Episode 4: Edgar Villanueva
In this month’s Leading From The Inside Out podcast, Darlene talks philanthropy, decolonization, family, healing, and music with Edgar Villanueva, Vice President of Programs and Advocacy for the Schott Foundation and author of Decolonizing Wealth.
The song in this episode is "Addis Ababa" by The Mini Vandals.
Darlene: 00:06 Hello, I'm Darlene Nipper, CEO of Rockwood Leadership Institute, and your host for this episode of Leading from the Inside Out. My guest today is Edgar Villanueva, Vice President of Programs and Advocacy at the Schott Foundation for Public Education and the author of Decolonizing Wealth, Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides and Restore Balance. Edgar, welcome to the podcast.
Edgar: 00:31 Thank you. It's a pleasure to be on with you.
Darlene: 00:33 Thank you for saying yes. We really appreciate it. I would actually offer you a second to just add anything by way of introduction of yourself that you think I should mention.
Edgar: 00:43 Sure. Well, thanks again for having me on and hello to all of the Rockwood family and the friends of Rockwood, folks listening in. Of course I was so happy to do a conversation with you, Darlene. Because of our personal relationship and our professional relationship and all that Rockwood has meant to me. It really was a very pivotal moment in my life when I went through my experience with Rockwood and everything that I'm doing now kind of sprang from that week that I spent in California. So it all comes back full circle. So yeah, happy to be on here and to talk about the work that I've been doing over the past year with this book. And it's an exciting time to be indigenous, it's a exciting, terrifying time to be in this movement work. I think leadership is demanding all types of new things from us that we have to step into. So thanks for the work that you do and for having me.
Darlene: 01:48 Absolutely. And I'm glad that you mentioned this moment. I want to, we'll come back to that, but I want to take you back maybe by way of your website where you mentioned your mother was the first philanthropist that you knew. And I would love for you to share a little bit just going back about more about your family and community and you talked about your indigenous identity, but go back a little bit and how that relates to philanthropy for you.
Edgar: 02:27 Sure. You're asking me who's my people, right? Yeah. So I am from, originally from North Carolina, from the Lumbee tribe. We are a tribe that is in South East, North Carolina, a very rural, impoverished area. And my mom was a teen mother and at age five she scooped me up and we moved to the big city of Raleigh, North Carolina. That's about probably about an hour and a half West of our tribal community. And so I think when I say that my mom was the first philanthropist that I knew, a couple of reasons that I say that. One, for me and my background coming from poverty and a community that is very marginalized and does not have a lot of resources or power. I was not growing up rubbing elbows with the Rockefellers of the world, yet traditions of giving and reciprocity, philanthropy were all around me.
Edgar: 03:30 And I began to learn to give back and what my role or responsibility was in terms of giving and taking care and being in community from my mom because although she was a single parent and worked two or three jobs at a time, there was always space in that schedule the work of ministry. And for my mom that was happening predominantly through the church that I grew up in. And I tell this story about my mom in the book where she started what was called a bus ministry. And it simply was going around and inviting the children of the neighborhood to this opportunity to jump on a bus on Sunday and come to Sunday school and be in a place where they will be loved on and taught. And my mom was just passionate about extending that opportunity out to kids. And at one point on a given Sunday, she was busing in over 300 children to this church.
Darlene: 04:29 Wow.
Edgar: 04:30 So I just grew up every Saturday we did outreach in the neighborhoods. We went out and visited the kids. I would dress up like a clown or whatever to entertain and be silly and just love up on the kids. So that was from as early as I can remember, we were a family that was just called to service. And although we were poor, in a sense I didn't quite know it or I had an awareness that there were folks who were even in worse conditions that I needed to help. So that's how I grew up being oriented to that.
Edgar: 05:08 And I think that that type of culture that many of us come from, those traditions of giving and philanthropy are things that we need to reclaim and be very proud of and understand that the giving of our time and of our treasure and our talent very much makes us all philanthropists. You don't have to be a millionaire or a billionaire or have buildings named after you or whatnot, but we are often, many of us are folks who come from communities that have given us just a part of who we are.
