Lawyer & Community Engagement + Government Relations Consultant
Age at interview: 47 years
Occupation: Lawyer and Community Engagement + Government Relations Consultant
Country of birth: Fiji
In this video
|0:00:00||Adoption and Early Years|
|0:03:54||Moving back to Fiji|
|0:04:23||First Degree and First Jobs|
|0:05:27||Youth Work and Law Degree|
|0:16:41||Biological Family Relationships and Cultural Identity|
|0:22:43||Adoptive Family Relationships|
|0:26:50||Subject Strengths and Degree Choices|
|0:30:36||Support at School|
|0:33:58||University and Work|
|0:36:47||Law Degree and Career|
|0:41:45||Career and Community Work|
|0:47:02||Advice for Pasifika Youth|
|0:50:21||Navigating Cultural Identity|
|1:00:55||Advice for Youth|
- Adoption and Early Years
- High School
- Moving back to Fiji
- First Degree and First Jobs
- Youth Work and Law Degree
- Early Challenges
- Biological Family Relationships and Cultural Identity
- Adoptive Family Relationships
- Subject Strengths and Degree Choices
- Support at School
- University and Work
- Law Degree and Career
- Career and Community Work
- Advice for Pasifika Youth
- Navigating Cultural Identity
- Advice for Youth
- Final Comments
Adoption and Early Years
I’m Fijian Australian. I was born in Fiji. And I was adopted when I was there. I was adopted by my Australian parents and moved to Australia. I think I was only maybe 18 months old. And I’ve lived here ever since, with my Australian family. I’ve maintained a relationship, a close relationship with my Fijian biological family. Both of my families are quite close, which has been really wonderful but challenging at times as well, sort of straddling those two very different worlds.
But in terms of growing up, dad was a farmer. They owned a sheep and cattle property in Central West New South Wales, so out near…between Dubbo and Orange. I spent the better part of my childhood growing up there. I’m pretty confident I was the only Fijian in the entire Central West region of New South Wales. Maybe there was some others. I didn’t meet them. But yeah. So it was a very different childhood for your average Fijian I think.
But I had my own horse, I was very lucky. My parents, would say, a white middle class family. I had all of the advantages of that. I went to a very small public primary school and was the only person of colour at that primary school. I would say I was the only person of colour in the town and in the nearby towns as well. That was challenging for sure. I was very immersed in a very Australian way of life. Mum and dad did their best to, I think, maintain connections to culture. Obviously, a lot of the artistic iconography was around the house and stuff like that but I couldn’t speak the language. There were no other brown faces around. But mum and dad loved me very much and did their best but those were some of the…I’d say the separation of culture was pretty strong at that time.
I then went to boarding school in Sydney, an all-girls boarding school for the six years of high school I was there. That was challenging as well. I think I was at boarding school when I was 11. And that was…Sydney was about six hours from where we lived. It was a long, long, long way away and I really struggled being separated again from family and having to live in a boarding school that was incredibly strict.
We had bars on the window. It was just so, so old fashioned. You weren’t allowed to call your family. You could only call them once a week. You had to line up. I got in trouble for writing too many letters home. The deputy headmistress told me I’d written too many. I was worrying my parents. Those kinds of archaic kind of teaching or whatever methodologies were around then. I’m probably giving you more of an indication by age by talking about that because it was quite a long time ago.
I finished high school and what I would say is all through…The only…One thing I did love about high school was that I was all of a sudden with other girls of colour. So there were girls from PNG, there were girls from…I think there was a couple from the Solomons. And so I didn’t feel like I was the only different looking one. Plus Sydney is just such a multicultural place that after I finished high school, I never really went back to the country. I kind of stayed there. I felt more at home in a bigger metropolitan area.
Moving back to Fiji
I spent a year after high school in Fiji with my biological family. And that was to really try and re-establish a relationship with my mother in particular, my biological mother. My father passed away before I was born and my siblings over there. So I’ve got an older sister and an older brother…Two older sisters and one younger brother.
I spent a year there before coming back and doing university.
First Degree and First Jobs
I had enrolled in economics. I ended up failing miserably. I don’t even know why I contemplated economics; I can barely add two numbers. The whole concept around economics but I think at the end of high school, my mum had convinced me I needed to get a job. I wanted to do an arts degree, she didn’t think that was a good idea. I enrolled in economics and then failed miserably. Then I got in loads of trouble from mum and dad. Dad in particular was very upset, so I had to go and get a job.
The first job I ever had was I worked in a patisserie in the kitchen. And it was owned by a Yugoslavian family, and she was a lovely woman. She could barely speak English, but I used to help her out in the kitchen and I had a few odd jobs after that and eventually I think I got a job as a clerk in the
Youth Work and Law Degree
I was working for the New South Wales juvenile justice system, running an art program at…or within the juvenile justice system in New South Wales. And that was where I came to meet and see a lot of Pacific Islander young people incarcerated. And it really…I was probably almost finished my arts degree at that point and really made me think about the fact that we had such an over-representation in the prison system, both with young people and with adults. I learned that there wasn’t many Pacific Islander lawyers and it really kind of upset me. I just thought, if you go to court especially as someone from a different cultural community, there’s so much that you lose when people don’t understand who you are and where you’re from and they’re not able to convey that.
