I really didn’t know what to expect when I walked out of the elevator of my office to wait at our designated meeting spot. I knew Elizabeth Kitè was Tongan, she’d recently been selected to represent Tonga in the Queen’s Young Leaders Programme, and that she was interested in Talanoa and the correlations with her own work.

A brief moment of anxiety swept over me. My phone lit up – she was running a few minutes late. Phew. I had time to look her up – at least I thought I did. Her smile met me first, and the rest of her followed as she crossed the street and we embraced as most Tongans would. The connection was instant, the understanding between us seemed to already preexist. She’d showed up to meet me, a brave move on her part – without realising I was being brave too.

Sadly, in my experience women genuinely supporting women in Pasifika spaces had been few and far between. I wanted to be the change I wanted to see in my world, and this was a small step, at least in own my mind, towards that. I wanted to show a younger, incredible Tongan woman that I was behind her, even if I didn’t know or understand her work just yet. I’d chosen to lean into the discomfort to try to create a new culture. Even if it was just a start. And boy, did Elizabeth show up.

Her incredibly kind, curious and honest nature made it so easy for us to connect, and for me to truly open up and share the truths of my experiences since founding Talanoa. Since that time, Elizabeth and I have continued to meet, continued to share. A few weeks ago, she made the trek into the heart of Sydney’s central business district to have lunch with me and talanoa yet again. She was on her way to Cambridge, on her way to meet Her Majesty the Queen. I was on my way to Fiji, after resigning from my role in corporate Australia to run Talanoa full time. It was then that she mentioned she wanted to share her story with me, and a few days ago when she gently followed through by giving me – and all of us, an insight into some of her experiences since being chosen for the Queen Young Leader’s (QYL) Programme.

While researching her work and the QYL Programme, I came across a section which talks about Elizabeth’s work, and I felt it important to start our talanoa with sharing it here too.

Elizabeth leads educational initiatives for young people and disabled people in Tonga. She is the co-host of a radio programme led by The Talitha Project, which aims to help young women and girls make wise and informed life decisions on issues such as reproductive health. The show provides a safe platform for listeners to voice their opinions anonymously, and cites and celebrates the achievements of young people who have contributed to their communities. Since 2012, Elizabeth has also volunteered at The Mango Tree Centre for the Disabled, which provides rehabilitative therapy, education and vocational training to disabled Tongans. She currently teaches a braille class to students who are visually impaired.

But when I ask Elizabeth to introduce herself to our readers, she begins with the future. Her focus is now on the youth of Tonga, something she’s has yet to share with the public, particularly the media, until now. Below you’ll read our talanoa, in her own voice, and on her own terms.

Tell us about yourself – who are you, where are you from?

I am Elizabeth Kitè from the Kingdom of Tonga and I’m currently working towards building a platform that allows young Tongan voices to be recognised and respected, called LE’O.

How did your story with The Queens Young Leaders (QYL) Programme begin?

I found out about the QYL Programme through the previous winner of 2016 Aiona Prescott. I co-hosted a radio talk show that celebrated her story as a young leader in Tonga. The talk show was an initiative by the Talitha Project, an NGO (non government organisation) that works to empower young women in our Kingdom. It was later that I was recommended by Ms Prescott to the QYL Programme. She saw the significance that such a Programme would have on my current aims, goals and projects in Tonga.

Through your work, how do you hope to make a difference?

My current project is to give Tongan youth a platform to voice their views and opinions – to be heard, valued and respected. This also includes increasing political participation of the youth especially when it comes to national decision-making. This is what LE’O, my organisation, will help provide for the youth in Tongatapu, Tonga.

What have been the most challenging experiences in your journey so far?

It’s disheartening, discouraging, when you realise that not everyone finds your cause just as important as you.

What were the most rewarding lessons?

There were so many lessons learned and am still currently learning. The programme equips you with essential knowledge required to run your projects successfully. The most rewarding is knowing how united the Commonwealth is in addressing the issues and causes each and every one of us QYL’S are working to accomplish and achieve.

What are the biggest misconceptions in your line of work? How do you feel we can address them?

The biggest misconception of this line of work is that perhaps I’m dreaming too far. I’ve definitely faced times when I’ve agreed with this. The Queens Young Leader Programme was able to show me that there isn’t a dream too big and that all your goals and ambitions can be achieved through hard work, a good support team, persistence and fun.

When you look back at your life in 20 years time, what do you hope to be most proud of?

I hope to look back and see a prosperous Tonga led by the young leaders that LE’O has helped shape, empower and guide.

What advice do you have for young Pacific people who might be thinking of pursing a similar pathway?

I’ll share a piece of advice lent to me by a dear friend who is a success in her field. She told me to chase my fears because the only reason we fear, is because we’re scared to fail at these things because they mean something to us. I remember this at any point of time I feel doubt or am scared to keep pushing forward.

Secondly, spend time to really understand your cause and what it needs, and don’t be afraid to reach out to those who you may think won’t have the time for you. These people are usually the ones most able to help and also the ones most willing to help. And lastly, when opportunities come your way, take hold of them and give it your best shot.

Here is an opportunity right now available to all young Tongan Leaders – the Queens Young Leader’s Programme is in the search for the 2018 winners. APPLY!

How can we support you and your work?

Join our discussions on LE’O by submitting your views and opinions if you are a member of the Tongan Youth.

I’d like to thank Elizabeth for sharing her story with us, and I look forward to many more talanoa’s together as she pursues her dreams of creating long-lasting, meaningful change through her work, and through the voices and opinions of the youth of Tonga. You can contact her and join the discussion for LE’O via l[email protected]. The featured photo credit belongs to BCA – British Ceremonial Arts.