Where the Work Begins

Kevin John Fong
5 min readMar 15, 2023
Photo: Kevin John Fong

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In my recent travels, I have found myself engaged in incredible conversations with some critical questions being raised about driving social change in this unique time.

Here are a few questions that have risen to the top

⮚ How can we rebuild a healthy organization, post-Covid?

⮚ How can we implement our long-delayed strategic plan?

⮚ What can we do to bridge the divide between our communities and the nation at large?

⮚ What practices will help us stay focused on our mission and values?

⮚ What will allow us to remain responsive to changing times?

These questions have brought me back to a fundamental premise that we use at The Kahakulei Institute in response to the topics above -

What is the quality and depth of your relationships?

We remind folks that every journey has a starting point, and you can’t work effectively without first building trust. This starts by separating yourselves from your roles and titles and getting to know one another as human beings. For us, it is essential to set conditions of hospitality and belonging from the moment anyone enters our space.

When you join a Kahakulei Institute gathering, we will always have music playing. We open with a “warming hands” activity and a short reading — usually a poem. If we are meeting in person, there will be food and drinks available. Whether we are organizing a Second Circle for a community in crisis, facilitating a Five Elements session with a group of farmworkers, or providing a Transcultural Leadership Training with university presidents, we always start with establishing a warm and welcoming environment.

By interrupting business-as-usual expectations, we create the space for people to be open to trying something new. In the words of one participant,

“I had armored myself for another zoom meeting of drudgery. But when I heard the music, my attitude shifted. Then you read the poem, and I was like…ok…I can stay here for awhile.”

From there, we establish conditions of trust by finding common ground to build a foundation based on common purpose, collective strengths, and respect. We acknowledge from the outset that many truths can exist at the same time, and when things get difficult, we turn to wonder instead of judgment. From there, we can ask key questions that assist us in addressing the topic at hand.

Here are two examples:

1) An international human rights organization asked us to facilitate a gathering of faith-based leaders to talk about health care delivery in communities of need. The group had varying opinions about defining health, especially sexual reproductive health. Our opening question was — Tell us about the healthiest person in your community. They started out with the triathlete, or all-star football player, people who epitomized physical health. Then they went deeper. Someone mentioned their 94-year old grandfather, who was the happiest person they know. Another mentioned a client who had lost her business, and, despite her circumstances, remained spiritually grounded and hopeful.

In this situation, we brought people together who were diametrically opposed to hot-topic issues, and through the right questions, they discovered that they stood on this common ground –

● We all love our community (no matter how long we have been here, or what neighborhood we live in).

● We must view health from a comprehensive perspective — physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual.

● We are invested in the story of our community, and a vision of its bright future.

Once we established common ground, the group approached the topic from a place of collaboration and collective vision vs. one of division and winner-take-all.

One participant challenged me:

“It’s great in theory, Kevin, especially when you are here to facilitate our gathering, but these activities is just not realistic for us to do this in our regular meetings,” said the person. “We just have too much to do.”

I understood the point and suggested that they start their next meeting by playing music as people come in, and ask them to enter their favorite song in the chat. If there’s time, ask one or two people to share. They did just that at their following meeting, and reported that those two minutes made a difference in how people showed up, and the productivity of their meeting.

2) We recently engaged a national agency interested in obtaining community feedback on how to mount a campaign on a major social issue. The Chief Marketing Officer talked about how focus groups and surveys were not getting the information they needed. My colleague Todd told her that these methods are indicative of looking at people as objects with information to be extracted, for a price.

“What if you could be in a relationship with your customers where they are treated as whole humans,” Todd said. “What if we invite them into a conversation not only to find out what their needs and their concerns are, but also their hopes and joys?”

We designed a series of circles for this agency, engaging participants in a process where they built trust, shared stories, spoke their truth, and formed a deeper sense of community. The client not only received a wealth of relevant wisdom that informed their work, they established (and in some cases, re-established) trust from the community, many of whom had long felt betrayed by an organization whose purpose was to be of service.

The success of any endeavor is based on the quality and depth of the relationships among those involved.

Are they in right relationship? If so, what conditions are needed to sustain that relationship? And if not, what conditions are needed to build trust?

Sound scary? Fear not. There are plenty of ways that build trust. Drop us a line, and we’ll be happy to help. The key rests in your willingness to turn to wonder, and to see, hear, and try something new. At your next gathering, before you break out the notepads, spreadsheets, and slide decks, start with something different: music, poetry, and a good question. When you begin your work from a fresh vantage point, you increase your odds for a more successful result.

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

As you consider your organization or community, what is the quality and depth of your relationships? How do trust and respect show up, or not?

What do you need to deepen the quality of your relationships in your organization or community? How might you get to a place of lasting trust?

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Kevin John Fong

A cultural translator and racial healing practitioner, Kevin works to weave people and possibilities to cultivate communities of belonging — www.kahakulei.com