It really put a bit of a spark in me to look at studying law, which I applied to do as a mature aged student and eventually became a lawyer. I think, really, for me, this study/kind of work career kind of really centred around that period when I was working as a youth worker. I came to know a lot of young people who had so much potential and were really interesting, funny and intelligent young people who were just stuck in some pretty tough spaces and for me being able to be a lawyer and have the opportunity to represent them in court was something that mattered a lot to me.
I was able to do that I became a criminal defence lawyer once I graduated from law and worked in youth crime as well as adult crime matters. And really was able to use my skills in a way that I felt were advocating for my community. That was really important to me. And I was able to do that for I think…I was practicing for about five years. Yeah, so that was really important to me.
Before I actually did law and I was…I hadn’t graduated yet. I’d started working with the Australian Red Cross. I got a job after I finished my arts degree, as a project officer working in the migrant support programs and started doing work with refugees and asylum seeker communities as well and then eventually managed the national program of casework support for refugees and asylum seekers and for people who’ve been trafficked into Australia. A lot of my work has been really centred around advocating for people or working with communities that are more vulnerable than others.
The law degree and the arts degree really came together I think really well to achieve those goals.
And now, I’m not practicing law anymore. I’m now working in the sort of international development sector. I’m lucky enough to be able to work directly with feminist organizations in Fiji. That’s been something that’s really excited me as well. I’m learning a lot. I’m learning a lot about the relationship between Australia and Fiji and the Pacific generally. That’s been something that I’ve always been aware of, but now it’s something I have to contend with a lot when I am working with organizations who are highly skilled, who are engaged locally, who have lived experience but I work for an Australian organization that has a lot of kind of conditions attached to the funding and we represent the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, well, the government in that sense in terms of how we go about implementing programs. That can sometimes be a bit challenging in terms of our relationships with the organizations as well. But I think that’s kind of an overarching snapshot of the study/work careers.
You picked up in some parts of your story where you mentioned that you found periods of your life that were challenging. going all the way back to in your local community as this young Fijian person of colour, could you just talk me through some of those challenges, why they were challenges and how you found those interactions and what you did to kind of…What were some of your coping mechanisms to guide you through?
Yeah. Definitely. No, I’m happy to talk about that. For example, age wise, I arrived in Australia in 1976. That gives a sense of…It was not as multicultural as it is now in Australia. And certainly where I lived in Central West New South Wales, it was not a multicultural place. Just being different was really something that I had to learn to live with very early on. And I think as a Pacific Islander, you become acutely aware of people’s kind of two-dimensional kind of ideas about who you are.
They might have been on a holiday to Fiji or they see the Fijian football players or the rugby players and this is their only frame of reference. And so being different was something I think initially made me feel very vulnerable definitely at times and still can at times. I would say, even as an adult, there’s those moments where you have to really reflect on how being different affects you. But as a kid definitely, I was a pretty angry kid, I would say. I definitely had a…
I think I used to think I had a bad temper, but I think I just stood up for myself a lot. But then was kind of assigned as having a bad temper. There was a lot of racism where I lived. Everybody was White. And being different, you could have been different in a whole range of reasons. You were going to get picked on and so this is why I was picked on because I was brown, I was Fijian.
So I think as I grew older, I realized that that difference was going to be something I had to learn to manage or embrace so that I could A, survive. But more than that, I really wanted to thrive. I wanted to have a life where I could have confidence to do or any and all of the things I wanted to do. And so for that it really was probably a confusing time, I would say right throughout high school. I don’t think…I’d say I oscillated between being really angry, or just shutting down a lot.
I think my ability to cope really came through my ability to make friends. I’ve still got a lot of very, very good friends that I made at that time. In high school, we’re still good friends now. My ability to connect with people in a few ways. One, obviously…I shouldn’t say obviously, but most of us are pretty good at sport so that was a big thing. The moment I was good at something, people just galvanized around me. So I was really good at swimming and whatever sport I could do.
Most of them were pretty good and I became a sports prefect. I was captain of the hockey team and all of those sorts of markers of success, I was able to tick off. That helped, I guess, ingratiate me with the sort of broader community. But I think for me, it was making some of those personal connections with people. I didn’t have any Pacific Islanders around me ever. That’s come to me much later in life and I’ve had to set those up. It didn’t come through my family and it didn’t come through my school and it didn’t come through my work life. I’ve sought those relationships out as an adult.
So for me, those early relationships were with non-Pacific Islanders. It was about setting up friendships with people that I could trust, who saw me as me, who supported me, even when I said or did challenging things. That was really, really important. That helped build my confidence. The other thing I think that really benefited me was mum and dad gave me such a strong sense of work discipline. I worked hard at things. If something was in front of me…And there was lots of stuff. Teachers didn’t think I could do things.
I remember having an English teacher. She just didn’t think I was very smart, and I just remember working my butt off and I came first in the year for English. And we had some real brainiacs in our school. Totally smart…English was their first language kind of people, that kind of thing.
And to come first was a really big thing. It made me realize and notwithstanding, there’s always challenges and these might not always come off for people, but it made me realize if everything’s in the right spot and I work hard enough, I’m pretty sure I can pull off most things I want to do. And that was important to realize that I had that ability to do it on my own. I think especially when you don’t feel like there’s a lot of support around you.
Working hard was important because as we all know, we tend to have to work harder than others to prove that we should have a seat at the table or that we are smart enough to be in the room or any of those things. I even think becoming a lawyer was a part of that, for me was proving that I could be a lawyer. At the universities in Australia, I could get a law degree, I could practice law just like the rest of them. And funnily enough, after I practiced, I realized I didn’t really want to be a lawyer anymore.
