Decolonizing Wealth in the Midst of Crisis

By Julia Lukomnik

Feature image description: Two multi-colored hands support a brown skinned person wearing orange shorts and an orange off-the shoulder top. The person has blue flowers in their yellow afro.

As the first Russian soldiers crossed the border to Ukraine, social media lit up with suggestions of how people with resources could help: from direct bank transfers to Ukrainian activists, to offering Ukrainian refugees jobs, to leaving strollers and other items for families in European train stations, to crowdsourced funding campaigns.

As a long-time philanthropic insider, I’ve been watching trends in organizational and institutional giving for years. And this is the first time that I’ve witnessed such widespread questioning and creativity around how individuals with resources can support others in crisis. The creativity in these suggestions is inspiring and it is key if both individual and organizational funders are going to address the ever-changing dynamic of crises.

 “Nothing is ever going to be perfect. The context is always shifting,” Christian Giraldo (all pronouns), the coordinator of the Sex Worker Giving Circle (SWGC) told me during a conversation about the role of philanthropy in addressing inequities. Philanthropy has to shift and adapt to the context, he said, “if you think that you’ve figured out the formula – you’ve already pigeon-holed yourself into irrelevance.” These words ring oh so true as people around the world search for ways to support Ukrainians.

At the same time, individuals who are donating to relief efforts are asking some of the same questions that organized philanthropy has asked for many years. Questions like: How do I make sure that the majority of my money goes to people in need? What is the role of international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) in crises? And how can wealth – often amassed  as a result of unequal power dynamics – be used to address the structures that create inequality in the first place? These questions have been part of a long standing and heated debate in organizational philanthropy. What’s new is to hear everyone from social media influencers to friends struggle with these questions. And they’re questions that we must ask – and find answers to – if we are to find ways to use the money from rich countries to address the global inequities that keep some communities wealthy and others poor. Ukraine has become a testing ground for inventive answers to these questions.

Rightfully, there has been widespread critique of the racism and Eurocentrisim demonstrated in this mass show of support for Ukraine, support which has not manifested for other active crises where impacted communities are Black, Brown, and/or Muslim. Learning from this critique is key. “Decolonizing wealth is parallel with the conversation of dismantling white supremacy and white supremacist behavior,” Christian reminded me. Doing the work of unlearning racism and colonialism can ensure resources get to where they’re needed all the time, not just when folks from rich countries see people like themselves impacted. It helps us see that not all communities live with the binary of being safe or being under attack, but rather that many communities live within a spectrum of danger. As Cristian said “there are communities that have never had a day off from an attack… it’s a gradient of how under attack are we today? Is it a fever pitch? Are we able to go get our groceries without having a breakdown?”

Doing the work of unlearning racism and colonialism can ensure resources get to where they’re needed all the time, not just when folks from rich countries see people like themselves impacted

As we do the personal work of unlearning racism and colonialism, how do we make sure that our giving follows suit, both during times of crisis and otherwise? Edgar Villanueva’s book Decolonizing Wealth provides solid starting points. Unfortunately, as Villanueva notes, philanthropy – whether individual giving or organizational giving – often divides and destabilizes.

We’ve seen this during the Ukrainian crisis. Take the example of the nearly U.S. $2,000,000 donated to Ukrainian AirBnB hosts. While the intention is good, we have to ask who has the resources to put their space on AirBnB? Certainly it’s not Roma communities who often live in temporary camps and have been violently marginalized in Ukraine. Neither is it the African and Asian students who were pushed to the back of the line for trains out of conflict areas and when trying to cross borders. By providing aid via a platform where most folks already have access to resources, we’re leaving out those who experience structural marginalization, and who need support as a direct result of this marginalization.

The Human Rights Funders Network (HRFN) levied a similar critique at organizational giving to address the crisis in Ukraine. HRFN highlights that the vast majority of funds leave out any mention of human rights. Rachel Thomas of HRRN explains that “by not explicitly naming human rights in the humanitarian response, philanthropy risks falling short of an obligation to ensure no one is left behind… Conflict has disproportionate impacts on people who are already excluded or on the margins.”

