Peace Fellows Explore Decolonizing Philanthropy

By Gloria Smith

In his book, “Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides and Restore Balance,” Edgar Villanueva makes a strong and needed critique of traditional philanthropy. In many ways, his analysis is similar to that made by my late brother, Phillip Jackson, who was the founding director of the Black Star Project.

Phillip was an important inspiration to Edgar, and Phillip’s influence is powerfully reflected in the book. In 2016, my brother led a major local and national campaign taking the foundation world to task for policies that have exacerbated the extraordinary poverty of communities of color in the richest nation in the world.

As one example, Phillip decried as “modern-day redlining” the tiny percentage of grants to Black organizations from the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. He believed that funders ought not to pat themselves on the back if they are unwilling to acknowledge and provide direct support to the Black and Brown communities that continue to suffer in the margins of the great wealth in this city and country. This wealth, after all, was made possible by public policies that disenfranchised people of color and kept our neighborhoods poor and vulnerable.

Edgar read about my brother’s work as he was writing his book and interviewed Phillip as part of his research. Unfortunately, Phillip passed away November 4, 2018, before the two men could meet in person.

But from his family home in North Carolina, I recently had the great pleasure of meeting Edgar during a video roundtable that included the current cohort of Chicago Peace Fellows (of which I am a member), the international alumni of GATHER, and several staff of the Goldin Institute. Since my brother’s passing, I have continued his work as the executive director of the Black Star Project and I am certain that Phillip would be delighted and proud of Edgar’s vision for a new approach to more fairly and humanely distribute the tremendous wealth of foundations in this country.

Part one of “Decolonizing Wealth” addresses how philanthropy mirrors colonialism, sometimes doing more harm than good, and the importance of hearing the stories of colonized people with a respectful and open heart. Within the chapters of part two, Edgar outlines seven critical steps—Grieve, Apologize, Listen, Relate, Represent, Invest and Repair—to healing centuries-old trauma. He asks: 1) What if money could be medicine instead of what divides us? and 2) What if, rather than using wealth to cause further harm, we followed these “Seven Steps to Healing?”

During our roundtable discussion on August 23rd, Edgar talked about how indigenous wisdom has shaped his life and perspective on philanthropy. Chicago Peace Fellows Robert Biekman asked about the role of spirituality in philanthropy, and Dr. Sokoni Karanja, who attended a peace walk with Edgar many years ago, asked if social workers today should take a more activist/organizing roles in philanthropy. International GATHER alumnus Yusuph Masanja received advice on managing a fundraising issue.

Edgar acknowledged the good work of all of the Fellows and offered some recommendations for the use of restorative justice and methods of truth and reconciliation in their efforts. He also encouraged Fellows to build personal relationships with funders as they move forward together.

Edgar Villanueva understands decolonizing as a lifelong journey, and is thankful to his Native elders and to those who came before him, like Phillip, who shaped his early thinking on what philanthropy should and can do to right historical wrongs.

It was my great joy to meet him and to learn from his thoughtful and stimulating new book!

Edgar Villanueva