I just went back to doing what I was doing before, which is really having…Working in kind of advocacy roles, but I had proved to myself that I could do it and I think as a young person, that confidence is really important and might not come straightaway and it might not come during high school. It takes some time, but you’ve just got to build some relationships around you that help support you and that you can trust.
Biological Family Relationships and Cultural Identity
when you went back to Fiji and you spent that year there, can you talk me through that experience and how you found that in terms of did you find that spending the time there helped to reconcile some things or did it clarify things? How has that time in Fiji shaped your coming back to Australia and then navigating that?
Yeah. Look, I think…Look, it was a very confusing time. I was 18 and I would say in a lot of respects, I was probably quite immature maybe. 18-year-old and maybe not ready for that kind of level of…I don’t know if contact is the right word, but not knowing or growing up with your biological family and then spending, going there at 18 to spend a year with them was pretty eye opening. Everyone, for my mother and me and for my siblings and me as well, I would say I’d led, and I have to be open about this, I probably led a pretty privileged life.
I had been raised by a White middle class family and been to an all-girls private boarding school. You can only imagine what kind of teenager I was. I moved there. Look, my family had a lovely home. It was humble. None of those things were the things that were I suppose shocking. I think the things that were shocking were the more lack of connection with people I think for me that I should feel connected with. The one thing I will say though is there is almost a physical recognition of your family that I didn’t think would happen. I didn’t realize when I saw my mother how naturally comfortable I felt with her. I’ve got to say, I was just around other brown faced people. I loved walking down the street and no one looked at me.
I loved being almost invisible. Even though I wasn’t because I think I dressed like an 18-year-old girl from Sydney. That was…I probably did stand out or whatever, but for me I just enjoyed being around family. Everyone spoke Fijian normally. I still don’t speak Fijian, but I didn’t feel uncomfortable not understanding what people said. It didn’t make me feel outside the conversation. I still felt like I was with my people, I think.
I think there were times when I would be frustrated by not understanding but I totally accepted that that’s kind of on me. If I want to have a crack at learning it, that was my time. I think they were equally a bit confused about what to do with the teenager from Sydney who was 18 and probably thought she knew everything. I did think I would…I would probably have had a better opportunity. I don’t know. I thought I might have done better with talking to my mother and it didn’t quite work out the way I had planned. But I think maybe my expectations were a bit high for both of us.
I think when I reflect on it, so my mother, for example, my biological mother didn’t finish high school. I think she left school when she was about 13 or 14. She was always…She is still is to this day, she gets really anxious about her English around me. Those things make her feel uncomfortable and I think at 18, I wasn’t quite across that because I was probably quite self-centred. Whereas now when I’m around her, I’m a lot quieter I would say. I don’t feel…I think when I was 18, I was probably just quite in her face or thing whereas now, it’s very different. I just take my time. I think the difference in communication styles is so stark.
In Australia, you feel like you have to talk constantly. But in the islands, there can be just periods of silence and that’s okay. You don’t have to fill it with your words. It’s taken me till this age to work that out. I think the one thing I took away from it though was I’ve got a good relationship with my siblings and that’s made a really big difference because I think I had inside that I was going to re-establish this amazing relationship with my mother and I was really focused on her but in actual fact, what I’ve come away with is, yeah, friendships and relationships with my siblings. It makes all of us, that connection’s sort of happening through them. And there is a connection with my mother but it’s just a different one.
And the…oh, just quick…The only other thing I would say and I’m sure everybody has this experience when they go back to the islands. I could not get over how many family members I had. You would walk down the street. Be like, “Oh, that’s your cousin. That’s your cousin. They were there last night.” or I’d just be like…I had to stop looking after a while because it was just so confusing. And coming from Australia where people don’t do that. Like my family, there’s mum and dad and my sister and my brother, and we’re…We were pretty tight, but that was it. And so you would see your aunts and uncles at Christmas or whatever, but over there everyone…
It was just this constant sort of movement of people in and out of the house. You were going there and it was…I found that really, really kind of exciting. It’s just so different to what I’ve grown up with.
Adoptive Family Relationships
In terms of your broader family and I’m speaking now in an Australian context, how did you find navigating that space? So obviously, within your own circle, your mum, your dad and your brother, it sounds like you’ve had a pretty good upbringing with them. But what about your connections with your extended family members outside of that? How did you feel in terms of your place in belonging within that context?
Yeah. Look, I think…It was interesting. My grandparents on my mother’s side struggled a bit with a new member of the family from overseas possibly because I was black. I don’t know. I’m not going to…there’s a strong chance that they had something to do with it. We weren’t close. But they kept it to themselves. There was that kind of latent, kind of your sense that they had this problem with you, but they never quite said it.
And I think mum and dad were very protective of that. But I will also say that mum and dad weren’t protective at other times when I thought they should have been. They would often downplay racism because I just don’t think they knew how to handle it. Whereas for me, it just made me feel like, “Ah, that’s…” They just didn’t have my back sometimes. And I think they were people who would avoid trouble, they wouldn’t bring stuff up they’ll…
Still, to this day, they’re like that. ”Work hard. Everything will be okay. Don’t worry when people say something bad”, – but as a kid, if people are saying really awful racist things to you, you really want to know you can turn to your parents and get their support and that didn’t always happen.
