By Kathleen McCarthy
Shifting the narrative and sharing the power
Last November I had the great fortune of attending an event hosted by Maryland Philanthropy Network called Decolonizing Wealth: A Conversation with Edgar Villanueva.
Having heard from colleagues who attended his session at a national family foundation conference last year, I knew that the conversation would be challenging… and I was not wrong.
You see, Villanueva makes a bold argument about philanthropy: rather than improving the lives of those it seeks to serve, he says philanthropy actually re-traumatizes communities, especially those of color, as it adheres to practices and beliefs rooted in colonialism.
While it was one thing to hear Villanueva share his personal path to this conclusion, it was quite another to sit quietly with the book and really consider what he was saying.
My first reaction to the idea that I work in an industry which, in his words – “has evolved to mirror colonial structures” – was a combination of defensiveness and an uncomfortable level of knowing. On the one hand, I know when I am working with a grantee I am careful to call into play the “culture of respect, curiosity, acceptance, and love” that Villanueva discusses. I also feel confident that in doing so, I am working to “create, relate and belong.” However, I cannot ignore that there is always a power dynamic that requires an applicant to conform to cultural norms that may not fit who they are or how they express themselves.
We discussed this dynamic and the trauma it can cause during a gathering we recently hosted with some of our youth-serving grantees. The grantees brought up the fact that negative narratives (i.e. how bad things are) are often what compels funders to take action. Yet such an approach of “deficit framing” by philanthropy forces communities to remain stuck and stigmatized in stories that are not authentic, and that reinforce a colonialist narrative of weakness and dependency. This is especially true for nonprofits serving communities of color. A better frame would be to ask nonprofits about the strengths and assets of their community.
Conversations and critiques such as those put forward by Villanueva and surfaced in our own work are a growing and important part of our sector’s landscape. While they are no doubt challenging, it does not mean that they are unworthy of examination and consideration.
Written with humor, humility and hard-facts, Villanueva’s “Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides and Restore Balance” presses the reader to pause and truly consider the field – how it arose, how it operates, and how it largely perpetuates harmful dynamics that ultimately inhibit the systemic changes the sector would like to see. Challenging stuff indeed.