In recognition and celebration of Native American Heritage Month, we’re featuring a recent conversation with Edgar Villanueva, author of Decolonizing Wealth
, and Michele Storms, ACLU-WA’s Executive Director. The two took the stage at ACLU-WA’s Annual Celebration in October to explore the meaning of decolonizing wealth, the path forward for progressive movements and, in keeping with the event’s theme, how to dwell in the possibility of an equitable and just future for all.
Villanueva is an award-winning author, activist, and expert on issues of race, wealth, philanthropy, and ESG (Environmental, social, and governance) Investing. Edgar is the Founder and Principal of the Decolonizing Wealth Project and Liberated Capital and author of the bestselling book Decolonizing Wealth (2018, 2021). He advises a range of organizations including national and global philanthropies, Fortune 500 companies, and entertainment enterprises on social impact strategies to advance racial equity from within and through their investment strategies.
Edgar holds a BSPH and MHA from the Gillings Global School of Public Health at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is an enrolled member of the Lumbee Tribe and resides in New York City.
Storms began the discussion by asking Villanueva to reflect on the meaning of decolonization. Their talk has been edited for length and clarity.
: To really understand decolonization, you have to understand colonization. Obviously, decolonization is undoing colonization. The colonizing powers talk about colonization with no shame. They’re actually quite proud of their accomplishments. The truth is colonization is an atrocity. It is a very violent force that has been happening on this land for hundreds of years. Colonization is so much deeper [than conquering]. With colonization, you go to a place, and you stay. And you force the Indigenous population to become like you.
And it is not something that just happened historically. It is very much happening right now. We are still putting children in cages. We are still taking children from their families. We are still taking land from folks.
When I think about decolonization, it’s not about blaming or pointing to folks who are descendants of the colonizers. Hundreds of years of colonization has impacted us all negatively – whether you are a descendant of the colonizers or the colonized. We have different trauma, but we are all suffering because we have not healed from this process that has affected all policies and systems.
The way that I approach decolonization is to think about it as healing from the collective trauma of colonization. It’s acknowledging the truth – which is clearly under attack right now – and documenting that and committing to a collective healing process because we’re all in this thing together.
: One of the things you say about colonization is that it is control over what is imaginable. Here we are tonight dwelling in possibility. I think maybe that could be a tool for decolonization – dwelling in possibility. What are you dwelling in these days?
: To decolonize does begin with imagining. It begins with believing something else is possible. We are so deeply ingrained in this way of being, with every system we navigate and use every day so deeply invested in extraction, harm, and oppression -- with pitting one group against each other.
The only way out of this mess is to be able to imagine that a different way is possible. I’m so thankful for spaces like this where we can talk, we can challenge each other, we can inspire each other, and we can remind each other that there is a future where we can all thrive and heal from the wounds of generational trauma.
: What recommendations do you have for all of us as we try to imagine something new?
: To get to a better future we have to begin to understand how we got here. Folks on the right know this. There’s a reason they’re banning books. There’s a deeper agenda behind trying to erase our history. If we can address our history and take collective ownership for our history, for the fact that black people have never had an official apology for slavery; that, for their land that was stolen, Indigenous folks have never received an official apology; that was not until the late 1970s that the last boarding school closed down. There has been no amends for this history.
The only way for us to heal is to understand how we got here and to take collective responsibility. For individuals, know your history. Where does your people’s history intersect with the history of this country – did you receive some extra boosts or were you oppressed? It’s important to know who we are and what we’re bringing to this work so you can show up and be a leader and help others heal.
: It is vexing that we’re in this place where we can’t get reparations or an apology for really dramatic harms that continue to have generational impact across so may systems. We’re also vexed by the political realities of our time. One of the things you talk about is unity and healing from that trauma. And you lay out seven steps for us to heal.
: We are very excited [at the Decolonizing Wealth Project] to try to help people understand how we heal. We have seven steps of healing that can be applied to any institution, to any situation – a country, a family – and are rooted in an Indigenous worldview. If you’re familiar with restorative justice practices – all of that comes from the same sort of Indigenous teachings. It begins with acknowledging the truth and grieving the truth. We are so quick to jump to solutions. But we do have to pause to grieve. Grieving is a part of that spiritual work, that soul work that has to happen.
We’re also in an era of truth and repair right now.
Many universities, non-profits and even corporations are saying we’ve used this institution to perpetuate white supremacy. They’re coming forth with that history and being honest about it and saying we’re sorry.
That’s what the seven steps of healing are all about. It’s really about truth and reconciliation. It’s also about the money -- investing and divesting, and reparations – redistributing wealth back to the communities from where it was extracted in the first place.
: Here we are at an ACLU event with staff, members, donors, and supporters who are committed to fighting for liberty and freedom. What are some suggestions for us?
: It’s so important right now that we remain steadfast and committed. There’s so much backsliding because of the Supreme Court decision
and there’s fear and people are backing away from wanting to talk about race. I think it’s more important right now that we are unapologetic about a commitment to racial and economic justice and that we stand boldly and fight for the right to do that.
We have to make space for the leadership of young people. They have a vision for the future that I don’t have and I’ve got to make space for their leadership. Young people have a growing disdain toward institutions, even progressive institutions. We need to make space for that and ask why.
I think that we as progressive people need to practice grace a little bit more. We are all human beings doing this work from a place of love and we’re all going to make mistakes. We can’t tear each other down. This is a colonial mindset of scarcity and fear. We can learn loving accountability and grace for each other because this work is hard.
: You talk a lot about the Indigenous worldview values of connection, belonging and reciprocity – getting to a place where our flourishing is mutual. That is the most delightful possibility I can think to dwell in. What would you like to offer to our attendees tonight, regardless of their indigeneity?
: The Indigenous worldview -- the way we see the world -- is not something we have a monopoly on. We invite people to see the world through that lens. That worldview has allowed us to survive for thousands of years. We know how to be in harmony with the land and the planet, we know how to be respectful and really truly believe we are all connected – my suffering is your suffering, and my thriving is your thriving. That stuff is real. These ideas of separation and isolation, again, this is a colonial construct that we have to dismantle. It’s practice. I’m native. Some of it is in my DNA but I didn’t wake up and see the world in all of those ways. I’m still unlearning and relearning. We have to challenge our assumptions and work hard to see how we show up in community in a very different way. It’s for everybody.
: What gives you hope?
: What gives me hope in this moment is the power of people. To witness how solidarity can look and how love can look and people coming together to fight for what’s right. That’s what the ACLU has always been about. Grassroots organizing and movement building. I’m deeply inspired by the folks who are impacted by everything that’s going on but still have the strength to get up and keep fighting in organizer communities. Those of us who have lived at the margins, who have been most impacted by injustice have exactly the solutions needed to move us forward. I’m so grateful for people who are taking a stand for right – like you all – and organizing. We can’t give up. That gives me hope.