They could be quite dismissive of it at times and so that felt very undermining and I remember going to high school or boarding school and being away from them and feeling the freedom of being able to stand up for myself. I remember I got in a lot of trouble for the first few years because I just did not stop. I was big mouthing, if anyone said a word to me, I think I had a reputation by the time I left primary school I got into some fights. I was just proper angry. Plus I was bigger than everyone. They don’t really grow quick around here. They were tiny.
My younger brother, my Australian brother, there’s only five months difference between us. He was literally half my size for years until he hit 16. And so I used to protect him because he was so tiny. I got used to that, but that’s another thing that happens you as a Pacific Islander. The size thing becomes a way that they weaponize against you. It’s okay if it’s good at sport, but it’s not okay if you’re standing up for yourself because then apparently you’re intimidating people or apparently you’re too loud, you’re aggressive. You get kind of really boxed in really quickly. And I remember resisting and fighting that for a long time.
Outside in my wider family, we didn’t see them a lot. So it wasn’t as much of a problem but mostly though I can remember I heard a cousin say some pretty crappy things, but again, I think I might have got in fights with them too. I feel like I might have been in fights a lot. But we didn’t see them heaps. They weren’t people I felt a connection with. Yeah, I didn’t…It was more, I think for me and especially going to boarding school, my network of family, pseudo family were my friends, and they were people that I was living in a boarding house with for six years. So that became family for me as opposed to my actual family-family, yeah.
Subject Strengths and Degree Choices
So you’ve gone through primary school and then your high school. Can you talk about some of the things that you really enjoyed and how that led you to wanting to do an arts degree, but then you didn’t end up doing an arts degree because you-
I was convinced not to.
I think my favourite subjects were or my interests were geography. Geography was my all-time favourite. And I ended up doing three-unit geography and I got crazy good marks in it. I think in my HSC, I ended up getting 98% in three unit and 96% in the two unit. And I remember that…And this is a standout for me. In year seven, there was a teacher, Mrs…I won’t say her name. My geography teacher, and I swear to God in year seven, I thought, “This woman does not stop picking on me. She’s picked on me and picked on me.” She made me pay attention, I got in trouble in class. It was just constant.
And then every year I’d come back, and she put me in her class every year. Every year I was in her class. I would just be like, “I swear to God, this woman has it in for me. She’s so mean, all she does is…She constantly calls me out, she constantly makes me do extra work.” This is my geography teacher, who in the end became a good friend. I honestly to this day remember her, admire her.
She stuck it out with me. She obviously saw some potential and geography not just because of her, but it became a favourite subject. I found it was…The reason I liked it so much was that it looked at topics on an international and national scale that were socially relevant. I remember we covered things like Antarctica and the ethics around occupying the Antarctic space, the damage it does to the landscape. The fact that it’s not a sovereign state.
It was exploring all these really outside my experience kind of opportunities, I think and really encouraging different ways of looking at things which I enjoyed in a fairly kind of structured strict school. The opportunity to explore social justice projects. We got to read about…It was the first time I ever learned about transnational corporations in the agricultural industry and buying up land in developing countries, but it sells the project…
It was really, really interesting and it sparks I think not just my knowledge but also my interest in what’s going on in the world and maybe what kind of role I could have in that, I think. I felt like it was one of the subjects that treated me like an adult whereas a lot of the other stuff…Maths, I just genuinely wasn’t good at. Still to this day, my son who’s in year five doesn’t come to me for help because I cannot do the work. Year five maths. It’s embarrassing.
The other subjects I really enjoyed was English because it was one of those things, if you can read, then you can read so many different stories that help that you can either identify with or that will take you out of where you’re at. And I think the other thing I enjoyed too was music. Music was one of those things that helps explore and explain some fairly intense, I’m sure all teenagers feel like, some fairly intense teenage feelings. Sometimes it was a really bad love song. Sometimes it might have been Guns N’ Roses, but it would be stuff that would help me deal with how I was feeling at the time which I feel really lucky that I was able to find those things during my education, during high school that helped me still to this day help me explore how I feel.
Support at School
in your education, particularly in your high school years, did you get any assistance with any parts of your schooling? Did you get any access to tutoring or did you go and do additional classes or…
I don’t think I ever got tutored. We had to do two hours of homework every night in school prep. You had to sit at a desk for two hours every night. That was mild torture, but I used to get work done so that was good. I didn’t do any extra tutoring. My thing was sports. I spent a lot of times…I was in the hockey team, the softball team, swimming. There’s a lot of additional kind of extracurricular activities around that. And then as I got older, I was sort of the sports captain and captain of the house and stuff like that and became a prefect. There was kind of additional responsibilities around that sort of work.
I think for me, the stuff that I ended up sort of excelling in was really some of that more…I think this is something as Pacific Islanders, we’re good at. It’s that relationship stuff. We’re all about relationships and how you build them and how you create them and foster them, I think and that was a big thing for me. I developed a lot of really positive relationships and I think, becoming a prefect made me realize that the leadership kind of part of my identity, had really had kicked off. And I still feel to this day that there’s that leadership.
