Real Money, Real Experts

Origin Story: Understanding the History of Wealth and Equity with Edgar Villanueva

August 13, 2021 AFCPE® Season 1 Episode 33
Real Money, Real Experts
Origin Story: Understanding the History of Wealth and Equity with Edgar Villanueva
Show Notes Transcript

How has our history shaped our financial present? What is the origin of wealth? Co-hosts Rebecca Wiggins and Dr. Mary Bell Carlson discuss why these questions matter on this episode of Real Money, Real Experts with award-winning author Edgar Villanueva.

Edgar is an enrolled member of the Lumbee tribe of North Carolina, the Principal of Decolonizing Wealth Project and Liberated Capital, and the author of the bestselling book Decolonizing Wealth.

Pulling from his experience advising global organizations on advancing racial equity from within, Edgar explains financial counselors and advisors must not only understand our history and the origins of wealth, but must also ensure their services are open and accessible to clients from vastly different communities or backgrounds than their own.

 Show Notes:

00:52 Edgar introduction
3:09 Edgars Career Trajectory
5:36 Principles of Decolonizing Wealth
12:55 Doing the Work – Holistic Understanding of the Individual to Better Serve Clients
15:51 Financial Challenges of the Native American Community
22:45 Edgar’s Two Cents        

 Show Note links:

Connect with Edgar! 
Twitter: @VillanuevaEdgar
Instagram: @VillanuevaEdgar 

Decolonizing Wealth:
7 Steps to Healing:

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Intro (00:02):

Welcome to Real Money, Real Experts, a podcast where leading financial counseling and coaching experts share their stories, their challenges, and their advice for helping people manage money in the real world. I'm your host, Rebecca Wiggins, Executive Director of the Association for Financial Counseling and Planning Education® or AFCPE®. And I'm your cohost, Dr. Mary Bell Carlson. I'm an Accredited Financial Counselor®, or AFC®, and the CEO of Chief Financial Mom. Every episode, we're taking a deep dive into the topics that the personal finance professionals care about: helping clients, building community and your professional growth. Welcome everyone to the Real Money, Real Experts podcast. I'm Rebecca. This is Mary. Thanks for taking the time to join us today.

Rebecca Wiggins (00:52):

Today on the show we are talking with Edgar Villanueva. Edgar is an award-winning author, activist and expert on issues of race, wealth, and philanthropy. Edgar is the Principal of Decolonizing Wealth Project and Liberated Capital and he is the author of the bestselling book Decolonizing Wealth. He advises a range of organizations including national and global philanthropies, Fortune 500 companies, and entertainment on social impact strategies to advance racial equity from within and through their investment strategies. He is also an enrolled member of the Lumbee Tribe and resides in New York City. We are also excited to announce that we will be hosting a fireside chat discussion with Edgar as part of our annual symposium in November. Welcome to the podcast.

Edgar Villanueva (01:40):

Thanks for having me.

Dr. Mary Bell Carlson (01:41):

Tell us more about your background.

Edgar Villanueva (01:43):

As was said in the introduction. I am a enrolled member of the Lumbee tribe of North Carolina. So I grew up, there. I'm a Southern boy, which you will hear in my accent probably. And, you know, I think, for me, my sort of proximity to philanthropy began with being a recipient of a philanthropy. I've benefited from, you know, scholarships and all types of programs and services as a young person. My mom was a single mother and our family was very poor. The other interesting thing about my background is that my mom was a domestic worker and still was actually until this very month where she has retired. And so she cleaned homes of people that had wealth in our communities, and she also became a certified nursing assistant and took care of frail elderly folks. And so as a young person, I had this interesting sort of proximity to people with wealth, then I would spend lots of time in their homes and really just kind of being around them. And I think I had a very different perspective than, than others in my community who didn't have that type of exposure. And I think, you know, humanization of people with wealth. And so I've always kind of worked between as a bridge between communities that don't have wealth and people that have wealth. And I think my upbringing kind of gave me lots of opportunities to, to bring that into my career.

Dr. Mary Bell Carlson (03:09):

So talk to us more about the steps of your career. What happened after you graduated from high school or left your community? What happened from there?

