Can Money Be Medicine?

by Edgar Villanueva, Vice President of Programs & Advocacy

This is the second post for “Liberate Philanthropy,” a new blog series curated by Justice Funders to re-imagine and practice philanthropy free of its current constraints — the accumulation and privatization of wealth, and the centralization of power and control — to one that redistributes wealth, democratizes power and shifts economic control to communities. Over the next few months, we will be sharing stories from some of our most forward thinking, transformational leaders in philanthropy about how they are facilitating a Just Transition for philanthropy.

For most people, medicine is something used to treat or cure a disease, often a man-made drug, or sometimes an herb. Sometimes it refers to the whole field: hospitals, pharmacies, doctors, and so on. In Native Americans traditions, however, medicine is a way of achieving balance. An Indigenous medicine person doesn’t just heal illnesses — he or she can restore harmony or establish a state of being, like peacefulness. Medicine people live and practice among the people; access to them is constant and unrestricted. And the practice of medicine is not just limited to the hands of medicine people: everyone is welcome to participate. Engaging with medicine is a part of the experience of daily life. Traditionally, Indigenous people don’t wait to be out of balance before they turn to medicine.

In the Indigenous worldview, many kinds of things can be medicine: a place, a word, a stone, an animal, a natural phenomenon, a dream, a life event like a coffee date with a friend, or even something that seems bad in the moment like the loss of a job. Have you ever looked back at your life and thought, “that was the best thing that could have ever happened to me”? — that was medicine. In order for something or someone to serve as medicine, it only needs to be filled with or granted a kind of mystical or spiritual power. Anyone can find and use medicine, just by allowing your intuition and feelings to determine whether something can serve as medicine. You listen for its sacred power; you don’t force it.

You don’t choose the medicine, the elders say; it chooses you. It has taken me a long, long time to accept that the medicine that has chosen me is money. Because, I mean: money? Come on. Money corrupts. Money is dirty, even filthy. Money is the root of all evil, right?

But what is money but a way to measure value, to facilitate exchange? And what is exchange but a type of relationship between people? Money is a proxy for the sweat we spent on: growing food, sewing clothes, assembling electronics, coding apps, creating entertainment, researching and developing innovations, etc. It’s just a stand-in for the materials we used, the services granted, the responsibility shouldered. Money is a tool to reflect the obligations people develop to each other as they interact. It’s “the measure of one’s trust in other human beings,” as anthropologist David Graeber writes in his comprehensive book, Debt.

Materially, it’s a bit of nickel, zinc, copper. It’s a little linen, mostly cotton, some ink. It’s basically Kleenex adorned with dead presidents. Actually, today mostly it’s a series of zeroes and ones. Bytes, data on screens. Imaginary. Harmless.

And in fact, money is not the root of all evil — the love of money is — in other words, when we let it be more important than life, relationships, and humanity.

I’m not saying there aren’t problems with money when it’s hoarded, controlled, used to divide people, to oppress and dominate. But that’s not the money’s fault. Inherently it’s value-neutral. Humans have used money wrongfully. We’ve made money more important than human life. We’ve allowed it to divide us. That is a sin. We forget that we humans made money up out of thin air, as a concept, a tool for a complex society, a placeholder for aspects of human relations. We forget that we gave money its meaning and its power.

Money is like water. Water can be a precious life-giving resource. But what happens when water is dammed, when a water cannon is fired on protestors in subzero temperatures? Money should be a tool of love, to facilitate relationships, to help us thrive, rather than to hurt and divide us. If it’s used for sacred, life-giving, restorative purposes, it can be medicine.

Money, used as medicine, can help us decolonize. Why do we need to decolonize and how can money facilitate that process?

There is no question that the complicated set of issues facing us today are rooted in hundreds of years of colonization, suffering and trauma. Colonization is like a virus that every human institution and system as well as every human being carries inside. We all — the settlers and surviving colonized people — adapt, passing down these adaptations in their genes over generations. Yet the adaptations don’t constitute healing from the trauma. The virus remains: the original seeds of separation — fear of the Other — that lead to ongoing acts of control and exploitation.

The colonizer virus inside culture and institutions is especially dangerous. Our education system reflects the colonizer virus. So does our agriculture and food system. So does our foreign policy. So does our environmental policy. So does the field of design. And, the realms of wealth: investment, finance, and philanthropy.

In my forthcoming book, Decolonizing Wealth, I offer my thoughts on what we need to do to decolonize the institutions and processes around money. Across American history and through the present day, the accumulation of wealth is steeped in trauma.

The process of healing from that trauma is central to decolonization. Acknowledging our woundedness is key — not just for individuals, but in organizations that move and control money.

Therefore, institutions that move and control money can be institutions of racism and division, funders that exist to preserve the wealth and privilege of a few, to separate them from the rest of us. Funders who employ money in the name of division, to reinforce fear, greed, and envy.

Since at least the 1400s, White supremacy has been the justification for colonization, the conquest and exploitation of non-European lands, backed by a claim of divine sanction. European White imperialism spent centuries marching around the world, using whatever means necessary to amass and consolidate resources and wealth. Now, adding insult to injury, those who were stolen from or exploited to make that wealth — Indigenous people, people of African descent, and many other people of color — must apply for access to that wealth in the form of loans or grants; we must prove ourselves worthy. We are demeaned for our lack of resources, scrutinized, and often denied access after all. The tactics of colonization violate us and leave us traumatized, over generations, to this very day.

Yet there’s a silver lining in this cataclysm. All of us who have been forced to the margins are the very ones who harbor the best solutions for healing, progress and peace, by virtue of our outsider perspectives and resilience. When we reclaim our share of resources, when we recover our places at the table and the drawing board, we can design our healing. We can create new ways of seeking and granting access to money. We can return balance to the world by moving money to where the hurt is worst.

All of us — regardless of our race or ethnicities — must heal ourselves by each taking responsibility for our part in creating or maintaining the colonial virus.

We must heal our culture and our institutions by identifying and rejecting the colonized aspects of our culture and our institutions. In using money as medicine, we can eradicate the colonizer virus from our funding institutions: instead of divide, control, exploit, we embrace a new paradigm of connect, relate, belong.

Philanthropy must recognize the pain caused by the accumulation of wealth in the first place, how it was made on the backs of Indigenous people and slaves and low-wage workers, most of them people of color. We need to acknowledge philanthropy’s 100 year history of colonization, facilitated through tax laws as documented by “Stifled Generosity” and stop more hurt by managing these resources from the values of dignity and equity. We need to re-open the wounds and grieve them and apologize for them. We need to listen to each other in order to topple the Us vs. Them paradigm. Then we need to start walking our talk about diversity and equity, building whole new decision-making tables rather setting one token place at the colonial tables as an afterthought. Finally, we need to put our money where our values are and use money to heal where people are hurting, and stop more hurt from happening.

There are great examples of how this is beginning to happen, like the Buen Vivir Fund (whose story you will hear about later in this blog series) which is an impact investment fund that promotes financial models and practices that support communities’ holistic wellbeing, as opposed to focusing solely on maximizing individuals’ capital accumulation.

This is what I mean when I say that money, used as medicine, can help us decolonize and facilitate healing. This is how we liberate philanthropy.

Edgar Villanueva is a social justice philanthropy expert and author of “Decolonizing Wealth,” available for pre-sale on Amazon.com and everywhere books are sold on October 16, 2018. Follow him on Twitter @VillanuevaEdgar.

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