Skip to main content

Yale Philanthropy Conference 2023: “Advancing Justice”: Edgar Villanueva on Decolonizing Wealth and Reimagining Philanthropy

Keynote speaker Edgar Villanueva (right) with Devin Murphy
Keynote speaker Edgar Villanueva (right) with Devin Murphy

The Yale Philanthropy Conference hosted Edgar Villanueva as its first keynote speaker. In conversation with Devin Murphy of Bridgespan, Villanueva discussed his book, Decolonizing Wealth, and his organization, the Decolonizing Wealth Project, which offers “truth, reconciliation, and healing from the ails of colonization through education, radical reparative giving, and narrative change.”

Villanueva described the influence of his Indigenous culture on his work, his personal values, and his understanding of wealth. He urged the audience, comprised of both students and practitioners, to step back and examine our fundamental understanding of the ownership of wealth. Villanueva described how Indigenous communities understand wealth as being of the community, rather than of the individual. To wealthy philanthropists, Villanueva says: “it’s not your money.” Wealth has been acquired through systems of white supremacy and is not a result of how hard an individual works, as people in poverty clearly also work hard.

Villanueva went on to describe the philosophy behind Liberated Capital, the fund and donor community within the Decolonizing Wealth Project. While the fund’s ultimate goal is to move “untethered resources to Black, Indigenous and other people-of-color communities,” its purpose is also to create a space for donors to learn, acknowledge harms, and get on a path to reconciliation through personal healing. Villanueva sees this “in-between work” as essential to creating change in the sector, though he acknowledged that facilitating this work is difficult and not for everyone. He spoke to the importance of seeing all people as people and avoiding “cancel culture.” The organization’s healing-based approach has been successful even for more conservative or skeptical philanthropists, as long as they are willing to come to the table with curiosity.

Villanueva emphasized the need not only for redistribution of wealth, but for communities of color to have self-determination and control over resources. The name “Liberated Capital” refers to the liberation that comes when donors free themselves of the need for power and control. Villanueva argued that there is an inherent distrust of poor people in this country, which bleeds into philanthropy. He urged the audience to push back on the narrative that poor people and people of color can’t be trusted with resources. In his words, “poverty is the product of public policy and theft,” which is why Villanueva is a strong advocate for reparations.

True to the conference’s theme of Advancing Justice, Villanueva’s talk started the day with a powerful call for transformational change in the sector. He closed on an optimistic note, celebrating that conversations like these were now held onstage in a keynote speech, while just a few years ago they happened only in small groups huddled in the hallway between conference sessions. The question for us today, he posed, is how to sustain these recent changes in philanthropy.