On the Thursday before Juneteenth, artist Mark "Feijão" Milligan II stood before dozens of Hawaiian Airlines employees to share his journey of finding his creative voice through the African diaspora. The educational gathering, organized by Hawaiian’s Network of Black Employees and Allies (NBEA) Employee Resource Group (ERG) for Juneteenth, became a striking example of the impact of the company’s Lunch and Learn events.
Lunch and Learns cultivate enthusiasm for new or familiar subjects and foster community conversations over a meal or during a work break. Each event is conceptualized and organized with verve by employee groups to appeal to the various interests and identities within the carrier’s diverse 7,200-plus workforce.
Christine Strobel, director of internal communications at Hawaiian and an NBEA ERG officer, shared, “On any given day, we’re all busy managing several tasks to help improve the business. Lunch and Learn events provide us with opportunities to step away from our to-do lists and spend a bit of time thinking about the bigger picture and how we can better care for our community,” she said.
For many of those attending Milligan’s Lunch and Learn, the subject of the African diaspora was unfamiliar territory. Attendees listened with a focused curiosity from the edge of their seats as the St. Croix-born, Hawaiʻi-based artist shared his work and stories of growing up in the U.S. Virgin Islands. They were walked through the progression of his artistic endeavors: how a seed planted as an observant child later flourished in adulthood after he committed to doing at least 30 minutes of art each day.
“I remember walking through the community when I was much younger and taking in everything there. I was so in love with the culture that I was in, but at that time, I was also reflecting on the mainstream portrayals of my culture and the disparity and misrepresentation of my people. So, I decided to use my artwork to shift the narrative and affect change,” Milligan shared. That motivation transformed his practice of rough pencil sketches on the bus or before bed into finished collections of colorful paintings, community murals, and commissions for prominent names like Michelle and Barack Obama, Lizzo and U.S. Virgin Islands Governor Albert Bryan Jr.
“I think there needs to be more celebration of the African diaspora, and Juneteenth can be a vehicle where people can learn about the culture,” Milligan said. “I would recommend it’s not just focused on the enslavement side, even though I know Juneteenth comes out of that, and it’s beautiful that this holiday is here, but I think there are so many other aspects of Black culture to celebrate too.”
National Pride Month at Hawaiian was also celebrated with a Lunch and Learn featuring the Hawai'i Health & Harm Reduction Center (HHHRC) and hosted by Haʻaheo, Hawaiian’s LGBTQA+ ERG. Andrew Ogata, the nonprofit’s director of marketing and development, used the time to emphasize the importance of the center’s work in fighting stigmas and promoting wellness across the Hawaiian Islands and the Pacific.
“Every single effort we make, we do it through a harm reduction lens,” Ogata shared before diving into an overview of the organization’s offerings targeted toward LGBTQA+, Native Hawaiian and others affected by HIV, hepatitis, drug use and poverty.
Manakō Tanaka, senior community and cultural relations specialist at Hawaiian, was thrilled to see Haʻaheo connecting with HHHRC to educate and spread awareness.
"Our relationship with the HHHRC has grown in recent years through the Team Kōkua Giving Program with our sponsorship of the Honolulu AIDS walk, and we feel fortunate that the LGBTQI+ and MVPFAFF+ community members within our employee base, along with allies, were offered the opportunity to learn about their work. They are a tenacious organization specializing in complicated issues, and I hope my colleagues are as inspired as I am by their invaluable efforts for our island communities,” Tanaka shared.
[Editor’s note: Did you know Hawaiʻi celebrates Pride Month in October? Learn more about Hawaiian’s 2022 #RainbowRunway celebration and annual support around the Honolulu Pride Parade & Festival. The airline is also selling #RainbowRunway quick-dry, sand-proof towels in support of National Pride Month 2023. Proceeds will be donated to Honolulu nonprofit The Gregory House. Click here to purchase.]
Other Lunch and Learns have featured the Hawaiʻi Foodbank for its efforts to feed those in need, Alphonso Braggs of the NAACP – Hawaiʻi for Juneteenth 2022 and fostering inclusion in the workplace, Chef Kealoha Domingo for cooking with an indigenous focus, and the American Heart Association on its partnership with Hawaiian to promote heart-healthy lifestyles.
Strobel reflected on the positive impact that intentional moments of learning and engagement have on employees and how it ripples into Hawaiian Airlines and Hawaiʻi – the home of over 90 percent of its workforce. “We’re a part of this community – neighbors, former co-workers, participants in civic groups, graduates of local schools, etc. These Lunch and Learns reflect how our colleagues know their communities (and the changemakers within them) better than anyone else and want to provide another platform to drive social change.”