Edgar Villanueva is a nationally-recognized expert on social justice philanthropy. Edgar currently serves as Chair of the Board of Directors of Native Americans in Philanthropy and is a Board Member of the Andrus Family Fund, a national foundation that works to improve outcomes for vulnerable youth.
Edgar is an instructor with The Grantmaking School at the Johnson Center at Grand Valley State University and currently serves as Vice President of Programs and Advocacy at the Schott Foundation for Public Education where he oversees grant investment and capacity building supports for education justice campaigns across the United States.
Edgar previously held leadership roles at Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust in North Carolina and at the Marguerite Casey Foundation in Seattle.
Edgar is the author of Decolonizing Wealth, which offers hopeful and compelling alternatives to the dynamics of colonization in the philanthropic and social finance sectors.
In addition to working in philanthropy for many years, he has consulted with numerous nonprofit organizations and national and global philanthropies on advancing racial equity inside of their institutions and through their investment strategies.
Edgar holds two degrees from the Gillings Global School of Public Health at The University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. Edgar is an enrolled member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina and resides in Brooklyn, NY.
Looking back, the first actual philanthropist I ever knew was my mother, not that she would have ever used that word. When asked what I do, she will say “philanthropy,” but she still stumbles over the word, and I’d be willing to bet money that she couldn’t spell it.
To enable me to have a better life, my mom—a single mother— worked two to three shifts a day for most of my childhood, two of those shifts as a domestic worker, providing nursing assistance, helping sick, frail and elderly (mostly wealthy) folks. A labor of love. Her first shift was at the DMV, a nine to five. Then she went to work providing care in a nursing home or someone's home for her second shift, and then a third shift at someone’s home where, if she was lucky, she could get a few hours of sleep between caretaking, until the shift ended at 7am and she’d come home, changes clothes, and start all over again. I’d tag along as often as possible. Many nights I hid in the car until the previous nurse left, then she’d sneak me into the house where I would enjoy the temporary proximity to wealth - play the grand pianos, read in the libraries (this is where I discovered How to Win Friends and Influence People), and then get tucked into fancy beds or couches.
On her precious days off, did the poor woman put her feet up and eat bonbons? No, she did outreach for church. She helped start a bus ministry. This involved not just her Sundays but her Saturdays too. Actually, our Saturdays, because I went along. If I was lucky, we’d stop at Bojangles Fried Chicken and grab a cinnamon bun first for sustenance. For years, we spent Saturdays going from neighborhood to neighborhood, knocking on doors, saying some variation of “Hi, I’m Sheila from the neighborhood. We go to this church and we just want to invite you to come attend some time. If you have kids, we have a bus that is more than happy to come by and pick them up for Sunday school.”
On Sunday mornings when we went to get them, the bus would pull up and most times I was the person to jump out, run up and knock on the door: "I'm here to pick up Tasha.” (or whoever) Standing there at the door waiting for the kid to come out, I saw a lot of bad things that made me grateful. Although my mom and I were poor, there were people who were much poorer, more troubled. Kids were pushed to the door looking a mess, unwashed, half dressed. Or I’d get sent in to fetch them— "They're in the back room, go get them,"—and I’d have to climb over a man passed out from drink, surrounded by beer cans.
My mom was passionate about getting kids to church, and the bus ministry program grew to 300 children in our small community, 300 children getting bussed in to attend our church. For years after, to this day, children, now grown children, come running up and hug my mom, shouting “Sister Sheila, Sister Sheila! You probably don't remember me, but you used to pick me up on a bus and oh my God, you were so special to me." Most of those kids were just so hungry for love. My mother hugged them, she listened to them, she loved them. For a lot of those kids, it was the only little bit of light and love they had in their lives. That is an actual philanthropist right there. Helping those kids was my mother’s 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, or 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 turned out to be the best thing that could have ever happened to me”? – that was medicine. Anyone can find and use medicine, just by allowing your intuition and feelings to determine whether something can serve as medicine.
The elders say, You don’t choose the medicine – the medicine chooses you.
It has taken me a long, long time to accept that the medicine that has chosen me is money. Money should be a tool of love, to facilitate relationships, to help us thrive, rather than to hurt and divide us.
Money is my medicine, and in order to heal what hurts, to come back together as one human race, and to restore balance to the land, we need to decolonize wealth.