But money doesn’t have to deepen social divides by leaving those on the margins behind. When communities who have experienced marginalization are at the front of funding decisions, money can address inequities. Christian considers community-led philanthropy as “a type of wealth decolonization harm reduction.” Villanueva, a Native leader in organizational philanthropy, agrees. He highlights that when money is used thoughtfully it can heal historic wrongs. In this way, money can act as “medicine”, no longer being used to divide, control, and exploit, but rather to connect, relate, and belong. Villanueva sets out a seven-step process to decolonize weath: grieve, apologize, listen, relate, represent, invest, and repair/reparations. This is the healing process.

What does this process look like in detail? It looks like learning the history of our wealth, and giving ourselves space to feel the deep sadness surrounding the historic oppression that has often facilitated this (grieving). It looks like making meaningful apologies to people and communities we may have hurt as a result of our ignorance of this history (apology). It looks like listening to communities that have faced oppression about the impact of this oppression, in a way that does not presume to know what is needed to make amends (listening). It looks like placing the creation of caring relationships above “return on investment” (relate). It looks like giving over financial decision making power to communities that have experienced historic oppression (represent). It looks like ensuring that the sources of our wealth – especially our investments – also serve historically oppressed communities (invest). And it looks like using our giving explicitly to address the end result of historic oppression: the race and ethnicity based wealth gap between the historically colonized and the historic colonizers (repair/reparations). 

Individuals who want to support those in crisis and/or to take a step towards reducing the ever-widening global wealth gap, can and should be selective about the organizations they support. Of course, that’s incredibly hard to do in times of crisis. For those who are not already engaged with movements wherever the crisis is taking place, there can be a tension between needing to get money to places quickly and doing the due diligence to ensure that money is getting to communities that are most in need. Often, our immediate response is to donate to large INGOs like the Red Cross or UNICEF. These organizations do important humanitarian work, but are not specialized in the needs of communities who often experience most marginalization. These communities – like the LGBTQIA+ community, racial and ethnic minorities, people with disabilities, and others –  need support that is unique to their lives and situations. Organizations led by and for these communities often don’t receive the same windfall of resources during crises because they don’t have the name recognition of INGOs. And so disparities continue. 

The Sex Worker Giving Circle (SWGC) model provides a excellent example of how to make sure that we’re giving to groups that address the disparities that historically marginalized communities face. The SWGC trains sex worker activists to decide what sex worker rights groups should receive grants. These groups address a range of issues, from police profiling and violence to economic justice and housing insecurity in the United States. “Everything about our program is by/for,” said Christian “we are sex worker powered, one hundred percent.” Beyond bringing sex workers into a space of power, the SWGC provides a year-long paid educational fellowship program to activists so that they have the tools to meaningfully engage with issues of wealth reallocation. 

“We are tasking sex workers to come in and own the process. Make all of the decisions. But we wanna have all of the right history and context for how the conversation even got here,” said Christian.”Tasking without resourcing [this knowledge] is just a different type of colonialism.” And so historically marginalized communities are not just put into a position of power, they’re provided all the resources to best engage in that position. After the year-long fellowship is up, the SWGC works with its host organization – Third Wave Fund – to bring former fellows into the organization and to place them in other philanthropic institutions. To put it in the context of Villanueva’s Decolonizing Wealth, this is all about relating, representing, and repairing

”Tasking without resourcing [this knowledge] is just a different type of colonialism.”

Christian Giraldo

In this crisis and the next one, we can ask ourselves two questions to ensure that our giving isn’t leaving anyone behind. First, is this organization working with folks who may be (unintentionally) excluded by other organizations. That is, folks who have experienced historic oppression? And second, are those groups meaningfully included in decisions about how repair for historic injustices, which they themselves have been impacted by, happens?

If we’re dedicated to learning from the creativity of our response to the war in Ukraine, I’m hopeful we can apply these lessons to acute crises across the globe. And to one of the longest standing crises our human community faces: the inequality brought about by colonialization.

You can learn more about the Sex Worker Giving Circle here. And you can access a list of decolonial organizations to support in Ukraine here

Julia Lukomnik (she/her) is a mission-driven feminist dedicated to building an equitable world for those who have historically be marginalized. She has worked in philanthropy, social science research, and policy analysis, always with a focus on gender justice and social inclusion.

Cover image/ Artwork by Andy Moon

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