“If you don’t have an identity, then you are invisible in the eyes of the decision makers.”
June Pouesi is a community advocate and the executive director of the Office of Samoan Affairs. She has worked with the U.S. Census Board for Pacific Islanders, as well as the Native American Samoan Advisory Council, to fight for increased awareness of the Pacific Islander identity and issues.
June Pouesi has spent her entire life fighting for the visibility of the Pacific Islander identity.
Her driving philosophy — that “if you don’t have an identity, then you are invisible in the eyes of the decision makers” — has placed her activism and community leadership in critical roles, from working with the Office of Samoan Affairs, where she pushed for raised awareness of Samoan issues, to the U.S. Census Board for Pacific Islanders, where she fought for the recognition of Pacific Islanders on official surveys. June also helped establish the Native American Samoan Advisory Council, where she is an advocate for the preservation of traditional craftsmanship being threatened by the rapid westernization of Samoa.
June hopes her work has helped more Pacific Islanders have a place at the table with access to decision makers. Her demand that the Pacific Islander voice be heard is directed not just at those with power, but at the younger generation, whom she charges with continuing the mission. “My challenge to Pacific Islanders is this: Get involved in API groups. Make yourself known in terms of getting the word out of who we are and what we are and our history out there,” she said.
June pointed to how AAPI organizations and interests tend to have overrepresentation by East Asians, while other marginalized ethnicities, like South Asians, Southeast Asians and Pacific Islanders, aren’t always given the space they need to voice their concerns. June urges these groups to focus their efforts on including Pacific Islanders and ensure their issues, too, have a place on the agenda. “You have the title Asian Pacific Islander. [And so] I’d like to speak on behalf of my people,” June said. “It’s so important that we do not lose sight of the emerging groups and so important that we do not lose sight of those who have been here for many years. It’s not an adversary position that we should be taking as activists or those speaking on behalf of people … Talking is what it’s all about. If you don’t have communication, then you don’t have any means to which to connect.”
From an early age, June learned the importance of compassion and open dialogue. She immigrated to Hawaii on the USS Jackson during the Great Migration, when the Navy closed its base in Samoa and invited 1,000 Samoan military personnel to come to the United States. In Hawaii, she was surrounded by a melting pot of people, but that changed in subsequent cities — first San Francisco, where she lived in a predominantly African American neighborhood, then in Carson, which was predominantly Caucasian. To survive, she was forced to constantly acclimate to her changing surroundings, by picking up lingo and trying to blend in.
In Carson, where she was one of two brown kids at school, she found herself subject to a variety of racial slurs as people struggled to understand her racial identity. “They really were just fearful from not having experience with minorities,” June explained. She has spent a lifetime learning to forgive those that have hurt her, but it’s come with an important lesson. “I’ve gone through a lot to bounce back,” she said. “You either choose to keep the hatred. Or you can choose to not. Bottom line, who’s hurting? It’s you.”
She hopes that the U.S. can come together as one, rather than putting up walls and further polarizing. June has spent her entire career not only advocating for the Pacific Islander identity, but also trying to bridge chasms between disparate groups by sitting down with them to speak about their issues and finding common ground. “Just treat people as people,” she said. “The fundamental commonality is that we are all Americans.”