Edgar Villanueva (03:17):

After high school I actually went to seminary, which is a part of my resume that often surprises people because, you know, at that time of my life, our church was a very important institution. We went to church several times a week, all of my sort of community oriented work and community service happened through our church. And it was where I sort of felt a call to service and through our faith tradition there, I didn't know about philanthropy at the time. I didn't know about the non-profit sector. And so I thought, well, I'll, I'll go be a minister so that I can sort of return the favor and support other people in the way that I have received so many benefits through our church. And so, yeah, I moved 800 miles away from home. I went to this really small seminary. And towards the end there, I realized that being a pastor, being a minister in that sense was not my calling, and returned to North Carolina. And I, I sort of stumbled into the nonprofit sector. I literally was looking through the newspaper for a job. Remember when people did that? That seems like dinosaur ages. And I found a job, and this organization just doing admin work and it ended up being an, this national nonprofit that did help work. A lot of women's health issues, children's health issues, STD HIV work. And I got politicized there. That's where I really began to understand that there were certain groups of people who had access to information or resources, and there were others who didn't and there were political issues around that. And there was a history around kind of how these things came to be. I decided to go back to school at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill for public health. And got my graduate degree while I worked in this nonprofit where I just worked for phenomenal people who saw potential in me. And I got promoted through the years and was working there for about six years while I finished school. Right out of graduate school I got recruited to go work at a foundation. And that was my, my entrance into philanthropy at age 28, where I became a program officer at this fairly large statewide private foundation in North Carolina.

Rebecca Wiggins (05:36):

So Edgar much of your work has focused obviously in that space and, and philanthropy. And a lot of what you talk about in your book is, you know, making philanthropy more participatory, more inclusive, and what you've learned through your career in philanthropy, I'm wondering if you can share a little bit more about that and how this applies to individuals in the financial counseling space. I guess even from the field perspective, you know, as we're thinking about financial counseling as an industry, as a field, but also in practice one-on-one with clients, you know, what are some of those principles that you talk about in Decolonizing Wealth that you think are important for our professionals to understand?

Edgar Villanueva (06:18):

