January 23, 2016

Pacific Islanders celebrate culture and tackle tough issues during PI Heritage Month

Pacific Islanders celebrate culture and tackle tough issues during PI Heritage Month Pacific Islanders celebrate culture and tackle tough issues during PI Heritage Month Pacific Islanders celebrate culture and tackle tough issues during PI Heritage Month
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By The West View

For three years, people from all over Utah have gathered to commemorate Pacific Islander Heritage Month each August.

Utah is the only state in the country (other than Hawaii) to have an official PI Heritage recognition, and this year, Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker joined the state in officially declaring the month of August as Pacific Islander Heritage month.

So what does this official declaration mean for the PI community? It shows that their culture and contributions are valued by local government, but it also gives PI community leaders the opportunity to rally around issues that are crucial to the well-being of their people, such as health care, employment, domestic violence awareness, and education.

One of the head organizers for Pacific Islander Heritage Month is Susi Feltch-Malohifo’ou, Director of the non-profit organization “Pacific Island Knowledge 2 Action Resources” (PIK2AR).

She said that the declaration gives the PI community an official platform to educate outsiders about the different cultural groups within their community. But it also serves as an education platform within the PI community. “Our youth are losing their identity,” said Feltch-Malohifo’ou. “So this is a way to teach our history.”

Feltch-Malohifo’ou is a tireless advocate for her community year-round, and she bases her work not only on personal experience and love for her Pacific Islander people, but on factual data.

According to the 2010 US Census Bureau, Salt Lake City contains the largest proportion of Pacific Islanders than any other city in the U.S., and Salt Lake City and West Valley City have the largest and second-largest populations of Tongan Americans of any city in the country. Of the 10,267 Tongan Americans in Salt Lake City, 56 percent of them are considered to be low-income, while 19 percent live in poverty. This leads to other problems, Susi said.

In 2012, 24 percent of Pacific Islanders dropped out of high school. Suicide deaths rose 170 percent between 2005 and 2010. And according to the Utah Dept. of Health, the PI group had the highest obesity and infant mortality rates of any other group in Utah between 2011-2013. They also have the highest rates of diabetes and cancer than any other racial group in the U.S.

Jacob Fitisemanu Jr., who was appointed in May to President Obama’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, is fully aware of these alarming statistics. He is also a member of the National Census Advisory Council and was past Chair of the Utah Pacific Islander Health Coalition.

“The biggest issue that I work on is addressing our invisibility,” said Fitisemanu. “Although we are a small percentage of the total U.S. population, it is my goal to make our presence known to policy makers.”

Born in New Zealand, Fitisemanu spent his earlier years in Honolulu and moved to Salt Lake City as a teen. He graduated from Taylorsville High School and currently lives in West Valley City. He is of Samoan, Chinese and Korean heritage, and speaks four different languages.

Fitisemanu was honored during PI Heritage Month at a community celebration at Pacific Heritage Academy Charter School on Salt Lake City’s west side on August 21. He is highly respected in his community as a “role model and exemplary public servant,” said Pacific Heritage Director Dirk Matthias.

In an interview at the community celebration, Fitisemanu said that his top three priorities for the PI community are: Business and Entrepreneurship, Youth Engagement, and Immigration and Citizenship Services.

He supports initiatives that sustain existing businesses, incubate new businesses and increase market penetration; maximize the capacity of youth to reach their potential; and assist Pacific Islanders who are having difficulties with US immigration and citizenship polices

But Fitisemanu and Feltch-Malohifo’ou both know that coming together as a community isn’t only about doing work; it’s about celebrating and having fun together. And for the PI community, having fun always involves good food, music and dancing! As Irene Lolofie, the Heritage Culture Coordinator at Pacific Heritage Academy, put it, “You know it’s a good party when there’s plenty of good food for everyone.”

So, of course, there was plenty of hearty food and dancing at Fitisemanu’s White House appointment celebration, as there will always be at Pacific Islander gatherings to come.