I think I enjoy that kind of that leadership role. I think sports is a part of it. If you’re Captain of the team, you’ve got to be able to support everyone in your team. And even in high school, I feel like there’s those opportunities for young people to develop some of those leadership skills. I think…That was a confidence booster for me as a young person. Yeah, so never really any sort of academic tutoring. I’d never really pictured myself in an academic kind of context. It was just more about…
Yeah, I don’t think I had any idea what I was going to do at the end of high school, to be honest. The arts degree stuff I think really came from the geography. I love the content of arts kind of…The arts curriculum, you can do such a broad and diverse range of studies and you can focus on so many different things. But what I enjoyed about it when I did start it was just reading different philosophies and theories about not just how to approach research, for example, but just how to think. I really, really enjoyed that, I think.
Yeah, I’d say that that came about because of the geography kind of…The genesis of that coming from geography and looking at different things in different parts of the world and how it all has an impact on each other.
University and Work
I had to get a job because I got in trouble from dad. I got a job which in hindsight I was really glad because I went and earned money. The discipline of getting up every morning and getting dressed and going to work and earning my own money was also a nice…Was really good at an early age. I lived with mum and dad, and I paid board and I ended up getting a pretty decent job for a young person as a clerk with[bank name]and then ended up becoming a personal loans officer.
And that happened…I think that really helped me just…I don’t think it hurts having a job. I think it’s good to be around people. At uni, you’re usually around people sort of who are like minded and usually the same age. I think work life is good because you’re around a whole range of different ages and personalities and I really enjoyed that. I was working with people that were my parents’ age. It actually gave me insight to why my parents were the way they were. And I liked these people.
I think my parents were confused because I’d come home and they’re like, “Oh, you seem to get along okay with them.” It’s like, “Yeah. No worries. They’re nearly the same age as you mum. I don’t know. Weird.” I liked that. And I think it’s good for a young person, for a whole range of reasons if they can find employment. I think that’s really important. But I know I wanted to go and do an arts degree. Just because I knew I wanted to do something else. I knew that working in the bank wasn’t for me long-term. And doing the arts degree was really important. I enrolled in a Bachelor of Arts and Social Science and International Studies and that gave me an opportunity to study overseas for a year. I learned a language, I learned Spanish and I studied in Chile for a year and that was a really, really amazing experience.
To this day, I’m still friends with some of the people I studied over there with and still maintain contact with them. And that was a great way of…I suppose it was definitely obviously, not learning about my culture, but it was definitely learning about how we engage with other cultures and communities as well. And also being there and living there, and having to speak in Spanish the whole time because English is not something that they…You had to…
All of your classes were in Spanish. And so having a sense of what it’s like to be the other again, but in a different way. I was definitely an Australian student who…Living in Chile, Chilean students weren’t as…Didn’t have the same privileges for sure as we did. So it was definitely a very privileged position to be living and studying over there, but it was really exciting.
Law Degree and Career
when you eventually came back and then you went through your law degree, can you talk me through what that experience was like going through your law degree and then practicing for five years? And then I think you mentioned as well too, that you eventually walked away from it because you realized that that probably not something you’re going to do, but what was that experience like doing the law degree?
Yeah. Look, at that stage, I should say, at this point, when I did enrol, I was a mature aged student. And I might have mentioned, I think I mentioned it to you earlier. For me to have even contemplated doing law, this is after I’d worked as a youth worker. I think at that point, I’d lived overseas and studying for my arts degree. I think I may have even started working. Briefly when I came back from overseas, I worked briefly as a court officer with the Federal Circuit Court and then got a job as a Deputy Associate. So I had started working in the legal field.
I think finishing the degree, being a bit older, traveling and living overseas, even getting a job as a court officer, I realized I could probably really have a crack at this law degree thing. I’d finished one. I knew I had the discipline to finish or complete the studies. I enrolled as a mature aged student and got it in. It was hard work. It was a real shift in the level of effort, the competitiveness in law is so different to what I’d experienced in arts. I didn’t feel there was competitiveness, like there was a competition in things like marks or doing well, but they really applaud it in law. It’s something that everybody covered so I believe.
For me, I just wanted the degree. I wanted to know that I could do it. At the time, I was working full time as a Deputy Associate at the courts. And I was studying part time. I would say as an experience, I’ve never been so disciplined in my life. I would often get up at 6:00 AM in the morning and work for an hour and a half and then go to work, come home and then do another hour and a half to two hours a night and that would be five days a week.
I didn’t have a life outside of that, during the terms, but I was committed to doing the degree and passing. If I’m completely honest, I wouldn’t say that I was the top student at all, I was maybe slightly above average, but I wasn’t the top student. That workload was important for me to even just get across the work. I was doing it as an…What do you call it? As an online student. Again, I wasn’t attending classes, I was doing it all online. Distance education, that’s right. I don’t think I would have been able to do it at an earlier age. I think I would have been too young and too immature.
But I was so determined to do it that I did get on, so I got it done. And I was thrilled to do it and really excited to get a job as a criminal defence lawyer and practice it but in the end, it just wasn’t…I still to this day rely on those skills, and I’m really proud of myself that I got it done. But it just wasn’t something that I wanted to do. I saw the lifestyle of lawyers is not always healthy. The work, the hours were just incredibly long and I’d just had two small kids. I couldn’t dedicate that time.
I would often be at court on a Friday doing a bail application. When I was supposed to be picking my kids up from childcare and I just couldn’t…I didn’t want to prioritize work over my children. That balance just became too difficult to manage. It’s also probably why there’s a lot more men in law than there are women because it’s not that women can’t do it, it’s that those sort of home duties end up dictating whether or not they’re able to do it, I think. But I still use that knowledge and those skills in the work that I do today and I think it’s very much…
It’s helped all of the studies that I did as an art student, just in terms of firming up my knowledge around the work that I’ve done with migrant communities at Red Cross but also the work now that I’m wanting to do with my own diaspora of Pasifika communities here in Australia as well. It’s given me confidence to speak on issues that I think impact our communities too.
