries that are actually harming the planet. And so, the big question is what is the net value of philanthropy if you're doing a little bit of good over here but you have a lot of money that is actually funding against your mission. You're kind of canceling out the good. So there’s just a lot that goes on in this industry that really makes you scratch your head and say, “What is this really all about? Is this about wealth hoarding and getting tax savings to build more wealth, or is it really genuinely about loving people and making a difference and community?” And it’s attention to hope because I know philanthropy does a lot of great work. I’ve worked in the industry. But these are real truths that we have to name and call out in order to do better.
Rebecca Ching: It’ll be a big disruption. Yeah, after reading your book and digging into different organizations that I’ve been a part of or supported over the years, it’s really convicting. And so, what are some things folks can do practically, because I know some people tie their money or they want to be generous. Because there seems to be a little bit of a white saviorism cycle also contributing to this where it’s just kind of making people feel good while they get their tax write-off, and it’s not really making a lot of impact. But for folks that really want to make an impact, what are some things folks could look for or look into of the organizations or the charities that they're interested in supporting?
Edgar Villanueva: Yeah, you know, one of the best and sort of easy things that everyone can do is to ensure that your giving is inclusive, right? So if you're at the end of the year and you're making your list of all the groups you want to support, I absolutely encourage you to give to your university or wherever your heart is calling you to give but think about ways you can be inclusive. Ask yourself is there a Black organization on your list? Is there a native organization? How can you expand and share the wealth to ensure that these organizations are also included and you're giving plans? Knowing that philanthropy is grossly underfunding and underinvesting in these communities, private giving makes a huge difference.
In my own nonprofit and Decolonizing Wealth project, you know, we have a donor community called Liberating Capital. That’s a place for, if you don't know an organization to give to, you can take a look at Liberating Capital as a place where you can join our community. We have 600 members, kind of like a giant giving circle, and people give monthly or every year, and then they trust us to reach their funds to a variety of organizations that are all Black and native led, and then of course we share all that information back.
But it’s a place where you can actually also just be a part of a learning community and build relationships and not have to worry so much. In a way, we’re pushing back on that white saviorism a little bit because we’re creating sort of a wedge between community and the donors by giving the money to community, letting them do their work, but also saying, “Okay, now you’ve given. You've been a donor. Who else are you, and what else can we talk about and work on on our healing journeys?” So that’s really an important thing to do as we’re thinking about giving.
You know, I think if you open a donor-advised line, which is a way a lot of people are going. Not a lot of folks are opening their own foundations these days. That’s sort of a dying trend because banks like Fidelity and others have these very easy ways to sign up and get your tax break. Ensure that your money and your donor-advised fund is actually getting out to organizations. Don't sit on that money. You’re already getting your tax break from opening the fund. Make a practice to spend that money down every year. If you're sitting on that money, then people are not getting the help they could be receiving. And so, I’m not anti-donor-advised funds, by any means. I think it is a vehicle to move money. I have a donor-advised fund, but what we need to do is be mindful of making sure those resources are getting out to community organizations. Again, look for those organizations that are led by people of color who often don't benefit.
It’s also kind of easy to go to the big name, flashy organizations, right? That’s fine as a place to start but look right at home where you live.
Rebecca Ching: Mm-hmm.
Edgar Villanueva: There are probably nonprofits in your backyard. Local nonprofits have a more challenging time sometimes raising money than a big, large organization whose name we might all recognize. So think local in your giving as much as possible, and again, we’re happy to match folks when you join our community.
We have a map of organizations. We can help you find a group if you're just struggling to find one. But those are a few ways you can begin to be more inclusive in your giving.
Rebecca Ching: You know, you navigate what seems to be this inherent conflict, and you’ve touched on that a little bit in this interview, but this inherent conflict between participating in the “capital” of capitalism and working to bring about greater ingenuity in the economic system. So I’m like what do you think as you wrestle with this tension?
Edgar Villanueva: You know, it’s funny. It’s hard. I think part of my own kind of learning journey and growth as a person who holds so many identities, I think I share this story in the book where I was even talking to one of my elders like I was raised to be a Christian. How can I be a Christian and be Native American at the same time? Isn't that a direct conflict or whatever? And I really have begun to embrace this idea of just I can be all the things at the same time. [Laughs] And it is not a way to escape accountability, but it is a way of just acknowledging that things are complex and often not absolute.
I think I’m also a person that I’m more of an incremental change kind of person, while I have a vision for what could be different, and the truth is, we live in this economic system that seems to be very, very different. I’m not an economist. I don't have the solution to here’s what the economy should be. And honestly, I don't know if we can have capitalism without racism. I mean, that’s a question I hear folks begin to -- a more friendly capitalism. I don't know, but what I do know is the way to get there is gonna be coming from community leaders and vision and folks who are most impacted by this broken system who have a vision for what change can be and what it looks like.
And honestly, to do their work, they need money. They need money. They need to be supported. Philanthropy with all of the problems that I’ve outlined today, has always played a role in supporting radical change in our communities.
