My father was unable to read and write.
Such were the first words shared Dr Karlo Mila on a cold evening in the St Peter’s College staffroom last week. Attended by members of the Maori and Pasifika Careers Practitioners Network, Karlo weaved together a presentation based on her research into the experiences of New Zealand born Pasifika youth.
The presentation was unashamedly personal. The experiences between Karlo and her dad couldn’t have been more different (the school of ‘life’ versus the formal acquisition of a PhD!), but the shared sense of being Tongan is fundamental and utterly natural.
The message from her research is clear:
What the study shows is that those who continue to value their Pacific identity are more confident, proud and more advantaged in mainstream compared to those who don’t.
Despite being completed in 2010, Karlo’s research is still relevant and reflective of New Zealand today. Pacific people are over-represented in many undesirable statistics; unemployment, teen pregnancy, witnessing violence, higher likelihood of attempting suicide. Yes, the statistics are real. Yes, our demographic is fast changing. Yes, Pasifika people are going to feature greatly in our future workforce.
She encourages Pasifika youth to focus on their strengths. She also urges people who work with and support Pasifika youth to refrain from producing knowledge that presents young people as marginalised “ethnic” group members who are at-risk.
Interestingly, just under half (48%) of the New Zealand-born Pacific participants, reported feeling accepted by members of their own ethnic group as well as accepted “by others”.
I wholeheartedly relate to this as in the past I experienced times when I haven’t felt accepted, in particular during my late teens and early twenties. There were moments of inadequacy when I couldn’t speak Samoan in front of other Samoans, or situations when people made incorrect assumptions about my ethnicity. I went from a primary school in Onehunga where my identity was firmly Samoan, to having students at high school think I was Chinese, Argentinian, Filipino, Malaysian and Cook Island Maori!
Karlo had to rapidly skim through her presentation and I’m sure she could’ve easily spent a couple more hours linking her research to a plethora of theories and models. I particularly appreciated the construct of ‘polycultural capital’ which Mila describes as the potential advantage Pacific second generation (New Zealand-born) may experience from ongoing exposure to culturally distinctive social spaces. The idea of comfortably ‘dipping in and out’ comes to mind.
Dr Mila left a warm impression with the group and we were all quick to thank her for genuine, authentic, spirited presentation. Even though she had to rush over from the hospital after tending to a sick loved-one, she still made the effort to talk to us. We thank her for her generosity (yup, this a strong Pacific value!).
For us practitioners, the presentation was a great reminder to reflect on how we support and enhance the lives of Pacific youth. Are we truly seeing them for who they are, or are we only looking at the surface?
I leave you with the words of Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Efi, as quoted by Dr Mila in her presentation:
I am not an individual, I am an integral part of the cosmos. I share divinity with my ancestors, the land, the seas and the skies. I am not an individual, because I share a Tofi with my family, my village, and my nation. I belong to my family and my family belongs to me. I belong to a village and my village belongs to me. I belong to my nation and my nation belongs to me. This is the essence of my sense of belonging.
If you wish to read Dr Mila’s research then click here.
Karlo, Mila-Schaaf & Elizabeth, Robinson. (2010). ‘Polycultural’ capital and educational achievement among NZ-born Pacific peoples. MAI Review.