What emotion washes over you when you find yourself and your teams in the midst of turbulence and uncertainty? If you pay attention to global and local events, there is no denying it—we are in the eye of a storm. Our world is rapidly changing and the ripple effects can be felt in every community and workplace, and even within each of us. As a result, many of us yearn for a sense of home and a culture of belonging where we feel safe, connected and valued.

In times of transition, we often know what we want to leave behind—violence, toxic culture, racism, and every other “ism” under the sun. But we often don’t know what we want our final destination to look like or how to get there. We’re stuck on a threshold between two worlds—a harmful present day and a potentially healing future.

I like to frame this threshold as an opportunity. We can either keep doing things that hurt us or innovate a new pathway forward. We can choose to move from systems of exclusion to cultures of belonging.

But how do we get started creating belonging?

To know the first step, you need to get a sense of the overall journey to creating a culture of belonging.

I liken this to embarking on a collective canoe journey in turbulent waters. While there are many unknowns to your quest, you can be sure that:
  • We all have a common yearning for a sense of “home” and belonging that has the potential to be harnessed as a unifying force to move the boat forward.
  • Our direction and destination are controlled by our values; they guide our decision-making and actions along the way, regardless of the unexpected obstacles we encounter.
  • People power is what will get us to our destination.
How Hawaii Creates a Culture of Belonging with One Word - Hawaiian outrigger canoe
Understanding the journey makes the first step obvious. We need to get clear on what’s guiding the boat—the values and principles that influence our decision-making and moment-by-moment choices.

Only when we have created consensus about these shared values that are the foundation of belonging can we navigate calm, rugged and changing water conditions equally.

But what does creating consensus look like in practice?

How Hawaii creates a culture of belonging

Below is an example that Joe Mergens, a Vice-Principal in Vancouver, shared in one of our programs about some teachings from his Hawaiian born Hapa-Filipino heritage. It’s a beautiful illustration of how Hawaii has developed consensus about the concept of “Aloha”, embedding it into institutions, policies, practices, attitudes and behaviours as a guiding principle of cultural belonging.

“My mom is from the Philippines, my dad is from Canada, and I’m from Hawai’i!” 

This was a mantra my mother gave me as child for when I encountered the familiar questions: “What are you?” “Are you Chinese?” “Where are you from?” 

There were no Filipinos in my school and neighbourhood when I was a child, except for the handful of nannies that some families employed. Being Hapa-Filipino or mixed race, I was this ambiguous enigma to most. 

Joe Mergens - meaning of Aloha

Joe Mergens

Most people immediately jumped on the fact that I was from Hawai’i. Indeed, despite being Filipino-European, I too always associated being from Oahu as being a major part of who I was. Even though I am not native Hawaiian (or Kanaka Maoli), anyone born there and who has spent significant time there cannot help but be influenced by the Hawaiian culture. For me, I carry part of the Hawaiian influence in my philosophy and practice, particularly the living of aloha.

Aloha is not just a greeting. It is a word for love. The word aloha is present in several other Polynesian languages, but in Hawaiian it has a very deep meaning. Aloha is a combination of two Hawaiian words: “Alo” which means front/presence/face and “ha” which means breath or life energy. Translated, Aloha means “in the presence of the breath of life”.

The essence of aloha has been described as love, peace and compassion, a mutual understanding of respect. If one lives aloha, then they live by practicing mercy, sympathy, grace and kindness. They strive to live in harmony with the people and the land around them. Tourists may see aloha as a charming greeting, but to truly greet another with aloha means to show mutual regard and affection, to extend with warmth in caring to others without expectation to receive anything in return.

Aloha is a way of being; it is a way of conducting oneself in the world, to the land, and to others. It is the foundation of Hawaiian values. Aloha is something that was gifted to all residents and shared with visitors. The aloha spirit is included in legislation, in public policies, and is taught in schools. Even businesses that come to Hawaii must adopt some form of the aloha spirit. The last Hawaiian Sovereign, Queen Lil’uokalani once said, “Aloha is to learn what is not said, to see what cannot be seen and to know the unknowable.”

Love, affection, generosity, speaking from the heart, patience, and listening are some of the aspects of aloha. For myself, aloha is something I carry with me in my personal and professional practice. It informs my relationships and world outlook.

I am not Hawaiian and do not claim to be a representative of the culture nor an expert. But, parts of the culture have shaped who I am and continue to inform how I travel through life. It is something I attempt to impart and share with others.

Joe Mergens - lake
Joe Mergens, a Vice-Principal in Vancouver, shares teachings from his Hawaiian born Hapa-Filipino heritage
We can see from this incredible example that, if we want to make real progress on our team’s or organization’s change journey—if we want to keep the boat on course even in turbulent waters—we need to start by getting clear on our guiding principles. Only then can we all paddle together towards our shared destination.

To learn more about how a belonging lens and principles can help you, your team and your organization in your change effort, join us at our next free webinar: www.BuildBelonging.ca
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About the Author

Jessie Sutherland

An international speaker, trainer, and consultant, Jessie Sutherland works with organizations and communities to engage diversity, build belonging and ignite intercultural collaboration. Her approach creates sustainable community change that effectively addresses a wide range of complex social problems.

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