How Philanthropy Can Get Serious About Racial Healing

by Schott Vice President Edgar Villanueva

Today, as a member of the Lumbee Tribe and a foundation official, I plan to join with people across the United States to observe the third annual National Day of Racial Healing. Started by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, this national day is designed to bring Americans together to demonstrate solidarity and work toward healing our racial divides. But what does it take to truly heal?

When historians and sociologists document the legacy of imperialism and slavery, we sometimes question whether travesties that occurred centuries earlier still influence the world today. As the saying goes, "Time heals all wounds." And yet, how can time actually heal absent concrete and specific plans to permit victims of suffering to voice their pain, receive an acknowledgment of their suffering, or restitution?

In reality, time is not an elixir, nor does it, alone, have the power to heal.

One of the ways society has responded to communal suffering is through charitable giving. We see a problem, and we reach in our wallets or foundation coffers to give.

But we have sometimes done so without upending imperialist practices. Consequently, the day-to-day operations of the foundation world can sometimes impart further harm on historically marginalized communities. Many of the people managing philanthropic resources, including the people determining the process for gaining access to those resources, are doing so without deep relationships with the communities closest to the pain of social, racial, and economic injustice. They are also doing so without a deep analysis of how their internal systems perpetuate harm.

Indigenous people, people of African descent, and many other people of color — must often apply for access to the very wealth stolen from our ancestors. To apply for financial support, prospective grantees must demonstrate proficiency with the technical aspects of the process.

Never mind that people who are leading the real work to bring about change in our neighborhoods and on the streets do not always have the skills they need to be proficient grant seekers. After all, their energy and skill must be deployed to do critical work, not to understand how to navigate a competitive and disconnected grant-seeking environment. So even foundations and other donors that have declared they want to support grassroots nonprofits and activists are not accessible to the organizations that are most effective and deserving of aid.

Us vs. Them

Wealthy families, individuals, foundations, and other institutions that seek to improve society by giving money away must acknowledge the ways in which their privileged lives blind them to solutions that work best for all people. They must also recognize that that same privilege has both inured them to and reinforced colonial divisions like "us vs. them," "haves vs. have-nots," and mostly "white saviors" and white "experts" vs. poor, needy, urban, disadvantaged, marginalized, or at-risk people (take your pick of euphemisms for people of color).

As members of an indigenous community, many Native Americans are demeaned by people in philanthropy who say we lack information and resources. Of course resources are a problem for us: After jumping through hurdles to even be considered for funding, we are scrutinized and often denied access anyway. The tactics of colonization continually violate and traumatize, even today.

To advance healing, foundations must have frank conversations about where their wealth came from, what it means that their donors got big tax breaks that deprived the federal government of important tax dollars, how their endowments are invested, and who gets to manage, allocate, and spend it.

Recently, books like Anand Giridharadas’ Winners Take All as well as The Givers by David Callahan and Just Giving by Rob Reich have kicked up a storm of op-eds, tweets, and blogs that offer much-needed critiques of philanthropy and the ways in which it perpetuates, rather than eradicates, society’s inequities.

The Money Dynamic

However, there is an essential piece missing from many critiques of philanthropy. To focus all the blame on "elites," capitalism, or economic inequality is to obscure the real root of the problem, which is Americans’ relationship with money. Money itself is neutral, but it is representative of what we value. What we are really challenging is the greed and exploitation involved in how some have accumulated wealth and the unfair structures set up to maintain it. Recognizing and understanding this dynamic will allow us to use money as a tool to facilitate healing, connectedness, and balance.

As we do that, we must ensure that the people who have been hurt the most in decades and decades of colonial approaches are the ones who get to say what works and what doesn’t.

Time and time again, we have learned that trauma cannot be healed from the outside in; for healing to take place, the people who have been harmed must have the resources they need to be agents in their own recovery. This is why philanthropic institutions must follow in the steps of organizations like NoVo Foundation, which is asking people who live in poverty to share their needs instead of telling these communities what to do.

This National Day of Racial Healing, it is necessary to acknowledge powerful moments of reckoning and opportunities to join together across lines of race, class, and gender in important arenas: sexual abuse and sexual harassment survivors saying #MeToo, #MuteRKelly, and #TimesUp; black Americans continuing to remind us that #BlackLivesMatter; anti-gun-violence advocates crying out for #NotOneMore; climate scientists pleading #WeToldYouSo. An inescapable fact is that our nation is being pushed to confront and deal with uncomfortable truths.

Money as Medicine

In philanthropy, an uncomfortable truth is that our relationship to money must change. The concept of decolonizing wealth asks us to imagine what if money could be used as medicine instead of a dividing line? A central part of this concept is to invest in strategies that close the racial wealth gap and to divest in portfolios that cause harm to people and the land.

Thankfully, we’re seeing these conversations begin to take hold in some of today’s leading philanthropic organizations. Recently, Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, issued a powerful call for leaders in philanthropy and finance ­-- many of whom themselves are beneficiaries of colonialism -- to acknowledge the privilege and bias that permeates their own institutions.

There is no shortage of ways philanthropy can dig in: It can continue to advance ideas for a universal basic income and provide reparations to indigenous and African-American people to compensate for the treatment of their ancestors as well as push for ways to close the gap in health care that perpetuates generations of discrimination. The question now is whether philanthropy will follow the lead of the people closest to the pain.

Edgar Villanueva is vice president for programs and advocacy at the Schott Foundation for Public Education. He is also author of "Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides and Restore Balance."

Originally published in Chronicle of Philanthropy.

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