March 26, 2017

Belonging in the Surf

One of my most magical memories is from when I was about 29 years old and moonlight surfing on Waikiki Beach with my cousin Kelly Chang and dear friend Hugh Khim.

On one of my visits to my family city of Honolulu, Kelly and Hugh had loaded up their cars with surfboards and had taken me into the Waikiki waves on a full moon night. While Waikiki is famous for the wall-to-wall sunbathing tourists that crowd one of the most beautiful beaches in the world during the day, that night we had just about all the water to ourselves.

I remember sitting on that longboard, smelling the Pacific water, feeling the tropical breeze, and admiring the hotel lights. After many, many, failed attempts, I think I caught one or two waves that night. Truly transcendent moments.

I remember thinking how powerful it was to be invited there with them, for them to share this special experience with me, late into the night.

There are at least two principles that make this such a meaningful memory for me.

The first is that we were within a safe “inner ring.” In this context, an inner ring is a safe place among people who share relationships beyond competition and judgment. This was a time and experience only shared with people who already appreciated and respected one another. While in the future others may be invited, that night we already knew we were safe with one another.

The second is a bit more profound. Through my cousin Kelly, I felt deeply connected to that place. My family has made its home in Honolulu for at least four generations. I was participating in a long line connected to me enjoying that space and appreciating its magnificence. Had we been on any other island in the world, even if we had been surfing, even if there had been tropical breezes, even if there were bright hotel lights glinting on the water, I would not have felt that connection.

Meaningfulness comes when we feel connected to the past and/or the future. That place, that experience in a relationship I had with those hosts were meaningful to me. In fact, I hope I can share the grandeur of Hawaii with the next generation in my family.

When we are helping others belong, connecting experiences to the past can change a fun event to something profound. Then we get to be the generation that connects those who come next with us.

How are you letting others know the way they are connected to a place no matter how unglamorous or changed it has become?

March 12, 2017

I Belong Here

I grew up in Southern California, but most of my extended family lived in Honolulu, Hawaii.

As a child, I would accompany my parents on family visits. In my 20s, I started visiting on my own.

Among other family members, I would visit my cousins Kelly and Kevin, who would introduce me to their friends, fellow artists, and church communities.

For those who don't know, my heritage is half Asian and half European. I have what is commonly called a classic Hapa look of people with my ethnic mix. Wherever I go, people ask, "Where are you from?" I tell them: California.

However true, this is not usually an acceptable answer.

From Lusaka, Zambia, to New York City, people want to hear where my 19th-century ancestors lived. When I explain, they often tell me how "interesting" my mix is. I’m not even sure what that means, except, “You sure aren’t like other people I know.”

As I was born in the 1970s, many people I met assumed I was the product of military sexual promiscuity who had made it to United States. In college, one of my roommates told me that he had always thought that people of mixed race like me happened only as an "accident maybe."

Hawaii is a place that’s experienced well over 100 years of immigration, profound eastern and western ethnic diversity, and countless generations of intermarriage. It is the only place I’ve ever been where people don't ask where I'm from.

When Kelly, Kevin, and my Oahu friends Hugh and Tim took me hiking or surfing, to church or to beach picnics, to backyard barbecues or to hula performances, I didn't have to explain myself. They knew what it is to be part of and within an ethnically diverse culture so enmeshed that it has created something wholly new and unrecognizable to the rest of the world.

Now you understand why I felt like I “belonged” when I was in Hawaii. There were the invitations, smiles, and listening. Most importantly, I didn't have to explain myself. I was accepted for who I was, no matter whether I was "interesting" or not.

Are you creating a place where people don’t have to explain themselves? Are they accepted for who they are even when they just don’t look the same? If you can do this, then you have created a special type of belonging indeed.

I wonder, when people visit your culture, who has to explain themselves and who doesn’t?

March 1, 2017

Even Simple Invitations Matter

Just this morning, I reached out to many friends to invite them to dinner at our house tomorrow night.

Of course, most people with active lives have their weekend plans already set. So I knew that at least some, if not most, would decline. That's exactly what happened. No matter, I reached out all the same.

