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Life & Work with Edgar Villanueva

Today we’d like to introduce you to Edgar Villanueva.

Hi Edgar, can you start by introducing yourself? We’d love to learn more about how you got to where you are today.
I share my full story in Decolonizing Wealth, but to keep things brief – my mom was a single mother who worked for wealthy folks as a domestic worker in Raleigh. Sometimes she would bring me to the houses she cleaned – so I grew up with a unique proximity to wealth – seeing the benefits offered – while personally experiencing the challenges of poverty. When I finished my Master’s program at UNC Gillings Global School of Public Health, I was offered a job at the private foundation, the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, in Winston-Salem as a Program Officer. In this role, I was bridging wealth, or redistributing wealth, to low-income North Carolina. Once again, I was thrust into the realm of extreme wealth – and introduced to the world of philanthropy.

I was the only Native American, a Lumbee, working at the foundation. I wanted to use my privilege to support under-resourced organizations and communities – and I tried. I pushed. But I kept seeing the bulk of funds go to organizations that seemingly had enough. Often these organizations had few, if any, people of color leading them. Studies indicate that less than 10% of grants made are to Indigenous, Black, and other communities of color for the work of racial equity is an offense to the word ‘philanthropy.’ This observation was consistent in almost every philanthropic role I’ve had. The source of most institutional philanthropy money has roots in colonization, enslavement, and extraction of resources from Native American land.

After years of fighting the system, I had enough – I was ready to share my story, hoping it would wake up philanthropy from its slumber and offer the sector a vision for a new way forward. So, I wrote Decolonizing Wealth, which came out in 2018; I released the second edition last year, and the Spanish-language edition just came out on June 14th. My organization, Decolonizing Wealth Project, and its fund, Liberated Capital, are working to change this system through a reparative philanthropy lens.

I’m sure you wouldn’t say it’s been obstacle free, but so far would you say the journey has been a smooth road?
My journey has been smooth – but I’m grateful for those challenges; they’ve shaped my worldview and given me the lived experiences needed to advocate for change in philanthropy and beyond. I don’t want easy – a few things that come easy create change.

Alright, so let’s switch gears a bit and talk business. What should we know about your work?
I’m proud that my book, Decolonizing Wealth, which started as a side project to help me process some career trauma, was the catalyst for my organization, Decolonizing Wealth Project (DWP), a movement that is liberating finances and people. DWP, and our fund, LIberated Capital, have influenced more than $500M in donations to go to Indigenous, Black, and other communities of color. Our unique value proposition is our goal is to bring healing to all – colonization set in motion a system that harms everyone, regardless of racial identity. Colonization and white supremacy extract time and resources from us – all of us- and leave us barren, craving the kind of organic fulfillment that can never come from the grind. We must restore balance in our lives, the environment, and each other.

Is there a quality that you most attribute to your success?
Is it proud to say humility and a sense of humor? I’ve learned so much over the last 20+ years, and I credit my teachers and peers, whose patience has given me space to learn about a world beyond the Pentecostal church background in which I was raised. If I had thought I had the answers, I would have missed so much richness, community, and healing. Stay open, you all – and laugh at yourself along the way.

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Image Credits
Kisha Bari

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