Invisible minority

A new community-based research report on Pacific Islanders Tongans, Samoans, Hawaiians, Fijians, and other Polynesians reveals disproportionately high dropout, arrest, and depression rates among the population in Oakland.

In the 2000 to 2001 school year, for example, 47 Pacific Islander ninth graders were enrolled in the Oakland Unified School District. By the 2003 to 2004 school year, when those students would have been seniors, only 14 Pacific Islanders were enrolled in the 12th grade.

Pacific Islander youths also have the second-highest arrest rate in Alameda County and the highest arrest rate about 9 in 100 Pacific Islanders each year in San Francisco County, according to the Asian/Pacific Islander Youth Violence Prevention Center.

Often grouped under the larger Asian and Pacific Islander category, Pacific Islanders’ experiences are overshadowed by larger groups like Chinese and Japanese Americans.

"We’re invisible," Penina Ava Taesali, a researcher of the report, told the Guardian. "All we have is anecdotal data on issues. In every segment of the government city, county, state, and federal there’s no data."

Taesali, who is the artistic director of Asian/Pacific Islander Youth Promoting Advocacy and Leadership, said that when she first began working for AYPAL eight years ago, she expected to see a program for Pacific Islander youths and was surprised to see none. She helped create the youth program Pacific Islander Kie Association (PIKA) in 2001.

She is among those now trying to figure out why this relatively small cultural group is having such disproportionate problems and how they might be solved.

Culture Clash

The first wave of immigration from the Pacific Islands came after World War II. During the war many Pacific Islands, including Hawaii, Tonga, and Samoa, were occupied by US troops. Previous to that, many Pacific Islands were colonized by Europeans.

After the United States loosened its immigration policies in 1965, more and more Pacific Islanders moved to the US, as well as to New Zealand, Australia, and Canada. First men, then women, moved abroad for better jobs to send remittance back to the islands. Between 1980 and 1990, the US population of Tongans rose 58 percent.

When the 2000 US census was released, many were also surprised to learn that there are more Pacific Islanders living in California than in Hawaii: 116,961 compared with 113,539. The Bay Area including Oakland, San Francisco, and San Mateo is home to 36,317 Pacific Islanders.

Now a new generation of Pacific Islander Americans is growing up and learning to navigate family, school, and church but many are feeling alienated from all three social structures.

"A lot of times, within Pacific Islander families, the children are very much seen but not heard," Venus Mesui, a community liaison at Life Academy and Media Academy high schools in Oakland, said. "They’re not really able to express themselves at school or at home. Depression comes along with that, because they don’t have the know-how to express themselves in a positive manner. They don’t have a space, or they don’t feel safe, to voice their opinions."

The report also revealed that several youths who were interviewed said domestic violence and corporal punishment occurred within their families.

Pelenatita "Tita" Olosoni, 18, told us she wished more parents would visit the schools to see what’s really going on.

"Parents think school out here is easier than back on the islands," Olosoni said. "It would be helpful if they took time off from work to see what kids are going through every day."

According to Mesui, parents need to be trained in how to support their children, particularly if they attend underperforming schools.

"I know all of the parents want their kids to succeed, but unfortunately, older siblings are asked to take care of the younger ones, and this doesn’t prepare them with good habits that will make them successful in school," Mesui, who is Hawaiian, said.

Olosoni said she and other Pacific Islander students have had to stay home and miss weeks of school to take care of their younger siblings and cousins.

Christopher Pulu, a 15-year-old freshman at Oakland High whose father is a landscaper, said, "That’s what the majority of our fathers do." Most Pacific Islanders in the US are laborers, and 32 percent live below the national poverty level, according to 2000 US census data.

"They always need an extra hand," Olosoni told us. "So the boys will drop school and see it as an easy way to make money and work with their dads."

"Big-boned and heavy-handed"

Like many minority groups, Pacific Islanders suffer from stereotypes. The prevalent minority myth that all Asians (though most Pacific Islanders do not consider themselves Asian) do well in school actually hurts groups like Pacific Islanders, Cambodians, and Hmong, according to Andrew Barlow, a sociology professor at UC Berkeley and Diablo Valley College.

"Most people say we’re big-boned and heavy-handed," Olosoni said. "When Tongans get in trouble, the whole Tongan crew gets in trouble."

Olosoni remembers the day she, her sister, and three friends were called into the principal’s office after a lunchtime fight at Castlemont High School in East Oakland. The security guard called another guard on his walkie-talkie and said, "Gather all the Tongans in the office," Olosoni recalls.

"I was like, ‘No, they didn’t go there,’" she told us. "It was just the five of us involved in the fight, but they called in all the Tongans." After the fight, the five Polynesian girls were given a one-week suspension.

Because Pacific Islander youths only make up 1.2 percent of a district’s population, they are usually a small but visible group within each school. While security guards may not be able to call "all Latinos" to the office, for example, they can do so with a smaller population like Tongans, Barlow said. He said that being so easily targeted increases solidarity within the community but may also lead to insularity and even more stereotyping.

"When people are denied opportunities and when they’re treated unequally, the way they’re going to deal with that is increasing reliance on their community and increasing ethnic solidarity," he said.

Barlow, who teaches courses on race and ethnicity, told us stereotypes are just a part of the problem. Larger systemic issues such as the economy, access to jobs, and educational role models are just as crucial.

"Tongans are already coming into American society with a lot of problems caused by colonialism," Barlow says. "If you don’t have access to a very wealthy school district, if you don’t know people who have access to good jobs, if you don’t have a high degree of education, then you’re in trouble."

A New Generation

Pulu said he hopes to be the first in his family to attend and graduate from college. He has received at least a 3.5 grade point average every semester and attends church regularly.

At the beginning of the school year, his multicultural education teacher asked him to go to the front of the class and point out Tonga on a world map.

"It doesn’t stand out," Pulu said. He is energetic and enthusiastic and doesn’t mind educating others about his culture. "Most people think it’s a part of Hawaii."

Mesui said Pacific Islanders have come a long way. Though the report focuses on a lot of struggles, Mesui said that she has personally seen increasing numbers of Pacific Islanders graduate from high school and go on to college, including her three children.

She believes schools should address the issue of youths who don’t have support at home.

"When they’re not in school, they’re doing something else," Mesui said. "The majority of the arrests are due to them not going to school and getting in trouble on the streets. And I think it falls on the school we’re not doing something to keep them here."

Olosoni said she knows of 3 Tongan youths in the last school year who were kicked out of Castlemont out of about 15 Pacific Islander students in the school for cutting class.

"It comes from the lack of them getting help from people of their own kind to help them understand things better," Olosoni said. She is now attending adult school and working on her GED.

Over the years Taesali has pushed for more programming in the community. PIKA now has about 40 youths who meet every Tuesday afternoon at an Oakland high school.

"If we got more Pacific Islander staff and teachers, there would be immediate results," Taesali said. "I have no doubt about it."

Taesali sees Pacific Islander students engaged when they learn about their own culture.

"Every time we’ve done workshops on Pacific Islander history and culture, [the students] just don’t want to leave," she said. "They are so happy to be learning about their culture." SFBG