Darlene: 05:40 At first, I was going to ask you what do you mean by decolonizing wealth or philanthropy but maybe I would add to that. Are you saying by what you just described, that there is another definition for philanthropy that maybe ... It sounded like you said reclaim, so maybe that we've always known but have lost touch with or has fallen out of the mainstream around philanthropy over time. So how would you define this decolonizing and how does it relate to this reclaiming of the term that you're talking about here?
Edgar: 06:24 Yeah, so philanthropy has become an institution and it's a relatively new formalized sector. Some foundations are about 100 old, but I would say it's really been in the last 70 years that we have this institutional form of philanthropy as a part of the nonprofit sector. And philanthropy as a word literally means love of people, love of mankind. And something that is a quite, I think it's actually a very beautiful word, but in many ways because of how institutional philanthropy have shown up in a way that we have institutionalized and made philanthropy this thing of a transaction. It's kind of tarnished the word and philanthropy is not a word that warms the heart of a lot of people and actually kind of gives a headache to some. My work around decolonizing wealth, to sort of simplify that, I mentioned I'm Native American, so I am a very unlikely person to find myself working in institutional philanthropy. It is a field that has a lot of work to do around diversity still. You see more and more people of color, but by far around 90% of foundation executives are white, 90% or higher.
Edgar: 07:48 I think about 92% of board of directors for foundations are white. So it is a very, very white field and a lot of folks, you have to think about who has the money, who has the money to start a foundation, you're going to see that that tends to be a white folks who start foundations and then they hire within their trusted network of friends to run the foundations. And so for someone like me coming from quite the other end of the spectrum to find myself working in that space is sort of a phenomenon in a sense. And so as I came to philanthropy, I chose to take the job 15 years ago because I again felt called to service and called to ministry. I really resonated with the mission of the organization that I went to work for the Kate B Reynolds Charitable Trust in North Carolina.
Edgar: 08:40 And like most people who choose these jobs, I thought, wow, I'm going to be a part of something big that's like giving back and moving resources into the community. But what I found is that the dynamics that exist in that space, because of the wealth and the extreme concentration of privilege, the dynamics of sort of the light white dominant culture of white supremacy of colonization are very, very pervasive. And they show up in all kinds of ways. And so what seems like the charitable sector on the surface, as this like really awesome thing that is a good thing. And yes, there's a lot of good work that happens. In many ways the philanthropic industry has evolved to mirror colonial structures and actually can reproduce hierarchy, ultimately doing more harm than good.
Darlene: 09:35 What kind of challenges have people brought to you around your thinking about this? Given that mindset of money being the actual evil versus the way that we do things?
Edgar: 09:47 It's interesting because regardless of where we lie on the political spectrum, whether we're conservative or liberal, money is something that we all need and we all want, right? Money makes the world go round or that might be another song, I don't know.
Darlene: 10:04 Yes.
Edgar: 10:04 There's a lot of songs about money, right? And money is a topic for those who are people of faith. Kind of going back to my upbringing, money is the most talked about topic in the Bible. Money is a thing that we should not shine or shy away from. But yeah, absolutely. I understand why anyone would take issue with the idea of money, but it's not that money again in itself is a bad thing, it's how we use money. In that scripture that is misquoted, it actually says the love of money is a root of all evil, right? So not money, but it's the love of it. And if the love of money is higher than our love of people or more ... The love of money is a priority over the planet and each other and community then therein is the evil. So the reason that there are children in cages as we speak right now is because of money, right? And so it all comes back down to money.
