Tranformative Justice for the Nonprofit Sector

As First Defense Legal Aid celebrates our 25th year of service, many of us have reflected more about the ways in which the sector is evolving and what we can incorporate into our own inner-workings to make sure our communities benefit the most from the work we do. It’s crucial for any institution, and nonprofits or other public service entities especially, to constantly push itself to walk the talk of its values, including here at FDLA. 

The book Decolonizing Wealth by Edgar Villanueva outlines an analysis that many others share about recognizing, addressing and healing the traumas inherent in U.S. nonprofit structure, work and funding. Villanueva is a nationally recognized expert on social justice philanthropy who has consulted with numerous philanthropies on advancing racial equity, and is a member of the Lumbee Tribe. His book takes a look at the ways the philanthropic sector has failed at moving wealth correctly and justly to the areas that need it most, and the ways in which organizations and institutions can heal from the foundation of colonization that philanthropy is built upon. 

Throughout the book, Villanueva touches on the problems within the field of philanthropy as a whole, and offers ways for organizations and institutions to heal from a sector build upon the consequences of colonization. According to him, there are seven steps in the healing process:

– Grieve  – Apologize – Listen – Relate – Represent – Invest – Repair –

Villanueva goes into thorough detail throughout the book about each of these steps, how to implement them into the organization of institutions and how we can actively attempt to heal from the colonization of wealth, and there is one common thread central to each of these steps: storytelling. 

Villanueva stresses storytelling throughout the book as something pertinent to the healing process. He explains, “[l]istening to our stories is part of the decolonization process,” and without keeping this at the forefront of the healing process, there can be no foundation for institutions to heal from injustices and grow into an establishment that accurately supports the very communities to which we belong. 

This year in particular, as FDLA honors five powerful women of color in grantmaking, this idea of decolonizing the movement of money is on our minds. Honoring their work ties in with the topic of wealth and racial justice within philanthropy. Listening to these women’s stories from their peers, partners, families and colleagues about why and how they do what they do gives us a little glimpse into the personal and professional process of decolonizing wealth. As Villanueva so poignantly declares, “[w]e must go beyond representation to sharing ownership and full inclusion” (Villanueva 149). Everyone involved in the nonprofit or philanthropic sector can take a lesson about decolonizing wealth from our 2020 honorees. Listen to their stories, and the stories of those that will come after them.  It is no coincidence that they’ve each lead a part of the shift in Chicago of more anti-violence grants going to community-lead peace work that includes freedom from police abuse in a definition of public safety.

With FDLA’s new civil litigation program, FDLA attorneys can advocate restorative justice for clients harmed by police. Giving victims space to tell their story is a huge step in the healing, restoration, and repairing process, not only for themselves personally, but for the justice system as well. Of course, it is not a be-all-end-all, but taking any steps towards that healing process is crucial in the progression of justice. The idea of storytelling isn’t new to us, and we strive to use it not only for creating relationships within our community, but as a tool for healing from the very background of what it means to be a nonprofit in the world of philanthropy. Continuing to listen to and tell the stories between ourselves and those around us will help continue the process of decolonizing wealth within the philanthropy sector. 

FDLA hopes to continue this process of decolonizing wealth within our own organization, as reflected in the organizational values that we hold with every decision and all the work we do: 

Fairness; we work to create a society where everyone is treated fairly and equitably. We strive to show honesty, humanity, patience, and respect for all people in the process. 

Dignity; we celebrate diversity with an understanding of Ubuntu: my humanity is tied to yours. We believe in a world where everyone is respected, safe, and able to flourish in every way. 

Liberation; we work together to fight for human rights and racial justice by committing ourselves to building anti-oppressive spaces and systems. 

Accountability; we believe our integrity lies in how well we hold ourselves and each other accountable to our mission and the communities we exist to serve and protect. 

In a way, these values embody FDLA’s own version of the decolonizing process within our organization’s inner-workings, values in which we strive to reflect into the communities we serve. 

by Maddison Brindle, Development VISTA at FDLA