Pono - To Be Whole

10/29/2015 10:30 am ET Updated Oct 29, 2015

There is a Hawaiian word, Pono, which means "to be righteous; to be the best one can be; to be whole." For two days last week, in Oahu, Hawaii, a diverse group of people from three organizations met - those that work with Black and Latino youth, with native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander, and with Native Americans. We discussed the many similarities of our work from Hawaii to Albuquerque to Harlem - our young people are confronted with violence, poor education, lack of job opportunities and often live in communities that are inundated with drugs. The Pacific American Foundation, The Native American Community Academy and The Brotherhood/Sister Sol are working to help young people redefine manhood in ways that confront destructive norms of masculinity, to learn conflict resolution, to seek academic achievement, and to heal from trauma and become whole. We are raising children and teaching them skills and how to navigate this world. We all use ritual and ceremony and tradition with our young people, we all celebrate culture and use it to instill pride, we all utilize the natural environment as a teaching tool that allows our children to get in touch with latent aspects of themselves, and centrally, we all surround them with elders who ensure our young people are mentored, and feel loved and supported and guided - yet also teach them to learn focus and discipline. Over our days together, our Laguna Pueblo brother sang a Lakota honor song that they teach their youth, which translates to: "Don't forget what your parents, guardians and ancestors have taught you, as you move forward in life."

Across thousands of miles we found synergies between what our young people face and the answers that will guide them. What are rites of passage? What are the stages of development in guiding boys and girls to be strong men and women? What are the interconnected tenets, connective tissue, that binds us in humanity and a mutual understanding of a moral and ethical code?

The Brotherhood/Sister Sol (Bro/Sis) has had four themes since our founding: Positivity, Knowledge, Community and Future. We have also always focused on the positive and interconnected development of our young people's Minds, Bodies and Spirits. The goals of The Native American Community Academy (NACA) are to build youth to be "confident in their cultural identities," to "persevere academically," to develop wellness physically, emotionally and spiritually, and to become leaders. The Pacific American Foundation seeks to empower children to be resilient and responsible, to be passionate about education and culture and to become leaders. They have a guiding principle that "All knowledge is not taught in the same school."

All of us also teach our young people that if they walk down this path, if they seek to heal and be whole, that they then have the responsibility to give back and help others - to be committed. We teach young people that they have a responsibility to their people, to their tribe, to their family, yes, but also to the larger world - an interconnected humanity. In our nation's history these are the themes that have been central to creating youth leaders, to organizing to end wars, to feeding the hungry, to creating opportunity and to respond to the environmental crisis. As NACA states, we need our young people to seek "Enduring Understandings and Essential Questions." Philosophy. Ethics. Morality. Humanity. This struggle, to heal from personal trauma, to confront the inequities they face, to commit to the greater good - this is brave and hearty work. We know that there can be no political transformation without personal transformation. We challenge our young people to work on themselves. We choose staff that will do the same. As Toni Cade Bambara once wrote: "Are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well?... Just so's you're sure, sweetheart, and ready to be healed, cause wholeness is no trifling matter. A lot of weight when you're well."

At Bro/Sis we have, for 20 years, worked to create an array of programming for our young people. It is multilayered and diverse: The organization focuses on issues such as leadership development and educational achievement, sexual responsibility, sexism and misogyny, political education and social justice, Pan-African and Latino history, and global awareness. Bro/Sis provides four-six year rites of passage programming, thorough five day a week after school care, school and home counseling, summer camps, job training and employment, college preparation, community organizing training, and international study programs to Africa and Latin America.

What tethers all of the programs is that we have focused and honed goals that are consistent and entrenched. We know that if we reach these stages of development for our young people, that they will be successful and become strong and able adults. Whole. These stages of development, these intended outcomes, are ones that are not ethnic specific or class specific - we as a society need to work to better help all of our children find their moral and ethical center. I saw, over these two days of meetings with my colleagues - Lakota, Laguna Pueblo, Hawaiian, Cherokee, Pacific Islander - that we walk hand in hand with our children; that we seek the same futures for them. At Bro/Sis we work, tirelessly, so that our children can:

• Develop a personal self definition that encompasses respect for themselves, their family and the larger community
• Gain a greater understanding of and appreciation for their cultural and historical legacy as Black and Latino people
• Develop into critical thinkers who can analyze personal and societal issues and who are committed to self and community development
• Broaden their knowledge of social issues and increase their participation in community activities
• Find their creative voice
• Develop a powerful sense of self-worth and belief in their ability to achieve
• Improve their academic performance and develop a life long love of learning
• Increase their involvement in the workforce, internships and travel
• Learn the life skills essential for survival and success
• Create a personal testimony of their values, beliefs, and goals that reflects an understanding of their moral responsibility to others

These have been the goals of Bro/Sis since 1995. What was so affirming in my meetings with the staff from NACA and PAF was that I heard our words in their words and their words in ours. As we stood in a circle for our closing ceremony, as one participant gave thanks in Lakota and another in Hawaiian and I in English, across thousands of miles and differing ethnicities and interconnected and yet distinct histories, we spoke the same language. And our children are the better for it.