Talofa and Greetings,
I thank the Department of Youth and Women’s Affairs for the privilege and the honor they’ve extended to me to submit a written statement of support for the topic ‘Women in Leadership,’ a topic that is very close and dear to my heart and to the hearts of us all as sons and daughters of Samoa and as world citizens. I am deeply humbled and moved by the invitation. Fa’afetai tele.
For me personally, I owe all that I am today, everything I stand for and represent to my mother, my grandmother and to the women in my family and my village who raised me, growing up as I did in Vailoa in post WWII American Samoa and later on in Laie, Hawaii as an adolescent and young adult, to where I am now, as the representative of our people to the United States Congress.
And I tell you, whenever I walk those halls, I hear my own mother’s footsteps, not only behind me but on my side and sometimes they go before me as a constant reminder of where I came from, why I am here and a vision of where I am going.
I am not afraid to point out that unlike the feminists of the West who strive and struggle only for the advancement of women alone, we Samoans know that the plight of our women is also the plight of our men. That the advancement of our women also means the advancement of our men which ultimately means the advancement of ourselves as a people. Our ancestors knew this and thus created the feagaiga; the sacred covenant between brother and sister, between man and woman that is fostered by a mutual respect for one another.
I believe it our duty to never loose sight of this ancient wisdom. I know it as a fact that it is in the practice of the wisdom of the ancients that continuity of everything that is worthwhile and meaningful is sustained and is assured for generations to come.
Which is why we are here today. To celebrate the nurturing and healing powers, the abilities, the capabilities as well as the possibilities of our women which in essence means all that is meaningful and worthwhile.
We are not here to idealize women. At least that’s what I hope.
On the contrary, we are here to celebrate the dynamism of women not only as life-givers and nurturers who give selflessly of themselves to us their children, but to acknowledge the extraordinary contributions women have made in our lives as sons and daughters of Samoa.
I have tremendous respect for the pioneering efforts of our Samoan women who have had to overcome difficult obstacles in order for us gathered here today to live the lives of privilege and opportunity we so widely enjoy.
Besides women who have had and continue to have access to recognition through the privilege of Western education and a career, the efforts of the common woman or the ordinary woman or grassroots women as you will, in traditional roles as weavers, fisherwomen, planters in plantations, midwives, traditional healers, etc, often at times go unrecognized and sometimes are altogether taken for granted.
I strongly believe that there is a dire need for us to honor all women’s contributions, not only those with Western training and expertise but all Samoan women who hold families, villages and our communities together. This recognition should not only be in seminars such as this one but specifically in our everyday exchanges.
For it is the small things in life that shape and form the bigger things. It is in the way we greet each other. The way we encourage each other after a long day at work or at home with the children or after a job well done. Or the way we show our appreciation and gratitude and a whole array of simple gestures that mean we are connected to each other. That we are engaged in the advancement of each other’s plight which ultimately means our own plight on a personal, individual as well as a communal basis.
I know from my own experience as a son of an extraordinarily resourceful mother, who grounded our lives with fundamental Christian values as well as those core to our Samoan culture; respect, humility and love of others before one’s self, that every woman who is a mother is an instant leader.
A mother’s ability to be just about everything, from house doctor to school teacher to financial consultant and banker to lay preacher to hairdresser or barber to seamstress to interior decorator to chef etc, etc, knows no boundaries. Her experimental nature which could be interesting to her children and particularly to her children’s friends, knows no end.
Picture this: mid 50’s. Boat arrives at Pearl Harbor carrying hundreds of Samoan mothers and fathers and kids from Pago to be stationed in the U.S. Army in Hawaii. We were called FOBs: Fresh Off the Boat. Baggy clothes. Slippers. No English. Anyways, first day at school and all the palagi kids are sitting there with their lunch boxes all neat and made up and here’s Tau and Salu and me with our Samoan pagikeke in brown paper bags seeping with grease, but made with much alofa and no doubt pride by our mom who probably thought the pagikeke were perfectly round that morning and that other kids would surely ‘aisi’ us for some. Not knowing that as soon as the bell rang, we ran after the palagi kids and beat them up for a taste of that cheese in their perfectly made ham and cheese sandwiches which their mothers had made equal love and pride as our own. Minus the grease of course.