Career and Community Work
the work that you’re doing. Is this the sort of work that you can see yourself doing long-term? And then also, if you could just touch on some of the community work that you’re also engaged in…
Yeah, sure. The work I’m doing at the moment, having shifted away from practicing law, I’ve been fortunate enough to get a job working in international development, working with organizations, as I said earlier in Fiji. Look, working in the international development sector was something I thought I always wanted to do. It’s always lauded, as…Especially in that sort of arts field and even the legal field, that kind of work really is positioned as really exciting, and I worked briefly at Red Cross but that was more of an Australian domestic focus with refugees and asylum seekers.
I applied for this job because it was specifically for a program manager for Fiji. I’m like look, if lived experience, the fact that I’m a woman and a lawyer, that doesn’t get me this job, because I’ve applied for jobs in this sector before and it hasn’t happened. And I feel like that’s a real problem. It is a real problem in the sector. I think there’s a lot of White people working with our communities in the Pacific and it’s just replicating some of the old kind of colonizing kind of practices that were established years and years ago.
That’s potentially a separate discussion. For me, this was an opportunity I felt to connect not just with my Fijian communities but family as well. I really am trying to sort of work out a way. I’d love to live there again. As a woman with a family, I’d love for my children to have a connection with their biological and their cultural history. This I thought might give me an opportunity because there’s a lot of travel involved. And then of course, COVID hit.
We’re not traveling at all, and we won’t be traveling at all for a very long time. It’s made me really reconsider the job itself. But also and this is a bit of an aside. One of the more exciting things I think that’s emerged from it is that there’s a strong chance that most of the international organizations are going to have to refocus their work and allow the local Pacific-based organizations to lead the work with us providing support from here, which I think is a really exciting prospect and something that we probably should have been doing for a long time.
That’s a bit of an aside, just in terms of the actual work content. But I think, for me, what’s come out of COVID and probably something I’ve been building over a little while because I suppose the other job I haven’t mentioned is I did work as a senior policy advisor in Multicultural Affairs in government for a little while. And in that time, had an opportunity to explore the Pasifika diaspora in Victoria. And that’s probably been my most recent before this international role. And in that time, built up some fantastic contacts. Funnily enough, predominantly women, in the Pasifika communities in Victoria and during COVID, a lot of those relationships have now come to the forefront.
For example, I’m now working on this amazing community project with some Pasifika colleagues. It’s a Youth Justice Project that emerged unfortunately as a result of a death of one of our young community members. And from that we’ve sort of galvanized into a project to look at how we can better support Pasifika communities specifically around youth crime prevention, but also some of the broader issues as well. I’m also doing some other work around family violence prevention in Pasifika communities.
And that for me, I suppose connection with my Pasifika communities has been so strong lately and it’s really come through. I think as an older adult, I used to try and establish it when I was younger, but it just wasn’t connecting but I’ve noticed, especially as a parent and some of the connections I’ve developed recently, that’s really put me in a position where I feel like I’m able to really not just work with community but advocate for communities as well.
That’s been, I think, for me, you asked whether this is something I can picture myself doing. I think this is all I’ve ever wanted to do. And I’ve only just come to realize that. I think all the work leading up to it has put me in the right position to do it. I really hope that that’s something that I can continue to do because it gives me so much satisfaction on a personal and professional level which I don’t think you get to match up all the time.
Advice for Pasifika Youth
Based on everything that you know now and where you’re at in your life now, what sort of advice would you give to our up-and-coming youth who might be interested in working within the international development space or working in the community development space? What sort of advice could we give to them now to kickstart their careers?
Look, I feel people like myself and you and others, I think we have a role to play in that. I think there’s two things. A connection between young people and people who are professionals or who are working or who are slightly older. I think there’s some mentoring that could be happening, some better kind of mentoring kind of connections because there’s so much that can be shared between us. But for me, it’s about hearing it from people who know you, who can make you feel safe.
We’re not going to judge. And in fact, somebody who could be a sort of a long-term mentor support. It’s also a touch point for you. I seek out mentors, not at the moment because they’re all White women but anyway, I seek out…I get mentorship from my colleagues through the project I’m working on at the moment. I get great conversations out of that. The people who, when you speak to them make you feel like you’re not crazy. You’re normal and how you’re feeling is perfectly normal are the people that we need to be putting in front of these young people because I’m confident that it’s not a matter of them not having the ability to do something, but it’s about us being able to help them find those pathways.
And success can be a myriad of things. I’m not saying success has to be you’re a Supreme Court judge or you’re a surgeon or you’re the UN Secretary General. None of those things. We don’t have to aspire to that. What I want to see is us being our Pasifika selves and taking that with us into all the roles and feeling safe to do it because I think that’s the network we can provide. And it’s okay.
I guess the other piece of advice is, it’s okay to be confused. I didn’t know what I wanted as a teenager either. Some days, I was up, other days I was down. It’s perfectly normal. Look for those people that you trust who are just there to listen. But I think for people like myself, I would be more than interested, more than happy to do any kind of mentoring and stuff like that. And that doesn’t mean that I take you to the office and introduce you to people. That’s so boring.
