by Elsa Ying (’23) | October 11, 2021
On September 25, Saint Francis educators and students attended the Youth Leadership Summit in East Palo Alto, hosted by the local community group Anamantangi Polynesian Voices. This event served as a special occasion for Polynesian students, staff, and families within the broader community and to provide a place for them to connect. It was complete with interactive workshops, traditional dance performances, and opportunities for guest speakers and students alike to share their experiences. Saint Francis attendees included Dean Ray Hisatake, Ms. Meighan Wilson-Friedsam, Mr. James McGarry, Ms. Mary Reilly, and around forty students and their families.
The idea for the event originated when Mr. McGarry and Ms. Reilly met Mama Dee Uhila—the founder of Anamantangi Polynesian Voices—through the Climate Justice Immersion program during the past summer. Based in East Palo Alto, the organization has been a crucial part of the community for decades by helping Polynesian members overcome structural barriers and raise awareness of community needs. Originally proposed as a back-to-school barbeque, the idea of the summit gradually grew, leading to the inclusion of dance performances from local teenagers and allowing for space for students from different backgrounds to share their experiences. The event not only served as a space for cultural unity and learning but also an opportunity for Anamantangi Polynesian Voices to learn how to best serve community members attending private Catholic schools. Mr. Hisatake highlighted that Saint Francis has a large community of Polynesian students and that the summit was a wonderful opportunity to provide cultural support for these students.
Throughout the event, members of the Saint Francis community gave speeches. In addition to administrators, students such as Akanesi Alves (’24) shared their personal stories regarding their Polynesian identity. Alves, an Anamantangi Youth member, performed in a dance and spoke to the audience about her experience at Saint Francis. She stated, “I am the only Black girl in all of my classes except two. I am the only Tongan in all of my classes except three. So sometimes, I feel a bit out of place.”
Alves also explained how joining Anamantangi Polynesian Voices helped her find a positive space to learn about her culture and gain more confidence. She mentioned that she had previously shortened her name so that it was easier for white teachers to pronounce, but Anamantangi showed her that she deserved to have her name pronounced correctly. “I know my mom specifically, a lot of our parents, they may not have gone to college, they may have just immigrated when they were teenagers, so we’re often told that we’re going to be a certain place in life,” Alves expressed. “We’re going to go to a certain place in life. You can’t reach too far because that’s not meant for people like you. And I just want to say, Anamantangi has shown me that reaching far is meant for people like me. It’s for people like us. You can go wherever you want… And you will go as a Polynesian.”
From a coordinator’s perspective, Ms. Reilly shared how both she and Mama Dee were encouraged by the cultural connection happening throughout the event. After the event, Ms. Reilly shared her reflection as a Holy Cross educator: “Pope Francis always says we have to be a listening church. What does it mean for us as Lancers to be listening and open to other cultures and perspectives? How do we serve our students?” Reilly’s questions pose an important issue as the Saint Francis community continues in its journey of being more inclusive of students from various cultures, including but not limited to the Polynesian community.