My name is Lisa and I’m a proud afakasi, representing both sides of my heritage. I’m Samoan and Australian, born in New Zealand, and raised on Bribie Island, Queensland. My family villages are Sapapali’i, Lalomanu and Satalo. My culture is important to me and informs everything I do, from the way I think, to my goals and values.
How did your journey as an activist begin? What motivates and inspires you?
I was working in the music industry as an artist manager and event manager. It became clear to me that I was investing so much energy and passion into work that was irrelevant in what I wanted my life’s purpose to be. The work I was doing felt quite ego-driven and money-orientated. At the time, I saw the Pacific Climate Warriors had protested against the fossil fuel industry in New Castle blockading the coal port with traditional vaka’s (outrigger canoes) they created in the islands. 350 Pacific were peacefully protesting against climate change and dirty energy. It was incredibly powerful. I wanted to use my experiences in the music and arts scene to help fight against climate change. A volunteer position came up with 350 Pacific and I applied for it. The next thing I know I was in Fiji, attending a Pacific Climate Warrior Conference. Hearing frontline truths impacted me. Hearing raw accounts from people on the ground made me think how can I help? The conference was an intimate space with incredible leaders from the frontlines of climate change. I heard stories from Kiribati, PNG, Tokelau, Marshall Islands, Vanuatu and more nations… these warriors inspire me.
Our identities as Pacific people are deeply connected to our natural surroundings. We are custodians of the land and ocean. It is our obligation to care for the earth, and it’s my love for my culture and aiga (family) that inspires me to do this.
What have been the most challenging experiences in your journey so far? What were the most rewarding lessons?
It can be emotionally tiring, but honestly there are so many incredible people that inspire me and support our work. I also have great leaders. I often feel sad and angry that indigenous people are the most affected by climate change when they contribute the least to it. Seeing mass coral bleaching, submersion of sacred land, more frequent and intense cyclones can make me feel powerless sometimes. There is an immense sense of grief. I can’t imagine actually living in this reality everyday like some of my friends. Sometimes I’ll get overwhelmed and need a break from reading articles about climate change and the many atrocities indigenous people face across the world. Then I see amazing acts of courage, resilience and I remember to be motivated by my love for people, nature and my culture.
Tokenism is something we also need to be mindful of as well. It’s important that Pacific Island people are represented appropriately and that we don’t feel obligated to dress “culturally” or do a dance for show just to entertain. We need to represent our cultures the way we want to not because it is expected of us.
Working in palagi (white) spaces, we need to ensure that minorities are represented. Sometimes I’ll go to an event about climate change in the Pacific and I’ll literally be the only Pacific Islander person there. If I decided not to attend, would Pacific voices be heard and will the stories shared be accurate?
It has also been personally challenging to balance work, university studies, creative projects, family commitments, cultural commitments as well as activism.
The most rewarding lessons have been learning to appreciate people and learning more about different cultures in the Pacific across Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia. I’m thankful for the family I have met through this journey from across the world because of activism.
What are the biggest misconceptions about you and your field of work? How do you feel we can address them?
When protesting, we’ve sometimes been told that we are not fierce enough or that we need to be more aggressive because all of our protests and campaigning are peaceful and we try not to put people in positions where they are arrested. People need to understand that we are navigating spaces in respect to culture and that we need to consider who we represent; our elders, communities, families and ancestors.
Also cultures across the Pacific differ! So it’s very complex trying to represent so many different nations, who in themselves have many different tribes and villages. When creating campaigns, it’s not always as simple as just deciding to do something. There is a misconception that all islanders are the same. There is so much to consider! We address this by ensuring that we are getting information from those on the ground in Melanesia, Polynesia and Micronesia. This can take time! Not everyone has easy access to the Internet and sometimes people need to contact their elders etc. Our actions represent so much more than just ourselves individually so we need to ensure we plan things properly. I give it up to our 350 Pacific leaders who ensure this is done correctly. Sometimes we run on island time lol but there is a reason for this!
The biggest misconception that Pacific people on the front lines have faced (from what’s been shared to me) is that they are painted as mere victims to climate change and that they are unable to help themselves. Pacific Island people have the intelligence, capacity and indigenous knowledge to tackle climate change. They know what the solutions are. They need to be taken more seriously.
From a personal angle I often have to deal with people questioning my identity as a Pacific Island woman because of my skin colour. I’m fair-skinned being Samoan and Australian. People assume that my connection to my culture is therefore lacking. This can be annoying, but I overcome this by not worrying about what people assume and just being comfortable in my own skin. I know what my culture means to me, I don’t need anyone’s validation. When you’re young, this can be hard if you want to be accepted by others. However, when you accept yourself for who you are, you won’t be easily defined by others peoples opinions. Their opinions become irrelevant. As an afakasi it’s pretty common to not feel as though you belong to either side (Samoan or Australian). My advice is to embrace all the unique parts of what makes you who you are, stand tall in the knowledge of who you are and remember that culture is so much deeper than just skin colour and the exterior.
When you look back at your life in 20 years time, what do you hope to be most proud of?
I’d like to say I was part of the clean energy revolution so that my nieces and nephews and my future children may be able to live in safe environment and enjoy the beauty of our world. I’d like to say I contributed to a global win! Not just for indigenous people but for all of humanity. I want my kids to be able to swim in the beautiful coral reefs of Polynesia and see the vibrant colours and sea life that I love so much. I’ll be proud to protect sacred land and ocean.
What advice do you have for young Pacific people?
Know what your passions are and pursue a career in these fields. Do not let anyone undermine you because of your background. You are capable. Cherish your aiga. Embrace your culture and your roots. Stand up for the Pacific! If we do not rise up, who will for the next generations?
Practice self-care. Mental health is an issue that is quite taboo in Pacific Island families/communities. If you need support, reach out to your family, friends or a doctor and counsellor. Be yourself! Love yourself!
How can we support you and your role?
If you’re based in Brisbane, join our 350 Pacific Brisbane Facebook group – I share local events and petitions on there. It’s the easiest way to mobilise people for snap actions and to share information fast. If you’re based in Australia you can also follow our 350 Pacific Australia page for national campaigns and events. Also follow 350 Pacific on social media! That’s the best way to stay connected when we do need your support on the ground.
We’d like to thank Lisa for sharing her story with us – we wish her all the very best, and hope to talanoa with her again soon. This story was covered by Mary Harm, a former Talanoa Intern, and now a contributing storyteller.