For me, when I entered the space of philanthropy, which is essentially working with money, I didn't come from a family that had money. And I had so much to kind of learn about how capital moves through communities, right. Also personally, just to kind of really bring it home for the audience, it was the first time in my personal life that I actually was making money. I had, you know, worked as a waiter for many years when I was working at the nonprofit, I was beginning to make decent money, but all of a sudden after graduate school, I was thrown into a position where I was making pretty serious money. And of course I just, no one in my family could give me advice around what I should do with it. And, you know, in terms of investing or saving or, you know, kind of thinking through like, should I buy a house, should I not buy a house? Should our lease a car, a buyer car, what's the best type of thing? So, you know, I had to really seek out advice around a lot of that as I began to think about how to, you know, become stable financially and to begin building wealth on my own. I kind of joke that I did buy a house after my first year in that position. And I say that I got my financial advice from Oprah because when I was growing up, I watched her show religiously. And Oprah is always kind of saying like, you need to, you need to buy land or you need to buy a home. That is the foundation from, from which to build wealth. And so I had, I felt this like urgency about buying a house. I don't know if that's still really true today, but at that time I think it was a good decision. But, you know, for, for me moving into this space of philanthropy, it was really interesting to not come from wealth and all of a sudden to be the person who held the key to the treasure box. And I think especially because of my identity as a Native person, I was such a rare phenomenon in the field at that time. I think I knew like three other Native American folks who worked in this sector broadly. And it was, it was a different time where diversity was, was not a priority. And, you know, I was hired and brought into this institution because of my identity. They wanted to diversify. They believe that I had some type of lived experience or connection to community that would benefit the mission of the foundation. What was really hard is that the organization had not done its work to prepare for, for someone like me to be there. I was, you know, I had become a little polished. I had traveled for work pretty extensively and was doing all right, but there was such a, a culture around money and this institution about what was appropriate to talk about or not talk about. The way that everything was centered around the legacy of this family's wealth and not necessarily around the mission that I thought I was being hired for. That was, it was really traumatizing for me. It was, was, it was quite a shift. And all of a sudden having a little bit of money on my own, but more so the power and prestige of being at this institution, I was thrown into sort of social circles with people who had wealth and had had wealth for a long time and who lived very different realities from my own, that were that was all sort of a major adjustment for me. I began to understand in those moments that, although I was passionate about public health and health justice, or access to healthcare, I became increasingly more interested in how money operates and how capital was flowing through markets and who has money and who doesn't have money and why, and the folks who make decisions about money, like why are they the ones who make the decisions, or what are the real reasons behind this, this race wealth gap that exists. And, and so I, I really threw myself into kind of understanding that and unpacking that and always kind of think back like, you know, I've loved public health, but maybe I should have gotten an MBA. So I can, cause I think that everything actually comes back to money. And as, as a person coming from poverty and as a person coming from a faith tradition, talking about money actually it was almost taboo as well. It was sort of seen as an evil thing. And people misquote this Bible verse that that says "the love of money is the root of all evil." And often say that money is the root of all evil, but I've kind of come to understand that money actually is quite neutral. And it's, we, as people who use money in different ways sometimes for good and sometimes for evil, that that really needs to be examined. And so, yeah, I think that it's, it's really interesting, I think for financial counseling professionals, it's really important to understand the origins of wealth in this country. And to understand that the folks that are receiving your services got to a place of needing resources, not because of necessarily a series of poor choices or, you know, a lack of ambition, but poverty exists in the United States. It is a result of public policy. Poverty is also the result of theft where wealth has actually been taken away and extracted from Indigenous and Black communities to other communities of color. And in fact, there's a history in the United States that when communities of color have tried to build wealth, that wealth has been taken away are destroyed. Take the Tulsa massacre, for example, with the Black Wall Street. And so, I, think that, you know, often folks in this sector are working with individuals and supporting them and making choices, which is really important, but it's important to understand that there's a larger system and a history at play that have led to the conditions facing the individuals that are being supported. And I didn't always understand that, right. I really subscribed to this individual responsibility that I needed to work harder and harder and harder and work twice as hard to have, you know, to be on the same level. And it's really exhausting. And I think coupling, you know, that individual support with that understanding that we all need to be advocating for changes in policies and systems that are contributing to poverty is, is equally as important as the individual choices that people are making.

Rebecca Wiggins (12:39):

Yeah, that's really helpful. And I appreciate you saying that, you know, I think we all need to really dig into to the history and understand the origins, as you said of wealth. One other thing that you mentioned that I thought was really interesting is that when you got to the foundation, I think it was in North Carolina, correct?

Edgar Villanueva (12:54):


Rebecca Wiggins (12:55):

You said that they were looking to diversify, but hadn't done the work. So I'm thinking even beyond exploring the origins and understanding our history, as we're thinking about what individuals can do, you know, sort of the shift from philanthropy or the system or the grant tour to individuals in this space, what are some things that you're or ideas that you could share about ways that people can ensure that their services are open and accessible to clients in need that may be from very different communities or backgrounds than, than they may be.

Edgar Villanueva (13:27):

I think that we have to understand that culturally people think of money and approach money or building wealth, or becoming financially secure in, in, in, in very different ways. And I think early on as a young person, I internalized sort of the dominant, you know, capitalistic kind of mindset that I needed to get all these degrees and work all these jobs and accumulate wealth to, to, to be worthy. And I've come to since understand that a lot of people, especially from my community, that's not necessarily their goal and it doesn't make them less than, you know. I think being, you know, no one wants to live in poverty, right? Folks want to have enough to take care of their family and to have their needs met. But accumulating massive amounts of wealth is not necessarily the, the, the end goal for a lot of folks. And it's actually counter culture for a lot of people in my community where you don't find lots of millionaires and billionaires, because as soon as we have more than we need, our, our sort of cultural norm is to share and to give that away. As soon as I was able to get financially secure, my immediate goal was, I want to, I needed to help my mother get financially secure. And, you know, last year I bought her house. She was able to retire this year because I, I said, you know, my mom is growing in age and I don't want her on her hands and knees cleaning other people's floors. Like you don't have to do that anymore. I'm going to take care of you. And so I will probably never be like very very rich because you know every dollar I earned it's spread out between many, many people that I am helping to take care of. And I'm totally okay with that. Right. So there is such a dominant narrative around hoarding resources, and there are mindsets of scarcity that permeate our ideas around money that I think are a by-product of colonization actually. And, you know, I think we have to be careful not to impose those fears and those ideas on folks. While we are absolutely teaching them skills around money and managing money and being financially independent. I think that in times past I was probably a little misguided by, folks who had influence in my life as a young person to make me think that I just had to, you know, go a certain route and I really kind of was working myself to death by working multiple jobs. And when that was really, probably not necessary for myself.

