A Discussion with Anand Giridharadas & Edgar Villanueva

Reposted from Confluence Philanthropy’s Blog - https://bit.ly/2CIPw28

Anand Giridharadas is the author of The New York Times bestseller Winners Take All and was a foreign correspondent and columnist for The New York Times from 2005 to 2016. Edgar Villanueva is a nationally recognized expert on social justice philanthropy and author of Decolonizing Wealth.

In Winners Take All, Anand Giridharadas poses a troubling question: Are elites hijacking social change? Could philanthropy and social entrepreneurship actually be amplifying the inequality they seek to solve?

Because these questions strike at the heart of our work, we invited Giridharadas and another prominent critic of philanthropy, Edgar Villanueva, to join us in conversation. Villanueva’s latest book, Decolonizing Wealth, looks at how to remove the colonial mindset from philanthropy and social finance.

Deborah Frieze, Co-founder and Board Chair of the Boston Impact Initiative, moderated the discussion, and she opened with a sobering assessment. “If philanthropy and impact investing amplify inequality,” Frieze said in her introduction, this is “a structural and systemic failure of epic proportions.”

“These books,” said Frieze, “are directed at us in this room. The vast majority of us are owners of capital, stewards of capital, managers of capital.” She knew the topic could be challenging, so she exhorted the audience to keep an open mind. If something troubles you, “drop deeper into listening and curiosity,” she said. “Turn toward what makes you uncomfortable.”

With that, she asked the authors what made them step forward and expose these dynamics.

“On the one hand,” said Giridharadas, “there’s more activity by elites to make the world better than maybe ever before.” The problem is that it’s not working. “The numbers have not only not gotten better,” he said, “they’re getting worse: 1% of Americans own 90% of the country’s wealth.” He likened the shift to how fast food chains have added salads to their menus in recent years. Despite the appearance of progress, data shows the average fast food entree is actually less healthy in 2019 than it was in 1986.

The question is, said Giridharadas, what were the salads doing? Were they failing to deliver? Or did they somehow allow the industry to make the rest of the menu even less healthy? “Those of you in this room are engaged in the salad business,” he said. “Make sure that you’re not being used to justify putting more calories and fat in the menu of the broken American dream.”

“Is this gathering’s desire to hear from these two authors part of the salad making?” asked Frieze.

Giridharadas didn’t answer her question directly. “People have been saying there’s a complex of well funded nonsense that’s impeding progress,” he said. There’s an idea that businessmen are smarter than everybody else, he says, and that “money makes you incorruptible instead of more corruptible.” He said that Donald Trump sold himself with that image during the presidential campaign—and has flamboyantly discredited the idea since his election. Giridharadas thinks that’s made people more receptive to the message of his book.

Villanueva agreed that the political climate has opened pathways for his work as well. “I thought I would be banished forever and never be able to get a job in philanthropy again,” he said, laughing. “This is my story, this is my truth. I jumped all the way in, and I’m amazed at how the book has been received.” He thinks people know that “we’re not seeing [the] change we need to see.”

Frieze asked them about strategies for change going forward, mentioning Villanueva’s concept of “money as medicine.”

Villanueva said he didn’t originally start the author journey with a healing framework in mind. “I was furious and wanted to express my views” in the wake of the 2016 election, he said. He described talking with an elder from his Tribe, asking her if he would ever stop being angry. Her words changed everything. “She reminded me of the ‘all my relations’ teaching—seeing everyone as your relative, as your brother, regardless of background or political views.”

Villanueva laughed. “That was really difficult medicine for me to swallow in the moment. But it opened my mind.” Everybody’s hurting, Villanueva says, people of color and white people alike, from centuries of trauma and colonization. The indigenous tradition, he said, is to bring the offender into your circle for a conversation. “We’re not going to move forward if we put our heads in the sand and refuse to talk to people who are not like us.”

The key, he says, is to look for common ground. “This system wants to divide us,” he said. “It wants scarcity and division. I’m trying to push back against that.”

Giridharadas agreed. In one comedy show, he said, Dave Chappelle talked about how systemic problems like patriarchy or apartheid disfigure everybody, including the oppressor. “They certainly hurt the oppressed more,” acknowledged Giridharadas, “but everybody is ruined. You can’t live in a system like that without being poisoned by it.”

How can the people in this room shift the dynamic? Frieze asked.

“I want to live in a world with fewer billionaires, maybe no billionaires, and see how we like it. If we don’t like it, we can always go back,” said Giridharadas, who was met with laughter. But seriously, he said, “the answer is not do nothing. I think it’s possible to give in ways that shore up a bad system, and give in other ways that erode a bad system.” Be a class traitor, he said. He called on people in the room to take FDR as their model: “You should make your fellow rich people scared. You should be invited to fewer dinner parties because of how you do your philanthropy.”



Giridharadas also suggested the philanthropists needed to believe in and support government again, instead of undercutting it. “People in philanthropy love scale,” he said. “You know what has scale? The government.” He called out the trillions of dollars hidden in tax havens, starving governments of needed revenue. “As far as I know, no major philanthropists are funding Gabriel Zucman and others to chase down that money.

Villanueva blamed foundations’ obsession with perpetuity. “Everything is focused on wealth accumulation. The minimum payout rule came about because foundations were not giving anything out.” Philanthropy’s focus on wealth accumulation has to change, he says. “Why do we really exist? If we’re serious about real change, let’s do something truly radical. Let’s flip the script.”

It’s time to get beyond idea that the rich and powerful have a veto, but no one else does, says Giridharadas. “We need to get out of [the] mindset of needing permission slips from the powerful.”

We must also remember that healing must be part of the equation, said Villanueva. “We need a process of truth and reconciliation,” he said. “We can’t have a conversation about reparations if we can’t say we’re truly sorry.” Still, he said, the culture has made progress. “I can’t imagine having this conversation three years ago publicly. Let’s hold fast and not go back."



Anand Giridharadas is the author of The New York Times bestseller Winners Take AllThe True American (soon to be a feature film), and India Calling. He was a foreign correspondent and columnist for The New York Times from 2005 to 2016, and has also written for The AtlanticThe New Yorker, and The New Republic. He is a former McKinsey analyst, an Aspen Institute fellow, a visiting scholar at New York University, and an on-air political analyst for NBC News. He has also spoken on the main stage of TED. His writing has been honored by the Society of Publishers in Asia, the Poynter Fellowship at Yale, and the New York Public Library’s Helen Bernstein Award. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Edgar Villanueva is a nationally recognized expert on social justice philanthropy and author of Decolonizing Wealth. He currently serves as Chair of the Board of Directors of Native Americans in Philanthropy and is a Board Member of the Andrus Family Fund. Additionally, Edgar is an instructor with The Grantmaking School at the Johnson Center at Grand Valley State University and Vice President of Programs and Advocacy at the Schott Foundation for Public Education. Previously Edgar has held leadership roles at Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust in North Carolina and the Marguerite Casey Foundation in Seattle. In addition to working in philanthropy for many years, he has consulted with numerous nonprofit organizations and national and global philanthropies. Edgar holds two degrees from the Gillings Global School of Public Health at The University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. He is an enrolled member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina.

Edgar Villanueva