Even looking back at the Civil Rights Movement. There were philanthropists who were moving money and not putting out the big statements and flashy PR announcements about it. But were just moving money because it was the right thing to do and were housing Civil Rights leaders or hiding them in their homes. And so, there is a place for money in all of this. I think money is, again, a tool, and so, we find ourselves kind of in this nexus of getting money to people who haven't had it to do their radical, world-changing work and also having a table, as you say, at Liberated Capital where we have people who may have some local resources, even some wealthy folks there who have power to use their money differently and to create businesses or to lead in business and other places in a way that is not extractive. And so, we’ve worked with corporations like Lush Cosmetics, for example, who is an amazing partner who is really trying to show up and be a responsible corporate citizen and to, internally and externally in their work, not harm people on the planet and to use their voice and their power and resources in the service of change.
So it is those types of models that we lift up and support on our path to being something hopefully totally new in the future.
Rebecca Ching: Mm-hmm.
Edgar Villanueva: So it’s a lot of things happening kind of at the same time to get to the changes we need.
Rebecca Ching: Yeah, I mean, and it really requires a capacity for discomfort, which we struggle with, and that means we can hold space then for nuance, right -- [Laughs]
Edgar Villanueva: Right.
Rebecca Ching: -- and complexity. So, yeah, it’s hard when we get in these binaries. And I think sometimes the pendulums just kind of swing back and forth. It’s just part of the cycle. I want to read this quote that really stood out to me that is kind of something you wrote, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot along these lines where you said:
“The truth is there’s no future that doesn't include the settlers occupying Indigenous lands. Today, in the 21st Century, Indigenous lives and settler lives, families and businesses are intertwined. This is simply the pragmatic reality of today’s world. What we can focus on with decolonization is stopping the cycles of abuse and healing ourselves of trauma, and in this way, we expand our possibilities for the future.”
How do you see the cycles of abuse and trauma persist in the workplace and beyond, and, yeah, in light of that mindset, of this quote that I just shared?
Edgar Villanueva: I think you said something earlier that made me think of this, that if we’re not doing our own work and our own healing, then we are going to perpetuate that. I think of Oprah. I’m always full of Oprah quotes. If you know me, that was my religion growing up watching Oprah every day after school.
Rebecca Ching: I think it was for many of us of a certain age. [Laughs]
Edgar Villanueva: You know, and I remember she used to say, “Hurting people hurt others,” right? And so, I have witnessed leaders that I clearly have seen had not done their own healing would come to work and lead and just be really abusive, honestly.
And when we are not doing the work of healing in our own lives, we are going to unintentionally maybe, but we are gonna harm others, and we’re going to become the thing that we hate.
I was really motivated as I ascended in my leadership to make sure I was doing my healing because when you have some level of trauma in your life and then that’s the type of leadership that you’ve been exposed to, that has been lifted up or whatever, it’s very easy to emulate that.
Rebecca Ching: Yep.
Edgar Villanueva: And so, we have to disrupt this cycle and say, “Okay, I’m gonna show up as my best, whole, loving self so that I can exude that for others and help others heal.” I’m not perfect in any kind of way. But I absolutely have testimony and have witnessed in my own organization where people have come to work here who are severely traumatized from other places they had worked, and I saw how they brought in distrust. It took a long time for them to settle down and realize they were okay here and to kind of make sure they feel supported and just seeing kind of them break through that and to ascend in their leadership in the most beautiful way and to know that they weren't gonna be targeted because of their success or whatever. You could come here and be a star and grow and do all these things, but I witness that quite a bit.
So I think it’s the most beautiful thing to become a healer, to see yourself as a healer. There’s so much pain everywhere, the constant thing that connects all of us is that we have all been through something, and we don't know what people are holding and what people are coming to work with. Not that workplaces have to be the be all and end all. I mean, I’m struggling with that too. There are a lot of demands on the workplace these days, and I’m like okay --
Rebecca Ching: A lot.
Edgar Villanueva: -- maybe I’ll make a faith community. I’m gonna help wherever you can go to get some support. I can't be everything for you here, but we can at least not harm people. We can do no harm in our leadership.
Rebecca Ching: Exactly.
Edgar Villanueva: A different way of being. So I think that’s important for all of us. Have some friends who can call you out lovingly to say -- you know, if you're the leader of your organization, that’s hard for people within your organization to maybe say things to you because of power dynamics, but I have surrounded myself with friends that will call me out and say, “Hey, that thing that you did, that was kind of weird,” or “We didn't see that being your best self,” or “What was up with that?” Because it is so easy to just fall into that traditional way of leading --
Rebecca Ching: Totally.
Edgar Villanueva: -- and egos and all the things that come about. So healing is important. Everybody should be in therapy I think. I think everybody should have accountability partners and just also time where we step back and reflect on ourselves and being self-aware of our growing areas.
Rebecca Ching: Yes, that’s a wonderful, wonderful place to wrap up the questions. And I’d love to ask some quickfire questions before we end the conversation.
Edgar Villanueva: Sure!
Rebecca Ching: A little bit lighter and breezier, Edgar, I hope! What are you reading right now?