Dr. Mary Bell Carlson (15:51):

Edgar, your website and your book are entitled Decolonizing Wealth, and an interesting fact about the Lumbee Tribe, where the first people on North American continent to experience the colonization of Europeans. It obviously has greatly affected your work, but as you stated, many financial planners and counselors really don't have any experience working with Native Americans. Can you tell us more about some of the unique challenges that Native Americans face related to personal finance?

Edgar Villanueva (16:18):

It's so funny. I, a researcher called me a couple of years ago and they were doing some research on people of color millionaires and philanthropists and donors and, and, sort of their, their giving practices and trends and sort of the transfer of wealth that's happening between between generations and wanted to, talk with some Native American folks. And I kinda laughed. I was like, I literally don't know anybody who has that kind of money because, you know, Native folks have been historically marginalized and prevented from building wealth for, for many, many, many, many years, you know, there's 500 years of colonization. And you know, this is the, the oppression of Native peoples is not something that's just been happening, that just happened in the past that it's, it's relatively recent. If you've been following the news, you're probably hearing the stories of the bodies of children that were being found thousands now in Canada and the United States. And, these are, these are children who were forcefully taken from their families and from their homes and put into Indian boarding schools. And this happened in my grandparents' generation, we're talking about this, just stop happening in Canada, in like 2003. There's just stop happening in the US in the sixties. And so this trauma and this like separating of families and like taking, and sort of the indoctrination of a dominant way of being and thinking where young people were punished for speaking the language or practicing any other traditions, this literally happened to people who are with us right now, like are, who are still like traumatized by that. And so that type of trauma is, really gets in the way of folks being able to thrive in life. And it's trauma that's passed down. In our culture we believe, sort of this, this concept of the seven generations that, you know, decisions that we make and experiences that we have, it's passed down for seven generations. So we've been, you know, deeply impacted by a lot of racial violence in our communities. And then also just other types of marginalization. You know, Apple computer has been around longer than our right to vote, our ability to vote in this country. So, so you have to just like, think about, you know, the, the, the oppressive types of policies and, and systems that have been in play for a long, long time that have resulted in accumulated benefits for some people and accumulated disadvantages. Native people also we're so deeply, deeply, deeply tied to land. And of course, if you understand or read about Native history, forced removal from, from land was another tactic, and a thing that happened that it's really detrimental to our way of being. Prior to colonization, we had very vibrant communities that were sustainable and deep connections to the land in ways that growing food and taking care of ourselves and poverty did not exist before colonization in the same way that we think of it now. We didn't have Indigenous people who were homeless because we had a certain way of caring for each other and, and living in cooperative types of ways that resulted in, you know, mutual wellbeing. And so it's just a very different way of being now. Like Native people have a hard time subscribing to sort of the dominant way of the, you know, this idea of success. And not only because of oppression and trauma that we're, we were currently, you know, experiencing, but also culturally, we are rooted to people and we're rooted to place and the earth. And it's so almost like counter intuitive for like the incentives that are built into our financial systems, that our economic system in the US. All that being said, I think what's really important for folks to understand about Native folks is there's a lot of struggle. There's a lot of poverty, but there's also a lot of richness, and there's a lot of resiliency and innovation. And, because of our ability to adapt through the years, and it's created a lot of really innovative ways of approaching problem solving. And so, I often want to bring that to the conversation because, I don't, I don't want to put too much romance on the narratives of the struggle because they are real. But also in many situations, including the recent pandemic, tribes were on the forefront of responding to this crisis and putting in public health protocols and shutting down borders in a way that really handled, you know, containing this virus and addressing the pandemic in ways that were way ahead of the federal government. And I think that tribes often aren't seen or appreciated for those types of contributions that have really influenced the way a lot of business and things happen around the world. But yeah, so it's, it's, people often also may not know, but the majority of Native folks live in cities grew up in cities like myself, 80% of us. Most folks, when you even hear Native American, you immediately go to thinking about, you know, a Native that lives on a reservation. You might think about New Mexico and those places where we do have large numbers, but the majority of us are in cities, living in LA, living in New York. And, this is partly due, in a great way due to the forced removals of native people from their lands. There's a large population of Chicago that is just resulted from forced removal and land removal policies that happened that kind of actually pushed Natives to the city. So we're, you know, both tribal folks and we're very urban and we live in and among all of you.

