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Chapter 1: What is your gift? Why is knowing your gift important?

Pua In the past fifteen years I have developed exercises which are part of a community-building and conflict transformation process I call, “Building the Beloved Community.”  In one of the anchor exercises I call, “Guts on the Table,” I ask people to tell three stories.  The name of the exercise,“Guts on the Table,” comes from the Hawaiian understanding that your na’au, your gut is the deepest place from which you think:  it’s the place where your mind, heart, intuition and experience come together.  It is the place where mana, your spiritual core lives.  The Hawaiian  word for thought is mana`o.

This is a formal process, a ritual.  The methodology is simple:  create a safe space and help people to find their stories and to tell them.  This exercise was designed to help people get deeper, faster.  People sit in a circle, on chairs or on the floor, and each person will tell their stories, one-by-one.  In this exercise, I usually begin [one of the core principles of doing this work is that you should never ask someone to do something that you haven’t done or aren’t willing to do first].  So, I as the facilitator will tell my stories first, and then the circle moves to my left and continues until it circles back to me.  Within the past 15 years, I have been part of over 1,008 circles.  Here are the stories people will tell:

1.  Tell the story of your names, all of your names.  Usually, we just introduce ourselves with our first names and leave out all of their other names which contain much of our personal histories.  People tell the story of how they were named or who named them; the meaning of their names or how they feel about their names.  When you tell the story of your names you tell the story of your people, your family, and what you feel about your name(s).

2.  Tell the story of your community, however, each participant defines “community.”  When people tell the story of community, they tell the story of how they live as part of a group. 

3.  Tell the story of your gift(s).  This is usually, the most difficult story for people to tell.  The belief is that if you talk about your gifts, then you will be “bragging on yourself,” which in many cultures is not appropriate behavior.  The emphasis is for people to tell what their gift(s) is/are,  rather than their skills.  The importance of this story is to enable them to wonder what their family, organization or community would be like if it were gift-based and not just skill-based.  (Most of us, when applying for a job, have only been asked to detail our skills and experiences, not our gifts.  My theory is that gift-based organizations do work that is more spiritual and satisfying and long-term.)

In one of the circles I did with twelve 11th and 12th graders in my local high school, I was taught an important lesson, which has shaped my work and perspectives.  I call the story of this lesson,

“The Gift.”

We were in one of the classrooms, seated in a circle of chairs.  I explained the process to them and in keeping with one of the fundamental principles of how I do my work, I went first.  When the circle got to a young man, an 11th grader, he told the story of his names and community well, but when he started to tell the story of his gift, he put his head down and said, “What, Miss? What kind gift you think I get, eh? I stay in this special ed. class and I get a hard time read and I cannot do that math stuff. And why you make me shame for, ask me that kind question? What’s your gift?  If I had a gift, you think I be here?”  Then he just shut down and shut up, and I felt really shame, because I made him shame.  So I shut down and shut up.  When the circle was done, I just packed my things up and left quickly, no apologies, no nothing.  Two weeks later, I am in our local grocery store, and I see him down one of the aisles and I see his back and I stop.  I thought, “RUN! I’m not going down this aisle and get yelled at again if he sees me.  So I backed up as fast as I could and tried to run away from him.  Then he turns around and he sees me, and he throws his arms open, and he says, “Aunty! I have been thinking about you, you know. Two weeks I have been thinking: ‘What my gift? What my gift?’ ”

 I say to him,“OK bruddah, so what’s your gift?”  He says, “You know, I’ve been thinking, thinking, thinking. I cannot do that math stuff and I cannot read so good, but Aunty, when I stay in the ocean, I can call the fish, and the fish he come, every time. Every time I can put food on my family table. Every time. And sometimes when I stay in the ocean and the Shark he come, and he look at me and I look at him and I tell him, ‘Uncle I not going take plenty fish. I just going to take one, two fish, just for my family. All the rest I leave for you.’ And so the Shark he say, ‘Oh, you cool, brother.’ And I tell the Shark, ‘Uncle, you cool.’ And the Shark, he go his way and I go my way.  I think that’s my gift.”

And I look at this boy and I know what a genius he is.  But in our society, the way schools are run, he is rubbish. He is totally destroyed, not appreciated at all. So when I talk to teachers and  principals of  schools, I them his story and ask them, “What would have been this kid’s life be like if this curriculum was gift based?  What if we could identify the gift of each child and teach to that gift?  From this story I began to ask, “What would happen if the schools were gift based, that everyone would work and learn with their gift at the core?

This story has created a conversation in my community about developing a gift-based school, one in which everyone, students, teachers, groundskeepers, principals, office staff, cafeteria works, counselors, etc. would work from their gift.  I think the implication of answering the questions, “What is your gift?” “What is the gift of your community or organization?” would lead us down an interesting development path.  So this for me is a very native approach—being able to see the giftedness in every aspect of life.

What is your gift?  How do you live your gift?

Mahalo for letting me share this mana’o with you.  puanani


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Lynne Elizabeth

Mahalo nui loa, Puanani!
A lovely story. A brilliant idea. Recognizing gifts is only recently being recognized as a healthy way to strengthen communities -- building on a neighborhood's assets rather than its problems. Sounds like a beautiful way to approach education or parenting or friendship.
Thank you, too, for your candor and the fresh and honest language.

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Beautiful idea, and article. I have been a parent of a child with unique learning style and gifts and it has been a long journey to keep his self-esteem from being destroyed in public school. I love the idea of leading with gifts, that we all have a story, uniquely our own one that can be a contribution to the community. Gift-based education? I can only imagine. Thank you for this.

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