The complexities of life that women like my mother and all our mothers had to come to grips with particularly in times of great difficulties, and the enormous resilience of spirit that enabled them to pull through despite the odds is something that continually fascinates, inspires and humbles me tremendously as a son of Samoa. For it is under such difficulties that courage is born. And courage of course is the mother of dreams nurtured and sustained which in turn means choosing to overcome despair and believing instead in hope.
Hope in our children. Hope in our families. Hope in our villages. Hope in our communities. Hope in our island societies. Hope in our nation. Hope in our futures. In essence, hope in ourselves and in our lives. That our accolades and accomplishments in whatever field we pursue and excel in (whether it be daycare providers, nurses and doctors, professors, presidents of organizations and institutions, the military, artists, writers, lawyers, judges, politicians, traditional healers, etc.), are not achieved primarily in vain but are instead a part and parcel of a good that is bigger than ourselves. One that might reflect painful pasts upon which lessons are learned and passed onto future generations, born from the strength, the resilience, the courage, the leadership and love of women.
Among members of my staff, women have and continue to hold senior positions, simply because I strongly believe that a woman’s intuition and intellect are dynamite and I feel privileged to be a part of a working team of good men and women committed and dedicated to one mission; and that is: to serve our people.
In our D.C. office for instance, our Senior Advisor on Policy is a woman. I call her our bulldog as Ms. Lisa Williams’s utter commitment, intelligence and spirited tenacity allows her to get the job done and on time.
In our District Office, besides our field representatives, the public is greeted by our Chief of Staff Mr. Iuli Alex Godinet and our Press Officer, Mr. Eti Sa’aga who I might point out are very confident men in their own rights but further nurtured by the energy and the presence of five dynamic women collegues: two of which are senior staffers; Ms. Tasi Lili’o who is our Community Liaison Officer and Ms. Sia Figiel who is our Educational Liaison.
I am proud to say that Ms. Lili’o is the active president of the American Samoa Young Women’s Christian Association who through her tenacious and outstanding leadership, fought and successfully secured a seat for the local chapter of the YMCA on the international level at the YWCA’s World Council in Geneva, Switzerland. Ms. Figiel is known to us all as an internationally acclaimed award-winning writer and lecturer who has been an avid educator in the local high school system since she arrived on island in 2000.
Additionally, I am fortunate to have on my staff Ms. Fiti Aiumu who before joining my staff, is a retiree of over 34 years of service to the Bank of Hawaii as its Assistance Vice-President of Operations, accountable for millions of dollars. Mrs. Fiapapalagi Williams is literally the “Sergeant Major” of our office and is also a grandmother with a six-year service in the United States Marines. And finally, our youngest woman in the office is Mrs. Jacqueline Togiola-Tuiolemotu who knows just about everything there is to know on visa waivers and how to facilitate this process for our people who might need such assistance. And before she retired from our office to become the Governor’s Senior Policy Advisor, Dr. Oreta Togafau was a Senior Staffer with our District Office for many years.
Ladies and gentlemen, we are here to celebrate and pay tribute to the living spirit of our Samoan women and to acknowledge, recognize and commend all the countless qualities that continue to make them leaders.
Every single one of us in this audience is a privileged recipient of this life-time leadership scholarship. For those of us with a new awareness of this experience, let me kindly remind you that our learning from women began at the pre-natal stages, to birth, to toddler, to first grader, to adolescent to adult and the best thing about it is that it is the only scholarship in the universe that doesn’t run out! And of course, one never graduates from it either. As leadership is a constant journey with unexpected twists and turns which make life on this earth, at least between D.C. and American Samoa most colorful and interesting to say the least.
Once more, I wholeheartedly support the Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence and thank the Department of Youth and Women’s Affairs and the organizers for inviting me to this crucial and very necessary workshop.
Additionally, I hope there to be more workshops of this nature in which our celebration of each other’s talents and the outstanding contributions we all make towards the advancement of life on our island becomes a bi-annual or quarterly event and I dare challenge this audience to a celebration of each other’s talents and contributions on a daily basis!
Lastly, and I mean this most sincerely, it is my personal wish and hope that the word ‘victim’ will cease altogether to be used in the same sentence with the word ‘woman.’ And that instead, women will continue to thrive and bloom and grow in hope of the amazing qualities inherent in them as mothers, wives, sisters, aunties, cousins, friends and confidents and indeed as leaders. The same dynamic qualities that have drawn us all here today.
Soifua ma Ia Manuia!
Cc: American Samoa Coalition Against Domestic & Sexual Violence
Office of Emergency Medical Services for Children