There is a word for that feeling – Ch’eghwtsen’.
Ch’eghwtsen’, when translated from the Lower Tanana dialect, means ‘True Love’. The word is one that has been spoken at length by one of our most revered native leaders- the Late Traditional Chief Peter John, who described it as ‘pure’ and ‘powerful’.
For years, Tanana Chiefs Conference (TCC) looked for a word that could accurately describe what they wanted to achieve. When Ch’eghwtsen’ was presented, it was exactly what they had been looking for – a culturally relevant word that embodied the fundamental concepts of compassion and empathy.
However, the road to Ch’eghwtsen’ was not straightforward. It took a lot of planning, preparation, people, and just a little bit of serendipity.
How It All Began
In 2017, at a Health Management Meeting in Anchorage, several key strategic planning initiatives were identified, one of which was to develop or explore tools to initiate a relationship training that would improve compassionate care and compassionate interaction.
These initiatives were developed at the direction of TCC Chief/Chairman Victor Joseph in an effort to improve access to care at the Chief Andrew Isaac Health Center (CAIHC) and ensure that patients were leaving TCC’s facilities feeling like they were truly cared for. This has been a long-time need for the organization and was supported by the TCC Executive Board of Directors (E-Board), with cross-cultural sensitivity training for staff having already been identified in TCC’s 2015-2020 Strategic Plan.
CAIHC Deputy Director Leah Thompson was assigned to look into ways to carry out these initiatives, “When I looked at those initiatives, my thought was that all of these stemmed from the need for our staff to be culturally aware.”
The initiatives would require collaboration and coordination with other TCC divisions to generate true change throughout the clinic. With the guidance of Chief Joseph, a work group was assembled that would assist in developing and implementing the training. One of those work group participants was Executive Director of Human Resources, Heather Rogers.
At the time, Rogers had been working on re-defining TCC’s Core Values, “We wanted a list of values that reflected not only what our organization does, but what we expect of the people within our organization,” Rogers explains.
With support from Human Resources, the work group decided that it was important to expand this training to the entire organization, not just Health Services. It wasn’t long before the work group realized that what they were trying to do was bigger than simply implementing a cultural sensitivity training. It was completely re-defining the company’s culture and the way employees interacted with those we serve, other agencies and other programs throughout the organization. In summary, everyone that our employees come into contact with.
While the group was still brainstorming ideas, Thompson heard about a relationship-based training in Anchorage that focused on the importance of sharing your story and having empathy and understanding for others.
“The lightbulb came up,” says Thompson, “I thought ‘this is really what we’re trying to do. That’s the foundation of this idea.’”
Chief Joseph designated several directors from TCC to attend the training, which was hosted by an organization that was a two-time winner of the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, the nation’s highest presidential honor of performance excellence.
While the focus of the training was what TCC wanted to achieve, it didn’t tie back to the organization’s core values or operational principle – something that would be important moving forward.
Adventist Health Castle, a small hospital in Hawaii, was another recipient of the Baldrige award. A group of TCC staff and two E-Board Members, Julie Roberts-Hyslop and Nancy James, toured the facility and met with their leadership to find out how they had achieved the award and changed the culture of their organization.
Adventist Health had a few components that stood out – specifically a set of core values and guiding statements that resonated with their employees and the culture of the Native Hawaiians they served.
According to Rogers, having these set in place is essential in guiding employees, “When you have core values and a guiding principle it reminds employees of what they are supposed to be doing and why they are here.”
After seeing the operations of other organizations who were successful, TCC finally had an outline that would help them in achieving their goal. However, true change in an organization has to come from the top down. While Chief Chairman Victor Joseph was already in support of the proposal, it was the approval of the E-Board that would be essential in moving the initiative forward.
In 2018 it was presented to the E-Board who, impressed with what they had heard, authorized resources to implement a customized training for TCC employees. With the blessing of the E-Board behind them, there were only a few more pieces to put together.
Meant to Be
While all of the pieces to the puzzle were there – they were still scattered. They were missing that one component that could tie it all together.
“We needed to develop terms that were relevant to us,” says Chief Joseph, “We were looking into a lot of different words that we could use to fit the organization.”
Much like, Adventist Health, TCC needed language that could resonate with employees and also be reflective of the culture of the region.
“We wanted something in our dialect,” explained Thompson, “Something profound that reflects what we envisioned that training to be.”
Then it revealed itself – hidden in the pages of The Gospel According to Chief Peter John – there it was.
“It was as if it was meant to be,” says Rogers, “It’s describing exactly what we are doing. It’s not some new corporate idea, it’s truly rooted in culture, with elders talking about it and driving it.”
From there – all of the pieces began to fall into place. Once a name was given to the initiative, it began to take on a life of its own.
The root of Ch’eghwtsen’ became the basis for TCC’s new core values – TRUE LOVE.
A new guiding principle for the organization was also developed “Accessible and trusted world-class services provided with unconditional love, compassion, dignity and respect. HEAR ME.”
And the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award? TCC is currently working towards achieving this prestigious honor in the next several years.
In November 2018, the TCC Full Board of Directors unanimously approved to adopt the Baldrige framework, imbed the new guiding principle, and embrace the spirit of Ch’eghwtsen’ throughout the organization.
The word has a deep meaning in Athabascan culture, and while ‘true love’ seems like a tangible concept to grasp in the English-speaking world – the actual definition can be difficult to explain.
“None of us will really understand the true meaning of Ch’eghwtsen’,” said the late Traditional Chief Peter John.
This is because Ch’eghwtsen’ is more about the heart behind your actions. It’s not just a word. As Chief Peter John would say – Give it your all.
“How people feel when they leave our facility is what explains Ch’eghwtsen’,” says Chief Joseph, “It means people leave feeling like they were the most important person at that moment in time.”
“It’s being a good human being,” explains Rogers, “That’s what it is at the heart. We struggled with defining it. But I feel like most of our employees already have this within them-it’s just reminding them to pull it out.”
And for Thompson, “Ch’eghwtsen’ is the very core of your person. Having the innate desire to treat others with compassion and respect – the way you want to be treated. All of this other stuff you want to do, the work that you do…if you aren’t serving from a place of Ch’eghwtsen’… it’s not going to mean very much.”
Or, in the words of Chief Peter John, “You have to give everything…do it with an open heart.”
Story by Rachel Saylor, Communications Manager, TCC