Foundation reimagines philanthropy with Edgar Villanueva in “A Milwaukee for All”

Access to capital for business owners, especially business owners of color, is often a struggle. It’s one that Joanna Brooks, the founder and owner of Embody Yoga, knows all too well from expanding her studio.

“I don’t think it’s any secret that for small business owners, especially those of color, we have less access to resources and capital,” she said. “Last year, I found myself in a space where I really did need more financial resources…luckily for me, I was awarded a grant from the Jrue & Lauren Holiday Social Impact Fund.”

In addition to monetary support, Brooks received coaching on crowdfunding, which involves tapping into one’s network to raise capital. Through crowdfunding, Brooks received the necessary funds to expand her business, but she knows not everyone shares her experience.

Brooks shared her story as a roundtable panelist during the Greater Milwaukee Foundation’s most recent “A Milwaukee for All” event. The June 24 virtual convening featured a conversation between Foundation President and CEO Ellen Gilligan, and Edgar Villanueva, an activist and author of “Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous wisdom to heal divides and restore balance.”

WATCH: A replay of the full event on the Foundation’s YouTube channel

“Our shared interest in learning and breaking the cycle of white supremacy thinking that defines so many of society’s systems brings us together today,” Gilligan said. “The Greater Milwaukee Foundation does not have all of the answers, but that has not stopped us from taking chances and embracing new ways to approach our work and relationships.”

Nearly 200 people attended the event. In a post-event survey, more than 80 percent of respondents indicated that their awareness of racial equity and inclusion issues deepened on some level because of the event.

The conversation revolved around ways to reimagine philanthropy, heal the hurt caused by colonization and create an equitable society. The subsequent roundtable discussion brought in the perspectives of local experts. In addition to Brooks, the panelists included Nancy Hernandez, Naryan Leazer, Tony Shields and Dylani Herath.

‘All my relations’

During the main dialogue, Villanueva explained that much of his work is based on the Indigenous belief of ‘all my relations.’

“This is an idea or belief that we all truly are connected and that we are all related. Like literally, we are relatives to each other and to this planet. Imagine how our interactions would be day-to-day with each other if we truly believed that we were family. If we truly believed that the Earth was a family member and that every living creature was our family,” Villanueva said. “To really believe that our thriving was mutual or is mutual. That our suffering is mutual and that we are all in this thing called life together.”

When viewed through the lens of ‘all my relations,’ philanthropy opens itself up to the possibility of doing more, of listening better, of expanding its community and of being more impactful.

Learning to listen

Villanueva also talked about the importance of healing when it comes to doing the work to decolonize wealth.

“The history of colonization, the history of white supremacy, this ideology that has been so pervasive, it’s caused harm for all of us – for Indigenous people, for Black folks, people of color and even white folks,” he said. “We are living in a country that is so divided and torn apart across racial lines. The only way I know to bring us back is to really think about healing.”

In his book, “Decolonizing Wealth,” Villanueva details the seven steps of healing. To heal, one must grieve, apologize, listen, relate, represent, invest and repair. This process is not linear, he said, but is fluid.

Listening is about acknowledging the wisdom of those that have been exploited and excluded by the system, he said, and believing that those individuals have the knowledge to fix the systems.

“To really get into a place of authentic relationship and bridging the divides and getting to a place of community, we have to develop a superpower of listening,” Villanueva said. “This is a really important step in the process of healing. It’s putting aside our own interests to really be able to hear with openness and curiosity, the perspectives of other people.”

This thought was later reiterated during the roundtable discussion by Leazer, a financial adviser at North Star Resource Group, formerly IronwoodDrive Financial Group, and Foundation Board member.   

“We should do more listening than talking and being the experts,” Leazer said. “Listen to what people and communities are saying and at the same time, empower communities with more significant dollars.”

He also encouraged philanthropists to be more forgiving, especially toward organizations that aren’t perfectly polished.

“There are a lot of people with blemishes along their path that have some really great ideas. And if it’s really about what lifts up a community, then stop having these narrowly defined criteria that really don’t relate to the work that’s being done,” he said. “Listen, because community is speaking about what they need and what they want and who has the better vantage point than the person who lives in the area we’re trying to have an impact.”

A role we all play

During her remarks, Herath, vice president of engineering at Greenwood, commented on the importance of expanding access to financial and investment options through digital banking.

Greenwood is a digital banking service for Black and Latinx individuals and business owners.

“From my point of view, I believe that providing access, equal access, to financial options and investment options would also help us not only have a sustainable wealth system but also have options for finances and financial well-being,” Herath said. “When small communities get wealthy, larger communities get wealthy and the whole of America has the opportunity to be successful.” 

Shields, president and CEO of the Wisconsin Philanthropy Network, talked about the importance of shifting the power dynamic between grant makers and grantees.  

“I think it’s important to lead with compassion, be humble, listen and understand that the tools and solutions to solve most of the problems happening in our community, already exist,” Shields said. “We just have to take advantage of them – seek them out and take advantage of them.”

Sometimes projects will fail, he said, but there are lessons to be learned in those failures that will lead to success.

Time for change

“There are a lot of great people in Milwaukee who are doing really great work, but there is a barrier,” Brooks said, noting that if an organization isn’t recognized as a nonprofit by the government, it often doesn’t receive philanthropic funding.

She added, “I would encourage those who engage in philanthropy in any way, shape or form to consider giving to those individuals, those organizations who are doing the work, regardless of if they’re a nonprofit organization. A lot of these folks are on the ground, they know the communities, they’re doing the work.”

Hernandez, president of the Hispanic Collaborative, discussed the importance of supporting research and data that center disaggregated issues to understand the solutions in which to invest. 

“I think we need to be unapologetically focused on outcomes,” Hernandez said. “How are these dollars, how is philanthropy empowering change in outcomes for our communities? The size and scale of our disparities can’t have incremental solutions and those aren’t going to come quick, but how can we be invested side-by-side and focus along with community on those changes in outcomes.”

She added, “To create change, we need to have the resources to make change or influence over those that do have the resources. We always challenge ourselves to look at the dynamics and truly understand if our system is set up for community to have influence over philanthropy and dollars or is it vice versa.”

A call to action

As the event came to an end, Gilligan closed with a call to action. She urged participants to find ways to share their time, talent or ties. A large part of this is finding one’s medicine – an Indigenous belief that Villanueva discussed in his book and in the conversation.

“My elders say, you don’t choose the medicine, your medicine chooses you,” Villanueva said. “We are all called to do something, we just need to find it and lean into that calling to be a part of the change that’s required to move our community forward to a place where we can all thrive.”

Gilligan noted that for her, being in neighborhoods and listening to community partners and residents is her medicine and where she feels her joy.

“I know that the concept of finding your medicine and understanding what it is and what brings you alive and your purpose for being is so powerful,” she said. “I’m thinking about it all the time.”

In addition to finding one’s medicine, Gilligan further encouraged people to donate to the Foundation’s MKE Responds Fund, which is currently supporting violence prevention efforts.

“We all have a role to play in building a Milwaukee for all,” she said.

Join the Foundation’s next “A Milwaukee for All” convening in the fall to hear and learn from Tonya Allen, president of the McKnight Foundation, from 9 to 10:30 a.m. on Friday, Oct. 28. Allen’s work strives toward a just, abundant and equitable future where people and planet thrive.