It would just be just listening or chatting or what’s your interests and it would be on us to develop those kinds of…I don’t know, even questions. Things that we can chat to you about that might help you think stuff through. Yeah, I think there’s so much potential. And there’s so much bravery, young people that they don’t see it. I think it’s up to us to show it to them.
Navigating Cultural Identity
a recurring thing that often comes up in the research is this thing about our Pasifika youth finding it difficult to navigate their identities and whether they carry all of their culture with them or whether they leave part of it at the door depending on what context they’re in. What would be your advice in terms of guiding them through situations like that?
Yeah. I think it’s an interesting point for young people. I would say…I grew up in a White family. So their secrets were available to me really early on. I didn’t feel like…I remember getting it. I remember thinking, “I get you guys,” fairly quickly. I think for young people, sometimes they’re struggling, going home and living one life and then going out the door and living a different life. And I guess the message is don’t feel you’re alone. Other Pasifika youth are feeling the same way. Other migrant youth are feeling the same way too.
And we’re often contending with that kind of negative stereotyping of our communities. I think again my advice is look for some champions in your school, look for some champions in your communities that you can go to. People maybe even outside your mum and dad. Mum and dads are great but mum and dads also bring some pressure around what mum and dads want to see too. There’s nothing wrong with that. But sometimes that’s not the conversation young people need to have all the time. Don’t feel guilty if you are going outside mum and dad too.
You’re not doing anything wrong. And maybe sometimes, it’s a little bit about maybe we can give some support to mum and dads too to better understand their kids because I think that that generational gap can be felt really acutely for young Pacific Islanders. Their parents don’t get them. Maybe their parents are working heaps and they’re not available to sort of…And the expectations of our young people are that you are going to get dinner on the table. You’ve got to bath your siblings, you’ve got to make sure everyone’s doing their homework. Our responsibilities are often different to middle class White kids who play Nintendo, I don’t know, whatever. But I just…We carry different responsibilities and I think not being too tough on yourself is really important because we’re not going to get everything right all the time as well. And just that cultural divide is something that will be navigated throughout your young life into adulthood and that you will get better at it. I feel now that I’m much better at it now and I speak confidently about calling stuff out, whereas I probably wouldn’t have…When I was younger, I would have just gone through it or felt it and felt confused and just left it.
Yeah, I think there’s now programs out there, there’s resources and materials that we could make available. There’s lots of interesting workshops that I think can help young people think about where they sit with their kind of cultural identity as well. There’s different ways of getting that support and assistance too I think.
what particular cultural values do you think are important within the Pasifika context for them to utilize within their spaces? Or how can they use that to their advantage rather than kind of impeding their progress?
Yeah, that’s a good one. Well, one of the things I’ve just spoken about that is, I think our young people grow up with a level of maturity that other young people don’t have to have early on. Now, that can be a bit of a burden at times, but they’re often maybe use that kind of…I don’t know, maturity or responsibility in a way that benefits them because I think our ability to take on responsibilities comes at an early age and expectations around that come in at early age.
I think, if there’s ways that we can use that in a positive way to our advantage, then definitely, I think it means that we’re able to then enter work life with the level of maturity that might not be happening for other young people.
I think that sense of family is really important. And I’m not sure how…That being a network of support, I think, happens I think also…Our practice of faith, our faith kind of communities as well is often a network of support. I think using those is not to your advantage, but to use those in a positive way is really important as well. Yeah. I think those are the main ones. I’m just trying to think of others as well.
I think…The only thing I would say is that maybe we don’t speak positively enough about ourselves. Maybe we…Because it doesn’t happen. We’re not taught that that’s a good thing. And I’m not saying be arrogant but it’s okay to let some positive thinking in sometimes. You might be good at something. I’m not saying tell everyone that you know but it’s okay to speak confidently about yourself as well.
how do you in your perspective define success? So what does success look like for you?
And it could be anything in terms of education, health, financial, anything. What does success look like to you?
That’s interesting, because I think success when I was younger, it looked like one thing and now it looks really different to me. Success when I was younger looked like getting that law degree and practicing as a lawyer. That was a big one. And look, I’m glad I was successful in that context, because I think when I reflect on it now it was actually just about proving to myself I could do it, not about being a successful lawyer. Like earning a lot of money, becoming a judge or any of those things, I don’t think I ever envisaged that for me, I actually just wanted to get it done and prove to myself that I could do it.
That I think was one thing. Money’s never been a big part of me picturing success and I don’t know whether that’s a Pasifika thing. I’ve never seen owning a big home or going, paying for a private school. Those things weren’t pillars of success for me. I want to always be able to be in a job that gives me some security where I can take care of my family and go visit the family in Fiji and have a happy life. I think success, I reflect a lot more now on what success looks like in the home.
How I can care for my kids is a sign of success and their welfare and their wellbeing…I’m going to get a bit emotional now. That, to me is a big sign of…Because I think the other successes are about how hard I’ve worked to achieve something. This is really different. It’s tested my abilities in so many different ways. I don’t think I’ve ever come across something like parenting where in the past, if I worked hard enough, I could do it. Parenting was different. I wasn’t naturally good at it.
It’s not a matter of reading all the right books to get better at it, it was one of those things where I had to stop and slow down and sort of listen to the kids. That for me is a big sign of success. For me on a personal note, I think success for me is having a connection to my communities and being able to do something for my communities. For Pasifika, the diaspora here in Australia but also overseas. I want to see our people, our peoples, prosper and thrive and be a part of the communities that they live in and be proud of themselves.
