“Dare to Speak” – Alaska Airlines celebrates AANHPI heritage and culture

Jill Tanga, Lindsay Tuiasosopo, Shanyn Wright and Lucy Purcell in Washington, DC, represent the PIA and Alaska Air Group in meetings with lawmakers.

In honor of Asian Americans and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders (AANHPI) Heritage Month, we spoke with leaders of Alaska's economic resource group, the Pacific Islander Alliance, about their efforts, including their partnership with Kumu Kahanuola Solatorio to provide Alaska workers with opportunities to learn the Hawaiian language. During the month of May, we celebrate the history and achievements of the Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders in our network.

Almost 17 years ago, just before Alaska Airlines began its first flights to Hawaii, two Alaska employees had a conversation over lunch that continues to resonate today.

“I remember,” Jill Tanga said of the meal she shared with her colleague Lucy Purcell in 2007. “We were having lunch and wanted to find ways to specifically support our Pacific Islander community. So we organized ourselves with the intention of making sure that Hawaii and the host nation's culture were properly represented in our worship service.”

Their conversation was the first step in establishing the Business Resource Group of Alaska. Pacific Islander Alliance or PIA Tanga, who was born on Oʻahu and is of part Hawaiian descent, continues to be one of the group's leaders today. Over the years, PIA has worked to support employees and serve as a cultural advisor and ambassador for the airlines. PIA's balanced approach supports corporate initiatives and employee engagement opportunities that include educational, career and leadership development, as well as participation in community and volunteer events.

As an airline that brings people to Hawaii, we have the Subscribe to (responsibility) to make sure we're really doing this intentionally,” says Shanyn Wright, one of PIA's directors. She explained that PIA was founded, in part, “to make sure that a Hawaiian or Pacific Islander perspective is represented in the space.”

Jill Tanga, Lindsay Tuiasosopo, Shanyn Wright and Lucy Purcell in Washington, DC, represent the PIA and Alaska Air Group in meetings with lawmakers.

Lindsay Tuiasosopo, another PIA leader, explains that PIA also supports group members who are looking for professional development opportunities in Alaska.

“In my experience, one of the challenges for Pacific Islanders in the workplace is finding a voice,” Tuiasosopo said. “When I started working for Alaska, it was one of my first professional jobs and I had to learn to use my voice in that environment. As a half-Samoan, quarter-Irish and quarter-Scottish person, I was taught to follow whatever my elders say without asking questions.”

“Earlier in my career, that's how I functioned. I had to learn how to communicate effectively, that it's OK to speak your mind, even if it's just to say, 'No, we shouldn't do it that way. This is how we should do it.' When I share that with other Pacific Islanders in our company, it touches them deeply.”

One of the group's upcoming activities is a career forum featuring Pacific Islander Alaska employees who will speak about their career journeys. They will provide insight into how they used corporate resources in Alaska, such as leadership programs, to get where they are today. Tuiasosopo says this is important for PIA members who may be the first in their family to pursue the career paths available in Alaska.

Wright said PIA has helped deepen the discussion surrounding AANHPI Heritage Month. The group has encouraged conversations about the diverse cultures within the AANHPI community, “enabling more honest conversations about what AANHPI is and who belongs to it.”

PIA also supports activities that promote Pacific Islander cultures and employee learning in Alaska, including language classes for Alaskan employees led by Kumu Kahanuola Solatorio. His passion for promoting and teaching the Native Hawaiian language, Hawaiishines in his popular social media videos.

I like to teach this sentence: 'okina and ka ʻōlelo – dare to speak,” says Solatorio. “It comes from a longer phrase or ʻōlelo noeʻauthat means: dare to dance and leave your shame at home. When you come to my class, don't be shy. Take a few chances, take risks, leave your shame at home and dare to speak.”

Solatorio and PIA plan virtual courses for employees in Alaska to learn Hawaii plus classroom instruction at Alaska headquarters in Seattle.

“Many people want to learn Hawaii but don't have access,” said Solatorio. “Educating them on the language and making it more accessible is our main goal with this partnership.”

Like many of his students, Solatorio did not grow up speaking Hawaiian, but he fell in love with the language and studied it in college and during graduate school.

Solatario's greatest impact may have been felt on Instagram. He began teaching his mother Hawaii and shares the videos on social media. His Instagram name @ehoopilimai means “repeat after me” in Hawaiian. Today he has more than 30,000 followers.

It is our Subscribe to (responsibility) as Hawaiians to teach incoming visitors the true value of Hawaii,” he says. “It lies in the land, the people, the language and the culture. The Subscribe to to others to learn about Hawaii before they travel and to experience the true essence of Hawaii.”

Kumu Kahanuola Solarium

Solatorio's partnership with Alaska also includes publicly accessible courses in communities served by Alaska, with a focus on areas with large populations of Native Hawaiians and former Hawaiian residents. Follow him at @ehoopilimai to learn more.

Anna Harden

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