Joshua Savieti and ICON Tonga

If you’re the youngest in the family, you’ll know exactly what Joshua Savieti is talking about when he says he grew up on the receiving end of his siblings’ and parents’ every request. Today, he’s the Director of ICON, an organisation that aims to “restore and redeem the youth in Tonga, making them contributing citizens to their communities” through self-expression and creative arts. There is no doubt that his humble beginnings have played a huge part in the work he and his team at ICON are doing and we’re excited to share his journey of challenges, bravery, discovery and faith. 

We’d love to get to know you. Who are you, where are you from and what is ICON?

I am Joshua Savieti, a Kiwi-born Tongan and Cook Islander. I was raised in South Auckland in the heart of Mangere. Being the youngest in my family, I grew up staying at home, looking after the house and at everyone’s service. I also had a love for watching movies and understanding how they were made, and fell in love with creative arts and expression.

As I began to establish myself at Breakthrough Church in Auckland, I was given opportunities to share my testimony and help others do so in a creative way, with help from our Pastors and Creative Directors, Afi and Lynette Leota. After many years of growing in church, doing extra curricular activities at school, and working with youth in my community, I believe God gave me a vision to pursue film and media.

This decision gave me the courage to choose new subjects in my final high school year that pushed me to pursue a future in film. In 2007 I was accepted into South Seas Film and Television School in Auckland. Being one of the younger students, I was quite intimidated by older students who had a lot more experience. I’d always try to remember that I was there because of a higher purpose – not to impress or beat anyone. That really helped me to excel in post production studies.

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Throughout my year of study I was drawn towards wanting to understand what production companies were and through that research I received another vision of building a school or institute that would raise a new caliber of filmmakers within the Pacific. At that time, that dream seemed so far away from happening – so I kept it saved in the corners of my mind.

In the next two years I moved to Brisbane to help build our media section in our church there, and trained young people to film and edit their own pieces. I helped establish a dance academy in Brisbane, Zenith Dance Academy, which has since raised some of the biggest faces in the dance scene in Australia.

After working with many young people and taking 3 teams to World Hip Hop Championships in Las Vegas, I received a call from our church Pastors in Tonga to see if I’d be interested in providing the same opportunities to the young people of Tonga.

Before I made my decision, I had a really long think about where I was, where I was going, and how it would eventually work towards my long-term vision of  building a production house and school in Australia and New Zealand. After consulting with my Pastors in Auckland, I decided to put aside these desires and I moved to Tonga. I had faith that God’s purpose for me would still be fulfilled in His own way. 

After a few years of building, striving, changing and growing, ICON is now a registered Non-Government Organisation in Tonga. We are a faith-based creative arts and youth organisation.  Our vision is “The total restoration and redemption of youth in Tonga, by enabling them through the creative arts vehicle to be excellent citizens of their communities”.We provide services for the community in the arts with the intent of developing their skills and talent and to also use the arts to develop them as holistic young people who will impact in their communities – “creativity with a purpose”.

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What do you and your team hope to achieve through ICON?

Through ICON we’re looking at creating pathways and opportunities for our young people who miss out or fall through the cracks. Unfortunately the Kingdom doesn’t provide services for our creative artists. For our participants we wish to provide them with an experience they cannot get anywhere else. A place where they can come and not only learn how to share their gift but also how to express and share their views.

In Tonga young people are taught to follow, whereas we teach them that they must think and make decisions for themselves. We teach young people how to express themselves and they usually begin to do so. For us as an organisation, we are looking at becoming an institute with accreditation. Eventually we’re looking at offering people a way they can study abroad then come back and invest their skills into the creative industry here in Tonga. Our bigger picture scheme is to establish a flourishing creative industry within the Pacific.

Why do you think creative arts is important, and how do you think it impacts young people in Tonga?

Tonga is a creative Kingdom and its customs and traditions are still upheld today. In this modern age people can easily lose the importance of creative outlets and it’s seen as a waste of time. At times people sometimes think you can only use creative outlets in church and anything beside that is demonic.

Some of the main areas where it is seen in a positive light is when our women create ngatus, our people play in tongan brass bands and participate in church choirs. Without realising, people are influenced by media (movies, music, dance crazes, etc.). These things have the ability to completely influence others. In my line of work with youth and as a male advocate for eliminating violence against women and children, I have come across numerous stories of how youth follow trends in the media they see from overseas. I’ve even seen school kids go as far as creating porn videos (because celebrities did it) and sending it to their friends. Young people often following lifestyles of musicians in America and try to implement it here. It shows us how much of an influence the arts have on our youth and the need to create a new standard, and a positive set of role models that can influence our young people positively.

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What have been the most challenging experiences with ICON so far?

Bringing an idea like ICON to Tonga. It took many years of taking new ideas and translating it in a way people can understand. It was hard to really understand people, tradition, culture and situations here, while creating projects that can facilitate and allow young people to grow despite their current situation. In the beginning it was hard to get support or funds for our projects, but as many of our projects could be done without any financial support, we learnt to manage. We believe if you can do something with nothing, then when you actually get your hands on something you’ll utilise it to the best of your ability.

A lot of churches were against us in the first year, saying it was not of God, it was worldly, it would break up families, and is creating division. We had many accusations but keeping our young people focused and seeing them achieve was a great reward.

Do you feel that ICON challenges the Pacific stereotype? How?

I believe it does, especially for people who don’t understand it. I believe ICON compliments everything about people because we are helping young Tongans to live according to our cultural values and principles again. We live in a generation where values and principles aren’t held highly and sometimes people think the less you have, the better it looks on you as a person.

Having a place where your voice, where you can express yourself as a young person, sharing your testimony or your experience with your peers is needed. We have been oppressed so much because of “culture” and I believe it wasn’t culture’s fault, I think it is because of fear. Fear of being wrong, fear of losing face, fear of being confronted.

We now have the chance to teach our young people it is okay to share, speak and be wrong and to learn from each other. Instead of it challenging this particular stereotype I believe we have the chance to restore it!

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What advice do you have for young Pacific people who might be thinking of supporting ICON, or attending your workshops?

To those looking at supporting or attending all we ask is that are open and willing to work with new people and to create a open, fun, creative environment for all those included. We commit to doing the best that we can to see our young people activate themselves in every way, so that they may see where they want to go and take necessary steps towards getting there.

Vinaka va levu and malo ‘aupito to Joshua from ICON for sharing his story. If you’d like to stay in touch, you’ll find him on Facebook and YouTube. To stay up to date with what’s happening at ICON, you can like their Facebook page and follow them on YouTube

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Arieta Tora Rika is a Tongan-Fijian Freelance Writer, Digital Communications Specialist, and Talanoa’s Founder and Creative Director. Born in Darlinghurst in the late 80s, she spent most of her childhood in Fiji, New Zealand and Australia, and all of her teen years in Tonga. She now lives in Western Sydney with her husband Josese.