Over the years I’ve learned that invitations matter. Invitations — even unaccepted, even unacknowledged — are an important tool in our efforts to build community. Invitations are evidence to others that someone cares about them.

Our dinner party tomorrow will consist of about 14 people. I've already noticed my anxiety rising as I wonder whether I can make it nice enough or impressive enough, given my own schedule tomorrow. Which means I get to remind myself that the relationships are far more important than the food I serve. I get to remind myself that my friends are looking forward to a welcoming space more than to culinary genius.

I'll make a simple meal of ginger chicken, garlic greens, and brown rice. It is a classic Asian-American home dinner. I'll trust that if they want to know us, this will be a perfect meal for them.

As you focus on how to grow or strengthen your community, think about who you are inviting into your space, and please put aside all your concerns about impressing them… even if you struggle with this like me.

For years we did not have a home that could host 14 people. You may lack a recipe for ginger chicken. No matter, we all want a genuine welcome far more than an impressive buffet.

There is no reason to wait in offering the welcome to others. They may be busy with their lives. Whoever accepts, wants to spend time with you. They may be the best kind of people to host.

Feb. 1, 2017

Flywheel Podcast: Building Communities That Inspire Connection

This week Victor Jimenez hosted me for a conversation for entrepreneurs on building cultures of belonging.  

You can listen at the link below.


Flywheel Podcast - Building Communities That Inspire Connection

In this episode, we talk about community and connection. Consider this, most businesses rise and fall based on the strength and depth of connection Communitythey build with employees, partners, and even their customers. Many of us don’t give a lot of thought about building a structure that can create a sense of belonging within our broader community and the micro-communities that form as a result of doing business.

Building that belonging takes work and strong leadership and commitment. Listen carefully to this episode and learn some of the principles that create and maintain those connections.

Some of the ideas we touch on that make strong communities

  • Boundaries
  • Space and safety
  • Implicit and explicit values
  • Creating paths to growth
  • Leadership

Jan. 29, 2017

Cultural Values and Your Warm Body

Every community leader that I meet with wants to tell me about the values of his or her organization.

There's nothing wrong with this.

But I know that what people say their values are, and what the most prominent values prove to be, don't necessarily align. They rarely actually do. The stated values are often aspirational.

Nothing wrong with this, either.

So how do you know what the real values are?

One of the things I look for is, Where do members put their "warm bodies"? Where we actually put ourselves says far more about our values than anything else.

In my early 20s, I volunteered full time at the Catholic Worker house in Orange County, California. The Catholic Worker Movement was started in the early 20th century by the now famous social justice activist Dorothy Day. Today’s Catholic Workers do many things, including feeding and housing homeless people.

One afternoon at the house, I remember, volunteers and homeless guests were sitting in one of the common rooms. One of the homeless gentlemen mentioned that he was unable to cut his own toenails because of his poor health and limited flexibility. Without hesitation, worker Dwight offered to take care of his toes on the spot. With permission and in just a few seconds, Dwight was on the floor taking the man's shoes off.

This man had been living on the streets for months. I don't know when he had last had a real home. His clothes were deeply soiled and his feet were seriously neglected. The smell alone made me uncomfortable. But if any of this mattered to Dwight, he gave no sign of it.

In other words, Dwight put his warm body next to the homeless man who had casually mentioned his limitation.

From that moment, and many others like it, I understood that the Orange County Catholic Worker house actually valued service, dignity for all guests, humility, and more than a little bravery. Whatever is written on their website doesn’t matter.

When I visit a church, as I do around the world, I notice if parishioners and or clergy approach me to greet me. I’m looking to see if they put their warm bodies near visitors because they value welcoming strangers. Nothing wrong if they don’t value strangers. It is also hard to include strangers when you don’t welcome them.

When someone in your group shares having a time, goes to the hospital, is stranded at an airport, do you notice where members put their warm bodies? Are there warm bodies near people in difficult times?

If your leadership complains that new folk don’t want to get involved and stay around, have you noticed who puts their own warm body near them when they visit?

When you consider the communities important to you, perhaps those you aspire to grow, I wonder what you will see when you notice where you and your fellow leaders put your warm bodies?