The Power of Belonging: Celebrating Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month

May 19, 2021 : H&R Block
Two family photos on a striped background

Thomas Vo: Honoring family by educating others

“My parents came to this beautiful country with empty pockets and their native tongue.”

Thomas Vo, a franchise consultant at H&R Block, is a first generation Vietnamese American. A refugee at 17, his father was rescued while stranded at sea by USS Robison, a U.S. Naval destroyer that patrolled on search and rescue duties during the Vietnam War.

Thomas Vo and his family

When it comes to Vo’s professional life, he is driven to succeed—a quality he attributes to his parents’ experiences. “What motivates me is that not only did my parents make sacrifices to come to the US but those who did not know them at all and were completely different from them, saved their lives.”

Vo’s Asian American identity has “opened doors to some amazing stories and learning moments” and that teaching is a huge part of his heritage and culture. Two lessons that are especially important to him are from his grandmother. First, to always respect your elders, and second, to teach the Vietnamese language.

“This was not only a sign of respect but also to honor our ancestors that have made sacrifices for us to be here today,” says Vo. “I have a duty to… share my culture and work ethic to my children, friends and anyone who I come in contact with.” For Vo’s wife and children, it means learning Vietnamese at home. It’s something he says, “warms my heart when my wife and kids pronounce some Vietnamese words with perfect dialect.”

At H&R Block, the associate-led Belonging@Block Council is fostering a culture of Belonging by empowering associates, strengthening communications, and breaking down barriers. For Vo, it’s an opportunity to share his experiences, language and heritage and connect with his team on a deeper level, “because [Block] is a place that we feel safe to ask tough questions, learn about culture, race and views.” Celebrating Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month was another way Vo could continue to help those who are not in the AAPI community seek knowledge and celebrate their desire to learn about the AAPI cultures.

Thomas Vo and Chrissy Thomas

Enter Chrissy Thomas, a franchise director, and Vo’s supervisor. “She has gone above and beyond to learn, ask questions and embrace my own culture. She’s made herself vulnerable to learn and educate herself,” says Vo.

“Thomas and I have had some deep conversations where no question is off limits. I have learned so much from him that goes deeper than his culture and his family – I have learned that even unintentional words and actions matter. These conversations have not only made me a better leader, but also a better person,” says Chrissy Thomas.

Sue Jayaratne: Leading and empowering others

“As a mother, I always wanted my two daughters to be educated and independent. I wanted to show that education will get you places so, I earned my degree from UMKC while working fulltime at H&R Block.”

Sue Jayaratne, H&R Block director of learning and development, grew up in Sri Lanka where years of civil war were horrific for many Sri Lankans and meant an uncertainty for their futures. The conflict led many professionals to leave the country and after getting married, Jayaratne’s husband got a job out of the country.

The Jayaratne family at the White House

“Leaving [Sri Lanka] brought many opportunities for me to further my education and my professional journey.” Jayaratne has been a big proponent of empowerment—both in the way she’s approached her own career and how she gives back. Jayaratne has been an active volunteer with the KC Women’s Employment Network (WEN), earning her recognition as a 2021 Idealist of the Year by City Year KC and a 2020 Make Every Block Better Volunteer Award winner. Her career and volunteerism are influenced by her parents’ high expectations and, “work ethics, discipline, compassion, and adherence to traditional cultural values.”

Jayaratne is also a member of the Belonging@Block Council and believes in the benefits of diversity, inclusion and belonging within a work environment. According to Jayaratne, associates who feel more included are “more likely to contribute at their full potential. When you scale that feeling of belonging to an entire organization, it’s also good for business. High belonging has been shown to increase job performance and reduce turnover.”

Beyond getting to know others, Jayaratne believes at its core, belonging is about “gaining acceptance, allyship, respect, and support from others.”

When it comes to celebrating Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, Jayaratne encourages people to “be curious and dedicate some time to learning more about the many Asian cultures. Each Asian culture has its own uniqueness.” For those looking to learn more about Sri Lanka, Jayaratne recommends two podcasts: Radio Vagabond’s episode: Welcome to Sri Lanka and The Travel Podcast’s episode: Seduced by Sri Lanka.

Creating a culture of belonging

While we’ve highlighted just a few stories of our Asian and Pacific Islander associates and franchisees, H&R Block strives to foster a culture of belonging, where every voice is heard and all associates feel safe, included, and inspired. As part of AAPI Heritage Month, Vo and Jayaratne are leading a panel for all associates, sharing their stories, and discussing successes and challenges they’ve faced across their careers. This month, in honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, we encourage everyone to take action, whether through donations or supporting Asian-owned businesses, and take time to listen and learn from the stories of those identifying as Asian or Pacific Islander.

The H&R Block Belonging@Block Council leads recognition and celebrations of diversity throughout the year among our associates allowing for expression of ideas, sharing experiences, and making connections. This month, celebrating diversity and creating learning opportunities feels especially important, with recent and increased attacks against Asian Americans and Asian individuals, and new reports that hate crimes targeting people of Asian descent rose by nearly 150 percent in the last year. At H&R Block, we believe we are truly Better Together, especially when we advocate, support, learn from, and care for each other.

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