Edgar: 11:09 And so I think it's really important for those of us who are in movement work, those of us who are in social change leadership to understand how money and capital is flowing through the world and how it is being used in ways to oppress and dominate. Because in any campaign or any type of work we're doing to address those issues, we have got to disrupt and use money in a different way. And so money has been used in ways historically that have been super helpful, right? Philanthropy with all of its ills has supported the civil rights movement, innovation, and what not. So we have examples of how money can be used in a good, there is nothing wrong with having wealth and having money. I actually, I want to build wealth. I want to have the feeling that I have more than enough and that I'm not one car accident away from being homeless. I've done pretty well for myself, but I'm like a lot of folks where my check is a community check where I'm taking care of the grandma and the mom and all of those things, right?
Edgar: 12:17 So I would like to get to the place where I have enough money in the bank to feel super confident that if I pass a quarter on the street, I don't have to pick it up. I still pick up quarters. And it's not because I love money or want to hoard it, but there is ... I'm totally okay with the idea of having money. I just want everybody to have it. I don't want to have money to the extent the others don't have it, right? I don't want to exploit or harm people or this planet so that I can have money. But the thing is we have so many resources, right? If we put on our abundance mindset hat, there's enough wealth to go around that we all should be coordinating those resources and sharing those resources in a way that we all mutually benefit.
Edgar: 13:05 And so I think sometimes those of us who don't come from wealth have a poverty mentality almost out of a defense mechanism. Or if we work in nonprofit organizations, we think that we're supposed to underpay our people or struggle or not have cute offices. And this is something that I pushed back on. I think that we're worthy to have all of the nice things, right? But we're working toward a world that everyone benefits and has equal access to the same types of privileges and opportunities.
Darlene: 13:38 But how does healing play into this notion that you have of decolonizing wealth?
Edgar: 13:45 Yeah. For me, on a personal basis, I think when I was at Rockwood there was a lot of frustration coming out for me at that time as a person that has been in the sector for some time and really trying to push forward change and to practice the work of equity and diversity and all of the things that we talk about. But to put that in practice in my institutions and there's just a frustration, the particular cohort I was in was all folks who work in philanthropy and I reached a point where I was like, we're having these same conversations. I'm so tired of people feeling oppressed and limited and stifled in these jobs because of these underlying things, dynamics within philanthropy that we're not allowed to really talk about publicly.
Edgar: 14:44 Those are really the root problems, right? And so I was sort of angry and it was also right around the time of, after the election where I started this writing process, and I'm not a person that holds that emotion of anger and frustration. I am a silly, silly bird, and just a very forgiving, kind of just happy go lucky person. And so as the anger and frustration was just kind of howling on, I felt like I had to do something to get this off of me. I spent some time back in North Carolina with my community there and I was talking with an elder about, I was saying to her, I just feel angry. And I was reminded that I needed to do some healing work.
Edgar: 15:37 And especially in times like now where there's so much pain and so much happening around, we've got to be intentional about our own healing journey as much as we are being involved in work that is helping our communities. So for me decolonizing is the work of healing because I had realized that I was so colonized. I had so assimilated and given up my original structions to this idea of the type of leader that I felt like I had to be in philanthropy to be successful. I had tried all the things like code switching, like all the things to really show up and be the kind of leader they wanted me to be. And I felt completely sort of like empty inside and that I was not being the type of leader that I was designed to be.
Edgar: 16:28 And so for me, getting back to that place of wholeness was a process of decolonizing or unlearning, kind of these sort of dominant ways of showing up and being. And I've found that journey to be connected to healing in my own community of shedding myself of this frustration, of this anger and really getting on a path to doing something about it. And that journey that was personal for me is something that I believe can be something that groups of people or organizations kind of go through together or communities. In fact, this entire country could go through a process of truth and reconciliation. So I call ... To boil down the large word of decolonization for me is just really about healing because we can't undo colonization. But what we can do is acknowledge the trauma that it has caused in all of us. Whether you're a person of color, indigenous or white and begin a healing journey to repair from that trauma.
Darlene: 17:33 That's really powerful. So as we're thinking about this word decolonizing as a healing journey, what are some of the ... I mean, what could that look like in practice? What are some of the ways that ... I heard you say we can do this at many different levels. So are there particular ways that either you're working with yourself or that you've seen folks in groups or organizations do that are really useful or could be instructive for the rest of us? You know, of what it looks like to decolonize either our own wealth or our own relationships to money and or if we're working in one of these systems, how do people bring some of this possibility to the institutions they're working in?
