National Conference Speaker: Edgar Villanueva

Now we’re talking - about race, power, equity and justice

Edgar Villanueva says you would never have heard the words 'white supremacy' or 'decolonization’ at a philanthropy conference three years ago. Yet in two months’ time, the philanthropic activist and author of Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom to heal Divides and Restore Balance, will be a keynote speaker at Philanthropy Australia’s conference.

What’s changed? Is it a worried world that’s turned or is it philanthropy itself? How is it that those words loaded with meaning and heavy with history, are now part of the conversation of giving?

Edgar believes part of the change has been the work he and others have done to push the words in to the mainstream discussions. As Senior Vice President, Programs & Advocacy, at the Schott Foundation, the Chair of Native Americans in Philanthropy and the Founder & Chief Strategist, Decolonizing Wealth Project (US), Edgar is a philanthropy insider but with a rare and powerful perspective to help shift thinking.

“I do think speaking the truth directly, the firm critique that was given with love from someone inside the industry, really opened the door for folks to say: “Hey, we really need to listen to this and listen to what other people of colour are saying and doing’,’’ Edgar explains. “And then what of course has happened in the past year with the pandemic and the movement for Black Lives, it just really accelerated the conditions for folks to have a real conversation about race and power and the role of philanthropy in helping to move us all forward toward a more just society.’’

Edgar knows better than most the power of words and the role they play in driving change: ‘acknowledge’, ‘apologise’ and ‘listen’ are common expressions in what he says and what he writes. Each of the words points to an action modern philanthropy can take to help redress past wrongs and move forward.

“I’m really relieved and grateful that this sector is inviting these types of conversations that have historically been the types of conversations that have been held in private or around the water cooler and now they’re sort of the main stage conversations,’’ Edgar says.

“We’ve been holding this mirror up for a couple of years and taken a long deep look at ourselves and coming to terms with our intentions. If we’re really serious about diversity, equity and justice, then what is our role? Is it to be complicit with this system or is there a much more proactive stance we want to take to be part of a movement for justice?’’

Edgar is in no doubt that philanthropy in the US, Canada and other countries he’s visited has started to grapple with the issues around old-style philanthropy that he has characterised as “top down, closed door and expert-driven.’’ He sees evidence of philanthropy now having “…conversations about race and power and the origins of both and how we can and must do better, how we’re doing this work and who is benefitting from these resources.’’

What he has identified is the sense that philanthropy has moved away from its origins, both in terms of its literal meaning (a love of humanity) and its implementation, at a community level. “I think sometimes the heart and the work has been lost and has become an intellectual type of enterprise, thinking about of problems and theories of changes and data and collection of research,’’ Edgar says. “That stuff is good but it’s really about achieving that balance, ensuring that in all of our efforts, whether it’s moving money or providing other types of service to community that we’re doing in such a way that it centres love of people above our own agendas.’’

Often, the first step is that conversation starts with listening. But Edgar soon found from his experience and research that ‘listening’ was more elusive than he thought and there was a old familiar reason why it had been so slow to change.

“Being heard is a basic human right but often what happens, it’s very easy when you are in a seat of power and privilege to become of the mind that you have the answers,’’ Edgar explains. “And often community and society panders to us as funders at some level and often doesn’t push back or provoke us because of this imbalance of power that exists and this dance that has been created between funder and recipients, that folks have to engage in, to get the much-needed resources to do their work.’’

There’s that word “power’’ again, the ancient preserver of privilege and frequent impediment to equity.

 “It’s just really being completely self-serving and self-centring our work around ourselves versus community and it gets really difficult to actually really hear people and to listen with a willingness to change our mind if someone gives us different information because ultimately, I think that’s a form of giving up some power if we actually yield the floor to others and allow others to be in the space,’’ Edgar says.

“Hoarding power is something that we’re a little bit addicted to in this sector.’’

Book your spot for the Philanthropy Australia National Conference 2021: what does the future need from us, now?  Click here to register.

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