Edgar Villanueva: I just started this book called Sand Talk by Tyson Yunkaporta. I’m literally on page five.
Rebecca Ching: Ooh.
Edgar Villanueva: But it’s a book about how Indigenous thinking can save the world.
Rebecca Ching: Adding it to the list. Wow. What song are you playing on repeat?
Edgar Villanueva: Beyoncé, You Won’t Break My Soul.
Rebecca Ching: Oh, my gosh.
Edgar Villanueva: Yeah.
Rebecca Ching: Yes. Best TV show or movie you've seen recently?
Edgar Villanueva: I’m obsessed with Reservation Dogs. The third and final season premieres August 3rd. I don't only read or watch native things, but this is the first time we’ve had a show in this way, and it’s actually just really good. I encourage everyone to watch it.
Rebecca Ching: There is a big backlash that it’s wrapping up after three seasons. There’s a lot of grief about that.
Edgar Villanueva: Yeah.
Rebecca Ching: I’m sensing we’re maybe the similar age, but favorite eighties movie or favorite piece of pop culture from your childhood?
Edgar Villanueva: I was obsessed with the movie Dirty Dancing. [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: [Laughs] Yes! Nobody does put baby in the corner, come on!
Edgar Villanueva: Right? I know every word, every song. But yeah, every Sunday I used to watch that.
Rebecca Ching: Rest in peace, Patrick Swayze. What is your mantra right now?
Edgar Villanueva: My mantra is that if it is not a hell yes, it’s a hell no.
Rebecca Ching: Oh, my gosh. Amen to that! What is an unpopular opinion you hold?
Edgar Villanueva: I feel like most people agree with my opinions. I don't have anything that’s too far off. I was trying to think of the best singer. I mean, pizza is the best food of all time. I’m sure people would debate and fight me over that, but I don't think that’s unpopular, per se.
Rebecca Ching: I mean, even just the fact that money can be medicine is a bit edgy.
Edgar Villanueva: That is edgy, yeah. Absolutely edgy. Yeah, I think that people would want to debate that. I think capitalism, that question, which is why I kind of skirt around it, I mean, sort of incremental changes there. Especially younger folks that I talk with who want to burn it down, and I’m so glad that we have young people who are on the frontlines of leading change, and at the same time, I’m curious, beyond their critique, what solutions they bring. Because I’m like you're Tweeting at me from your iPhone. Does that mean if you have an iPhone you're participating in capitalism? I don't know. [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: [Laughs] Boom! [Laughs]
Edgar Villanueva: [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: And lastly, who or what inspires you to be a better leader and human?
Edgar Villanueva: I will always lift up my mother who people have heard me talk about quite a bit and write about. My mom is just the most generous, kind, sweet person that I’ve ever met, and coming from some really hard times, just landed on her feet in such a way and is the most graceful, loving person who instilled all of this in me at a young age. So I’m so thankful for her.
Rebecca Ching: Mm.
Edgar Villanueva: It’s really cute. She’s becoming a celebrity in her own right in some ways because I talk about her a lot, and she’s so shy and wants no type of attention at all. So it’s kind of been cute to witness. [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: I bet. I bet. Sounds like an incredible, incredible person.
Edgar Villanueva: Yeah.
Rebecca Ching: Where can people connect with you and connect with your work?
Edgar Villanueva: Sure, our website www.decolonizingwealth.com. Like everyone’s website, we’re always trying to update it. But it’ll lag behind. So social media’s probably better for those of you who are on that. I’m on Insta and Twitter and all the things @villanuevaedgar, and then @decolonizingwealth is also on all the things.
Rebecca Ching: Wonderful! I’ll make sure to link to all of it. Edgar, I just really thank you for this conversation today, and I really appreciate you and all that you are putting out in the world and how you lead. It really is making a difference. So thank you so much!
Edgar Villanueva: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me again!
Rebecca Ching: Before you go, I want to make sure you take away some key learnings Edgar shared with us on his mission to decolonize wealth. He points out the ways colonization are still happening, and the dynamics of colonization are very pervasive, impacting our ways of being, seeing the world, how we behave as leaders, and how we behave within our families. [Laughs] He offers us a lens to see money as neutral and the means to help us all heal from the traumas of communication so we can begin to grieve, repair, reconnect, and create more belonging for all.
I know it sounds lofty, but when you read his book, when you have conversations with Edgar, it makes so much sense. Edgar also points out we’ve all internalized or been infected by what he called the colonizer virus. He offers us a lot of hope, encouraging us to come to terms with our history, acknowledge it, grieve it, repair, and relate better to each other, our land, and our relationship with money. This is the ongoing work on an unburdened leader.
Thank you all so much for joining this powerful episode of The Unburdened Leader. If this episode was moving to you, I’d be honored if you left a rating, a review, and shared it with someone you think would benefit from it. You can find this episode, show notes, and sign up for the free Unburdened Leader weekly email and find free Unburdened Leader resources, along with ways to work with me, at www.rebeccaching.com! And a special thank you to all of the amazing individuals at Yellow House Media who produced this podcast episode!