Edgar: 18:21 Like a lot of things, it starts with awareness and like you said, we are so desensitized to colonization. We often think of colonization as something that happened years ago, but it's actually still happening in real time. And so actually being aware of the dynamics of colonization and how they're showing up and not allowing ourselves to become so desensitized to that. We live in such a culture of sort of white dominant narrative that we've internalized that to the point that it's normal. We have all sort of collectively agreed at some level that white is better and that white is right and that white is beautiful. And that is a product of the books we read and the shows we watch on television, all of this narrative has just been driven by folks who are white.
Edgar: 19:19 And so I had a friend who described it really beautifully, like we wake up every single day with a pill in our mouth and we have to make a conscious choice to swallow that pill or to spit that pill out. And that pill is white supremacy. It's just a default. And so how can we become so aware of the dynamics that every morning we make very intentional choices to spit the pill out? And that is the hard work that we all have to commit to doing. It's like walking backwards on a moving sidewalk at the airport. Everyone's coming this way, right? We're turning around with our bags and just busting through the crowd in the opposite direction. And so that's the level of commitment and awareness that it's going to take for us to begin to dismantle white supremacy. But to make that a little bit more tangible, the processes that I outlined in the book around healing.
Edgar: 20:17 The first step is grief. And that sounds like not super exciting, no one wants to grieve. But the truth is, in order to heal as people, as organizations, as a community, we have got to have a process of truth and reconciliation. And the fact is when we understand the truth of what has happened in this country, the truth about how we have perpetuated some of this injustice, either voluntarily or whatnot, we're going to feel a sense of grief about that. And that's a good thing. We should have a conscious about it. But in this country especially, we are so programmed to be futuristic and forward thinking and not look toward the past. And so we often kind of bury these things under the surface where they fester until there's outrageous acts that are horrifying because we haven't dealt with the root of the problem.
Edgar: 21:19 And even in our families, there are certain conversations that need to be had that we're not having. Right? Pain and abuse and things that have happened that we sweep under the carpet and we just move forward. And I was kind of raised that way personally. Right? It's like there was sort of the sentiment, well, we're still here and we're still on our two feet, so let's just keep moving forward. But the problem is if we don't confront trauma either in our families or in our communities or in our history as a country, those things begin to faster under the surface and we're not able to get to a complete place of wholeness or wellness. And I think that's a major problem that we have as a country. We don't teach the true history of our country in our schools. And I'm not asking for folks to ... I don't like the idea of being sad and I can't even watch some of these great new shows that are out because I know they're going to be really triggering for me.
Edgar: 22:15 Right? But we do need to have a process in this country of truth and reconciliation. We've never had an official apology from the US government to First Nations people for genocide. We've never had an apology for every single treaty that was broken. Every one of them was broken. We've never officially apologized to Black Americans for slavery, our original sin. And so when we as a society just refused to acknowledge really these things that have happened, then we are all holding that under the surface and we can't move forward. If we can just put it all out there once and for all and speak the truth and know the truth, then our actions in terms of how we respond are going to be so much more authentic. Right? For an example, reparations which is related to money. I'm super excited about the conversation on reparations that we're having in the United States.
Edgar: 23:14 I'm thrilled that it is a part of the democratic sort of platform kind of at this point. But what I am concerned about with that is that it feels like a quick fix to me if to just kind of throw some money and say, okay, once and for all we're going to move beyond that and we're going to be on this equal ground in a post racial society. I think money needs to be moved to repair that harm. But I also think that we as a community have to have a process of truth and reconciliation to do the necessary healing and acknowledgement. I just want to be acknowledged for .. I want my history to be acknowledged and I want to be apologized to. And if we were, if the US government was truly sorry for what it has done, if it truly wanted to apologize, there would be no question about reparations.
