Aloha ʻĀina: The Power of Cultural Connections


As they say, gardening is good for the soul.

On May 5th, 2017, Hawaiʻi-Korea Collaborative partnered with Hanwoori Hawaii, a Korean culture club based at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, to hold our first offline event. The meet-up was a service-learning experience at a loʻi (taro patch) called Ka Papa Loʻi ʻO Kānewai.

We started the day gathered in a circle of 90-some people holding hands. Event hosts led us in a pule (prayer) that introduced ourselves to the 'āina (land) and the kupuna (ancestors) that inhabited the land before us.


Dividing into a group of 30 we sat barefoot in a circle on a woven mat under the thatched roof of a hale waʻa (open-air canoe house). One by one, we introduced ourselves by name and shared where we were from. Surrounded by friends and strangers while listening to our host share Hawaiian moʻolelo (stories) on a Saturday morning was curiously therapeutic. Maybe it was the balmy weather, but perhaps it was my spirit was connecting with the place we were in.

Developing a Connection to Place

Our host, a young Hawaiian woman, shared a legend of the taro plant being the elder sibling and ancestor to the Hawaiians. As she explained, Hawaiians believe in the reciprocal relationship of nurturing taro, and in turn, taro nurturing them.


A natural storyteller, she went on to talk about the place we were in. The traditional anecdotes she shared told much about the location, including why the valley is frequently graced with rainbows. We then went up river to the poʻowai (headwater), where water was diverted to a ditch that feeds the loʻi. Sitting riverside on large boulders, we were taught Hawaiian terms for the different parts of the river, pairing simple hand motions to solidify them in our memory.

With each explanation, we began to see our environment through a cultural lens. This perspective, in turn, allowed us to connect to the place in a deeper, cultural realm of thought. We were establishing a relationship with the river, a Hawaiian concept called aloha ʻāina, which means "love of the land." Following the stream back to the loʻi, our host then invited us to put our hands and feet to work.


Connection Fosters Empowerment

After a few rounds of hehi, the process of stomping fallen leaves into a muddy loʻi with bare feet, we moved on to another loʻi and weeded out the areas surrounding mature taro plants. Bent over, knee-deep in mud with taro leaves towering over me, I tuned into the conversations going on around me. A woman who was visiting home struck up a conversation with our host. “I work as a nurse on the mainland,” she started out as she began to share about her interest in traditional Hawaiian medicine. Our host — a student who was well-versed in Hawaiian medicine — shared experiences of using traditional herbs and methods to heal various illnesses. The nurse's eyes lit up with fascination as she continued to ask questions.


We soon moved to another patch, and again I found my hands working while my ears listened to the conversations around me. A different volunteer was next to our host, pulling at weeds and engaged in conversation. The college-aged girl was at a crossroads in life. She explained that she enjoyed learning about Hawaiian culture and was thinking of returning to school to study it. Our host asked, “Well, what do you want to study: Hawaiian language, medicine, governance…?” to which she replied that she wanted to learn everything. They shared a chuckle at the ambitious proposition.

Both of these conversations hit close to home for me. I couldn’t help but reflect on my own fascination with Korea. There was a point many years ago where I too could be quoted as saying, “I want to learn everything.” I believe many of our readers can relate. Whether we feel empowered to learn a language, study a society, or stand up for a nation — these feelings are rooted in a relationship to a place, a people and their culture. For a growing number of us, these relationships are not based on heritage, but rather stem from a connection felt deep in our hearts and minds.

The day concluded with a hearty meal of Hawaiian food with fellow volunteers. I retreated to a cafe and mulled over three takeaways I gathered from the experience.

The 3 Takeaways

Strive to Foster Connections with an Environment

The organizers of the event went beyond providing an opportunity for college students to log community service hours. Storytelling, teaching, and hands-on activities created an environment where individuals could develop a lasting connection to the place they are in. The value of connection building is unimportant to the short-sighted, but those who see the bigger picture understand that the places we establish a connection with, we tend to protect. Connection building through culture-based education is all about investing in people for the long term.


Culture-Based Networks Foster Empowerment

I noticed that people are likely to seek out others with similar interests and experiences. It was no coincidence that both the nurse and the young lady struck up a conversation with our host in the loʻi. That reciprocity of shared interests seemed to foster empowerment. It reminded me of the sense of liberation I felt when I joined networks of students studying Korean language and culture over the years. Such culture-based networks allow us to belong, connect, and be a part of a common endeavor.

Culture-Based Networks Require Innovative Leadership

Culture-based networks will require different leadership. Such leaders must be able to foster relationships and leverage information while cultivating trust. What if, for example, a leader connected the interested nurse with a Hawaiian medicine practitioner, or the passionate young college girl to a Hawaiian studies professor? Their goal should not be to chart a course for their followers, but rather to manage and orchestrate the members of the network.

Moving forward as an organization, HKC aims to support our Hawaii-Korea network by identifying and supporting network leaders. We endeavor to inspire a new culture of network leadership: leading as gardening. Instead of directing members within a network, we hope to create an environment in which the members of our network can flourish.

Indeed, gardening is good for the soul.

If you want to learn more about the network concepts that Keoni referred to, you can read The Chessboard & The Web by Anne-Marie Slaughter or connect with HKC via Facebook and join our discussion online.



Keoni Williams is a program assistant at Pacific Forum CSIS; University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa alumnus; and editor-in-chief at HKC.



Katarina Brown is an editorial intern at The Austin Chronicle; University of Texas at Austin alumnus; and chief copyeditor at HKC.