Money as Medicine

by Edgar Villanueva, Vice President of Programs and Advocacy

Forbes just released its annual list of the wealthiest folks on Earth, who have an average net worth of $4.1 billion. Every time one of these lists comes out, the first thing I do is scan for names that are not white men, and every time, I'm disappointed. You could hardly find a more striking visual to demonstrate that colonial dynamics are alive and kicking here in the 21st century, dividing the world into haves and have-nots.

The system of capitalism, by its nature, uses wealth as a tool to divide, control, and exploit us. And unfortunately, even the white knights of the money world—the institutions of philanthropy and ethical investing—can perpetuate trauma and spread what I call the “colonizer virus.” At the core of this affliction is a sense of dividedness or separation. It correlates with fear, distrust, scarcity, and blame—all of which arise when we think we’re not together in this thing called life. And when those afflicted with this virus devalue some forms of life and certain kinds of humans, they can control and exploit them.

With few exceptions, funders reinforce the colonial division of us versus them, haves versus have-nots, and mostly white saviors and white experts versus poor, needy, urban, disadvantaged, marginalized, at-risk people (take your pick of euphemisms for people of color). I know this because I’ve spent the past 14 years working in foundations and advising high-net-worth individuals, but the statistics also speak for themselves: Ninety-two percent of foundation CEOs and 89 percent of foundation boards are white, and only 7-8 percent of foundation funding goes specifically to people of color.

The same dynamics basically hold true across what I call the loans-to-gifts spectrum, including bank loans, venture capital, municipal bonds, and even social and ethical finance, impact investments, and humanitarian aid. Here the statistics are equally dismal: The management of financial services is 81 percent white, and 86 percent of venture capitalists and more than 96 percent of angel investors are white. On the receiving side, 42 percent of minority-owned firms are denied bank loans as opposed to only 16 percent of white-owned firms. A measly one percent of venture capital goes to African-American and Latino entrepreneurs.

To sum it up: When it comes to getting or giving access to money, white men are usually in charge, and everyone else has to be at least twice as good to get half (or less) as much.

As a Native American (an enrolled member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina), I believe humankind and other forms of life are all relatives; we are literally all related to one another. To heal what hurts, to come back together as one human race, and to restore balance to the land, we need to decolonize wealth and use money as our medicine.

Across American history and through the present day, the accumulation of wealth is steeped in trauma. 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. Asserting that paler people deserve more—more respect, more resources, more opportunity—for no reason beyond the utterly arbitrary and ultimately meaningless pigmentation of their skin, colonizers spent centuries marching around the world, using whatever means necessary to amass and consolidate resources and wealth.

Now, in a time often termed “post-colonial,” funders add insult to injury, as Indigenous people, people of African descent, and many other people of color—those who colonists frequently stole from or exploited to make that wealth—must apply for access to that wealth in the form of loans or grants. We must prove ourselves worthy. Many funders demean us for our lack of resources, scrutinize us, and often deny access after all.

The colonizer virus inside culture and institutions is especially dangerous. Our education system carries it. So does our agriculture and food system. So does our foreign policy. So does our environmental policy. So does the field of design. And so does the subject of my work: investment, finance, and philanthropy.

The tactics of colonization violate us and leave us traumatized, over generations, to this very day. Repeated and ongoing violation, exploitation, and deprivation have a deep, lasting impact not just at the individual level, but also on whole populations, tribes, and nations. The process of healing from trauma is central to decolonization.

Yet there’s a silver lining in this cataclysm. Those of us 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.

Money is like water; it’s a precious, life-giving resource. Money should be a tool of love that facilitates relationships and helps us thrive, rather than something that hurts and divides us. If we use it for sacred, life-giving, restorative purposes, it can be medicine.

In my work at the Schott Foundation, we have invested nearly $40 million since 1991 toward systemic change that addresses the disparities children of color face in US schools. Schott is a public foundation with an intentional focus on investing in grassroots campaigns led by communities of color. With an explicit race lens on our investment, those most impacted by inequalities have been able to lead change efforts and benefit from progress such as increased funding for public schools, the elimination of zero-tolerance discipline policies, and expanded community schools in Black and Latino neighborhoods—a model that provides whole-child wrap around supports for students.  

Decolonizing funding processes involves asking questions that usually remain unexamined in critiques and reforms: Where did the wealth come from? Why is it held back from public coffers? How is it invested as an endowment? Who gets to manage, allocate, and spend it?

It also requires that individuals and institutions take a series of steps toward healing:

  1. Grieve: Stop and feel the hurts we’ve endured.
  2. Apologize: Apologize for the hurts we’ve caused.
  3. Listen: Acknowledge the wisdom of those excluded and exploited by the system, who possess exactly the perspective and wisdom needed to fix it.
  4. Relate: Share our whole selves with each other and understand we don’t have to agree in order to respect each other.
  5. Represent: Build whole new decision-making tables, rather than setting token places at the colonial tables as an afterthought.
  6. Invest: Put all our money where our values are.
  7. Repair: Use money to heal where people are hurting and stop more hurt from happening.

Both individuals and institutions can and should engage in these steps. The steps aren’t necessarily linear. We sometimes need to revisit certain ones or repeat the entire process. In this way, it’s more of a circular or spiral process. Like any clever virus, the colonizer mindset keeps mutating and adapting. To heal fully, we need to be vigilant and occasionally get booster shots.  

Funders in particular must start with self-examination. We must take a long gaze in the mirror to see how colonization is showing up in our institutions, and be prepared to work through uncomfortable conversations about who we are, what we believe, and how we can adapt our approaches to be more equitable. We need to avoid the need to be an expert, and instead learn by doing it, funding it. In other words, we must use our money as medicine to steadily eradicate the colonizer virus, replacing the “divide, control, exploit” paradigm with “connect, relate, belong.”

This post was originally published at the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

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