Edgar: 24:01 That would be an easy policy solution. But the reason that we keep kicking that around and we're not getting a resolution around reparations is because we haven't grieved our history as a country and we definitely haven't apologize. And so with the moving of money, we have to also deal with the underlying trauma and truth of our histories so that we can use resources in a way moving forward that is respectful to that history. Whether you're moving money literally as a foundation or if you're designing programs or if you're in education or healthcare. We have to understand the historical context of the problems we're trying to solve. So we're not applying blanket approaches to groups of people who are impacted by issues in different ways based on our history.
Darlene: 24:53 Yeah. Thank you so much for that. So look, I'm not going to let you get away without saying something about practices because I heard you, I didn't jump on you, but I heard you earlier talking about you shouldn't be the one to talk about certain kinds of self care or personal ecology or that kind of thing. But what kind of practices are you doing? Or what ones resonate with you the most as something that you really, as a part of your leadership feel like it's critical for you to pay attention to? I mean, it could be purpose, it could be vision. I hear you around ecology, that's probably the hardest for all of us, by the way. And yeah, just want to begin to wrap up in a little bit on that note so that folks from the network kind of hear your experience around carrying the practices forward.
Edgar: 25:51 Yeah. I'm not consistent, but for me, especially because I live in New York City now and it's just constant noise and people around. So for me, I enjoy the moments of solitude. I really enjoy getting massages. I try to go about every two weeks to get a massage, which is quite a commitment. But I think there's something about just being in a quiet room for one, it's like I tell people I pay to take a nap in a quiet place in New York City. Okay? And I think there's just something very therapeutic about the human touch and that transference of energy in some ways and that release of anxiety from my body that is physically healing for me. So that is my practice. I also try to, I tap into things that bring me joy. And one of the things from my past growing up in the South and growing up in the church is that I've always loved black gospel music.
Edgar: 26:56 And so when my partner's not at home, I will put on my black gospel music wide open while I'm washing dishes and just shout around the house and let it all out. And so it's kind of bringing back to me just lots of happy memories from how I grew up. And there's just something about black gospel music that is like truly liberating and empowering to me. So I think it's finding those things that bring you joy and holding those close. And making time is the hardest thing I think for all of us. And regardless of how busy I am, I will always squeeze in that phone call to a friend on my way to a meeting or wherever to that's going to crack me up on the phone and give me that deep belly laugh. I try to have a deep belly laugh at least once a day.
Darlene: 27:43 Oh, wow.
Edgar: 27:44 I think those go far. Yeah.
Darlene: 27:46 Wow. That is ... I'm going to have to take that with me. You know, I take what we talk about into the rooms, a deep belly laugh once a day sounds like it's right up my alley. I love it. I love it. We're going to go ahead and wrap it up. You know, I always ask people what song is on your movement mix tape?
Edgar: 28:09 There's a song that I sing every day that a lot of people may not know. Again, that's going back to my roots in a church, but it's just a song that just says peace, peace, wonderful peace. And I think it's for me living in a pretty chaotic moment right now in terms of schedule and New York City and just all the noise. I just hum that song in my head as I'm walking somewhere. It's just peace, peace, wonderful peace coming down from the father above. And so I just try to be intentional with my peace, because as they used to say, growing up in a church, the world didn't give it and the world can't take it away.
Darlene: 28:51 All right now. I so appreciate that. On that note, I want to say thank you for that and for everything, Edgar. Really, really want to appreciate you for taking this time. I know how busy you are and how demanding it all is and I'm so immensely grateful to be one person among the many that's following your leadership right now and I'm really grateful for you joining us and for being who you are in the world. Thank you brother.
Edgar: 29:21 Thank you. I appreciate you and thank you for the work of Rockwood.
Darlene: 29:25 Absolutely. Absolutely. Well, folks, listen, that's it for this episode of Rockwood's Leading from the Inside Out Podcast. Thank you again to Edgar Villanueva and from all of us at Rockwood. We wish you joyful leadership. Thanks for doing this.
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