I think my success is wrapped up in that a little bit where I want to contribute to that success. And that for me, will feel like I’m getting something out of it, if that makes sense. I think…Look, I’m not going to say academic qualifications aren’t a sign of success, but if I was to think about my kids now, I just want them to be happy. I think academia now is going to be a really interesting pathway for kids.
The art sector is going to be really expensive. I think the job market’s going to be really interesting for young people. I don’t think it’s going to be as easy to get a job. We’re going to have to rethink our pillars of success and what success looks like. I would like to see us come up with some Pasifika kinds of interpretations of success because I think for us, I’ve watched our communities since I’ve been in Australia and working communities go up and down and I feel like we’re dipping a little bit at the moment, and I think that I would say that for a lot of multicultural communities.
So for me, I’d like to see an upward swing for all of us. But I want to see us leading that work. I don’t want to see it being a top-down process. I’d like to see more of us in some of the decision-making positions that impact us. I don’t think I see enough of that.
Advice for Youth
In your career journey, when you were going from job to job, did you seek specific assistance to- Because I’m just thinking about when our Pasifika youth are engaging in the early parts of their career, what do they need to do? Because historically, particularly in the region that I’m referring to, our Pasifika youth often get work through family.
They don’t go through the traditional route of using your resume, applying for a job, going through that process. Is there anything that sticks in your mind that you think makes a real point of difference to help you stand out in that job recruitment stage?
Yeah, that’s interesting, isn’t it? Look, I have to really say having grown up in White communities, my ability to speak like a White person probably helped. My confidence around White people just was really different. I noticed when I got to high school, to how other young girls of colour felt. They interacted very differently, whereas I just…I had a White family. And I think speaking with confidence was something that maybe White kids are raised with that Pasifika kids aren’t raised with.
I spoke confidently, I think early on and spoke like…There’s this thing where…I don’t know. Middle class teenagers speak like they know everything. I think that difference. What I’m thinking of is if you’re a shy Pacific Islander teenager and you’re going for a job and you’re not somebody…I mean, we’re not told to speak up about ourselves, which I mentioned earlier. I feel like that can be something that we could support them better with. And it might be around how they approach an interview.
The thing I would say that helps you to stand out is to be yourself because that’s the best person you can be. I also feel like there’s…Maybe this is going outside the scope of the project, but a lot of work can be done around how employers recruit people from different communities. A lot of times selection criteria doesn’t help us. It’s written in language, or it’s written in terminology that English speakers can barely understand. Let alone if you’re from a non-English speaking background, but I think there could be better…Maybe, from our perspective, some investment in what job interviewing looks like and how that process rolls out.
is there anything else that you want to…Do you have any last thoughts or any final messages that you want to leave us with?
No, I don’t think so. I don’t think I’ve got anything. I hope it made sense. But yeah, just really adding that I think my background in terms of growing up in a White Australian family context really does distinguish my experience from what…If you’ve migrated here with your parents from, Fiji or Tonga and it is a really different experience. I want to be really upfront about that. And also, going to an all-girls private school gave me different attitudes about what I could and couldn’t do.
And those things, they’re systemic. That sets you up. While it was…there was some, definitely elements of racism throughout, I was still being given the skills that others are robbed of. And given an insight that perhaps many others aren’t and used it. Yep. I sort of be upfront about that, that I’m…That’s definitely something I think that’s put me in an advantaged position.
Support during primary and high school
- Peers and friends as a source of support at school
- Support from parents during schooling (Part 1 & Part 2)
- Support from teachers and schools
- Transition from school to post-school education (Part 1 & Part 2)
Experiences of post-secondary education and training
- Experiences of university
- University journeys: Interruptions and finding one’s direction
- Diverse pathways towards university
- Experiences of TAFE
- Short courses and on-the-job training
- Early aspirations and current occupation
- Talking about future aspirations with family members
- Networks of family and friends
- Be proactive and seize unexpected opportunities
- Creating opportunities: Volunteering
Experiences of Work
- Benefits of being a Pacific Islander at work
- Engaging with Pacific community members through work (Part 1 & Part 2)
- Navigating family and career
- Future aspirations
Reflections and advice to young Pacific People
- ‘Akesa – Community Facilitator
- Ama – Lashing Business Administrator & Marketing Coach
- Annie – International & Community Development Specialist
- Ashirah – University student
- Cass – English Teacher, Writer, Project Manager, & President of the Victorian Kiribati Association
- Chris – Field Officer (HR)
- Christopher – Carpenter & Stonemason
- Crofton – Visual Effects & Animation Specialist
- David – App company CEO
- Elisabeth – Teacher
- Elvina – Building Services Mechanical Engineer
- Fipe – Cacao Products Manufacturing Business Owner
- Grace – Airline Customer Service Agent
- Leki – Physiotherapist
- Luisa – Registered Nurse
- Malelega – Legal Assistant
- Marita – Writer
- Rose – Workplace Consultant
- Sefita – Community Engagement Officer
- Semisi – Lawyer
- Talei – Lawyer & Community Engagement + Government Relations Consultant
- Teisa – Medical Doctor
- Tevita – IT Professional
- Thom – Make-up Artist
- Venna – Lashing Business Owner & Trainer