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When I Speak My Community Is Listening

Terisa Tinei Siagatonu, passionate writer and committed activist, uses her voice and the manifestation of her beliefs through spoken word to touch the lives of other Pacific Islander and minority youth, to show them the power of their own voices.

I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood. –Audre Lorde

To share in my personal growth as a first generation, working class, queer, Samoan spoken word poet/community activist, and explain how I found power in my voice the moment I realized I could use it to save myself and my community, I need to be able to speak and write in my own vernacular. My own language. To know that even if I don’t use these words grammatically correct in one reader’s eyes, it doesn’t mean that I’m wrong for speaking this way. Who’s to say that I’m wrong? According to what standards? And who wrote those standards? And who were those standards intended for? And who did they leave behind in thought?

If I can’t deconstruct and reclaim language in the ways necessary to my growth, if I can’t ask questions about why things are the way they are in society, and why is it that historically, people from my community are always suffering from some kind of injustice, then there will be no use for my voice. I know this is my duty because I’ve been mentored to believe that if I’m not telling my own story, then someone is going to tell it for me. My journey as a spoken word poet has enabled me to create the connections between the different dimensions of my identity and my purpose in this struggle for social justice and critical consciousness, all because I was finally able to find my voice and speak -- and teach others to do the same, especially our youth.

Growing up in a traditional Samoan family in the North Beach housing projects of San Francisco, California, my household was a gumbo of generations, languages, ethnicities and beliefs all living under one roof; but one thing was always made clear: respect your elders and do what you are told. I was the kid in the family that talked too much to the point of punishment from my grandpa, my parents or basically any adult figure in our family. I had opinions and questions, and I wanted to talk about everything all the time, but I wasn’t always allowed to and I didn’t understand why. As I grew into my identity -- as someone who identifies with being female, someone who identifies with being queer, and someone who was born and raised in the working class -- that was when I began to learn what it truly means to have justice for all, particularly for marginalized communities like the ones I am a part of.

It was always clear to me that my calling would lead me to devote the rest of my life to working with my Pacific Islander community, but it wasn’t until I got to college that I found what I really wanted to do was to work with Pacific Islander youth and other youth of color. As a first generation college graduate, education was not an option: it was a priority whether I wanted it to be or not, and I’m thankful that my parents wouldn’t have it any other way. When you come from a community that has more youth locked up than sitting in classes, a community that criminalizes our black and brown men while silencing their dreams of being something more than the circumstances that they were born into, then you quickly realize that you don’t have the privilege not to struggle -- it just comes with the territory. That’s the kind of community I come from, the same one that I carry with me in my daily walk and in all that I do.

As an undergraduate at the University of California-Santa Cruz, I was highly involved in student-initiated outreach and retention work through Engaging Education, which focuses on educational equity and college access for students who come from underrepresented communities. As one of very few Pacific Islander student organizers on campus, I straddled the line between being the voice for the Pacific Islander community and being tokenized because of it. That is, to a large degree, the reality for Pacific Islanders, particularly for those who identify as Asian American/Pacific Islander. This is a constant struggle of mine: how do I represent my people without being looked at like a museum artifact? Without being asked to be the spokesperson on behalf of an entire community? If I don’t want to subject myself to that kind of isolation, then how will my people’s story be heard? The politics of my voice as well as the politics of my silence were constantly at war. It wasn’t until I found spoken word poetry as a college Freshman that I began to believe that this war didn’t have to be a bloody one: maybe healing and peace was possible, and maybe both began where my courage was hiding.

Even though English is my first language, and I understand Samoan better than I can speak it, doesn’t mean that I fall any further from the tree that birthed me in our Mother tongue. If anything, what I know to be true is that growing up here on the mainland as a Samoan-American has only widened the gap between where I come from in my ancestry and who I am without those native roots, for those native roots are what connects me to my native language, connected to the native customs and traditions of my Samoan people. Examining the disconnection between all of these hurts my heart beyond words. But this is the mindboggle of it all: beyond words or not, knowing how to express this pain and the origins of my oppression and the oppression of my people is vital to the survival of us all, so I have little room and time to sit here mute -- to numb myself of the hurt. What is left of my people’s ancestral knowledge, his/herstory and customs are all depending on my ability to articulate them for the rest of my life.

Through my work as an intern and a poet-mentor with Youth Speaks, Inc., the number one leading non-profit organization for spoken word and literary arts education, I’ve been incredibly fortunate to experience the different facets of the spoken word/poetry process. From learning about the history of it to developing myself as a stronger writer than when I came into the organization, and from performing for the first time in front of high school assemblies to co-teaching my very own writing workshop, I've been able to do it all.

Currently, I live in Los Angeles, working as the Project Director of the Pacific Islander Education and Retention (PIER) project of UCLA. PIER works to combat the low matriculation rates of Pacific Islander students into institutions of higher education while supporting the holistic development of the young Pacific Islanders in our community. We offer services ranging from free tutoring and mentorship to peer advising and skill building workshops, all in the name of equity and justice for Pacific Islanders.

My responsibility to my voice and to using it to empower myself through my community and my activism is my attempt to not speak the language that has colonized my people. I will not allow it. There is no other way to deconstruct the ways in which language affects my life unless I model it when I speak, even through this blog. Perhaps this is the reason why I became a spoken word poet in the first place, because I know one thing is certain: the impact that spoken word poetry has on my life is the reason why I’m able to write with such confidence and passion, because for the first time in my life: I’m reclaiming language and using my own vision to create what I want to see; what I want to read; and what I want to feel along no one else’s accord but my own. This is why spoken word poetry is so effective amongst our generation of young people today: it’s an avenue that they can tap into to feel like they’re being heard; like what they have to say matters. That they can speak for themselves and not have anyone else speak for them. This is what spoken word poetry is about -- making one’s life experiences urgent enough to bring them from the margins to the core and have them define it for themselves. With today's youth experiencing high levels of alienation, illiteracy and silence I believe that spoken word is more than just urgent: it’s necessary for this generation’s survival.

Terisa Tinei Siagatonu is a spoken word artist/arts educator and community organizer from the Bay Area and the Project Director for the Pacific Islander Education and Retention (PIER) project at UCLA. PIER is an access project that exists to combat the low matriculation rates of Pacific Islander students into higher education by offering services ranging from free tutoring, mentorship, and peer advising to Pacific Islander high school students in Los Angeles.

Check out Terisa's "What's Your Story" video submission: