Edgar Villanueva is an internationally recognized expert on impact investing and philanthropy and author. He is an indigenous man, an enrolled member of North Carolina’s Lumbee Tribe who’s written a book on decolonizing wealth. And he is a Christian.
“This is the first event I’ve ever spoken at where all my identities showed up at once,” he said, during the first webinar presented by Faith+Finance: Reimagining God’s economy, which had more than 200 people registered.
Speaking on an impact investing virtual session using a Christian lens on money, Villanueva told the more than 100 attendees. “I know we are like minded in ideology, but we have to work to shift stories that are harmful,” take new actions that are reparative.
“If you understand the history of colonization in the United States, it’s violent; oppressing people was connected to the accumulation of wealth. We have harmed the planet in the name of wealth. The wealth in this country was based on slavery and genocide and oppression of people of color.”
That doesn’t mean white people should wallow in guilt; instead they can learn a new Gospel story and act in a new way, Villanueva said. “White supremacy is an ideology and story that had been made up. It’s not just in the past; it’s still current, in our education and other policies and attitudes. There is a colonizer virus that is still very much present.”
“But I have learned that the stories that were taught to me are optional,” Villanueva said. “We can let go of beliefs that limit us. I am a spiritual being and I can change and my belief, my faith, can be an ally as I change. I can imagine a different way of being and acting. What if we use wealth as a legitimate tool to imagine what is possible in the world, a tool that can lead to healing and dignity and purpose in the world?”
Jed Emerson, author of The Purpose of Capital and one of the founding thinkers of impact investing, was the other keynoter. He responded that as white Christians “come to understand the oppression of people of color, you have to own your own ugly,” which became the take away phrase of the first webinar. I used to think of white supremacy as skin heads and neo-nazis. But as an investor you have to realize that people give you the benefit of the doubt if you are a man and white. This is not something to talk to my black friends about what it means to be black. This is a white on white conversation. The wealthy (impact investors willing to engage) have had to hear some tough truths. You have to open yourself up, you can’t protect yourself (from those truths). But it opens up an an incredible opportunity for self liberation. We’ve been trapped in these boxes and expected to perform in certain ways.”
That new understanding has to lead to a new kind of action, including ceding control to the people who’ve been oppressed to create the wealth that impact investors and donors have to invest for good or give away.
“As impact investors we are the good guys, we would put money to work and take a haircut (on financial return) if its justified. But would we give up control of capital and our (controlling) role?”
That’s just what Villanueva has in mind. He wants foundations (which only give non-profits led by people of color less than eight percent of their charitable grants) should simply tithe: give up 10 percent of their assets (not just the five percent of their assets they give out annually) to non-profits led by people of color; ceding control.
That would mean dropping the toxic concept of altruism, Villanueva said. “Altruism is a harmful idea,“ he said. “It’s in the old separation paradigm, where charitable resources flow to the needy from the affluent. The notion of mutual impact is transformative; where the investor is impacted by the recipient and the impact is mutual. We need to move from altruism to reciprocity, that we are all connected with each other.”
The first step toward that mutuality called for by the Gospel need to get their anthropology in line with the Gospel said Dr. Reginald Blount who was a respondent on the zoom webinar to Villanueva and Emerson.
“Before we get to the conversation about capital, we need to get our anthropology right; we need to see what it means to see other parts of humanity as being as important as (people like us), “
“We need a real conversation about the value of all humanity, said Blount, a professor at Garrett Theological Seminary, who is also a pastor of an African Methodist Episcopal Church in his neighborhood of the South Side of Chicago.
“We can’t enter the social impact conversation until we are on the same page about how we value all of our humanity. We need to stop and pause and own our own ugly.”
“We are all made in the image of God and all humanity has sacred worth, with the power to create and to heal. God doesn’t have a hierarchy. Faith communities need to own their own ugly practice. Our class, racial, gender and sexuality hierarchies, where one group of the folk of God see themselves as better than the other.”
“If we think about shifting resources to communities of color already doing great work on the ground, we have to shift our anthropology and believe they are of equal value in the sight of God.”
So who would make the decision about what to do that 10% of the capital foundations have under management? Where would it go?
“People of color led organizations have the ideas and know the solutions,” Blount said. “We just don’t have the capital.” He went on to cite the 200 plus year old history of good work on mission focused economic development and empowerment from soup kitchens to day care the AME has been doing since before the country was founded.
For Villanueva’s bold idea to become real, that shifting of anthropology has to come first, Blount told the group. “Our behavior, our practices, will be shaped by what we believe.”
When that happens, “capital can be the fuel for freedom and liberation and justice,” Emerson said. “That’s the opportunity we can can pursue” when reimagining God’s economy. “It’s about mutuality, being and becoming, connected to each other.”