Rebecca Wiggins (22:08):

That's wonderful. One of the favorite quotes of yours is you said "all of us who have been forced to the margins are the very ones who harbor the best solutions for healing progress and peace by virtue of our outsider perspective and resilience." I think that really sums up what you were just saying there. 

Dr. Mary Bell Carlson (22:45):

At the end of each interview, we like to get the guests to sense our biggest takeaways from our listeners. If you had one piece of advice to offer our financial professionals, what would it be?

Edgar Villanueva (22:54):

I think it would be to see yourself as a healer, right? Like your job is so much bigger than what's in the job description. It is actually to take on the identity that you are a part of a movement of folks in your field and across other fields like philanthropy, where I'm working, that that's actually helping to repair something that's broken. And you're helping to get money to folks and to repair this race wealth gap that exists that is, you know, breaking, hopefully a cycle of trauma and poverty for future generations. So own that title of healer and enjoying this movement.

Rebecca Wiggins (23:33):

Awesome. Thank you so much for joining us on the show today. Will you just tell our listeners where they can connect with you?

Edgar Villanueva (23:38):

Sure. Our website is You can subscribe to our newsletter, follow our socials there. My socials are @VillanuevaEdgar on Instagram and Twitter.

Rebecca Wiggins (23:49):

Wonderful. Thanks so much Edgar.

Edgar Villanueva (23:50):

Thanks for having me.

Dr. Mary Bell Carlson (23:52):

Rebecca, this is so interesting to always hear someone else's point of view. I really appreciate Edgar's viewpoint. And I think that's one of the perspectives that I like on this podcast is that we get different perspectives and we hear from different experiences. He said some things about being poor and poverty that I think relates regardless of skin color or race or background that poverty is difficult and it's a difficult cycle to get out of, no matter what. I appreciate those that are helping others to break that cycle. He's doing so much for his family, but also helping others beyond just his own circles. And I think that's so important, is to be able to help others outside of that cycle.

Rebecca Wiggins (24:34):

Yeah, absolutely. He's, he's really interesting. I actually read his book Decolonizing Wealth and thought it was really eye opening. And just as he talked about, I think he's really straddled different communities and, you know, had so many different experiences being on the philanthropy side and helping now, you know, those more on the philanthropy side of foundation side, but certainly interested in, in the work that our professionals do as well. I really appreciated him saying, you know, that I guess some of the takeaways that I had were around under the importance of understanding the origins of wealth and the accumulation of wealth in this country. And then also, you know, as we think about inclusion and belonging and trying to build accessible practices and, and also reaching out to people, as you said that maybe you don't have as much familiarity with their beliefs or their culture, that we understand that clients have different goals about what financial wellness means and looks like and what they want to do with their money, That may be a little bit different than how we were raised or what we think is the best thing for them to do. And then I just loved that he said at the end that we think about our job as a healer. And I think that's just something that speaks to me personally. I just thought that was really beautiful. So I'm really excited for his interview. He'll be, we'll be, we'll be doing a fireside chat interview for the symposium. We have a lot of really great speakers lined up for this fall. So if you're interested in getting registered, you can go to the website, You can click on the symposium link and it'll take you there. And we hope to see you this fall. It's going to be a lot of exciting conversations, not just with Edgar, but with a lot of other folks across the field, and that have very different viewpoints as well. So it's going to be a really rich symposium and we hope to see you there.

Outro (26:19):

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