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.
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."