Pacific Islander Coalition to Chair Deborah Kafoury “People don’t recognize us’’

November 17, 2017

Pacific Islander Coalition Members meet with Chair Deborah Kafoury Nov. 15 to discuss community issues.

They begin, as all their stories do, with the islands. Chuuk and Yap in Micronesia. American Samoa and Tonga in Polynesia. Palau in Western Micronesia.

The Pacific Islander Coalition members gathering at a union hall in southeast Portland on a rainy Wednesday evening on Nov. 15 wanted Chair Deborah Kafoury to understand:

Island traditions are strong. “When we build a hut, the value is not in the finished product but in the process of coming together,’’ said Joe Enlet, a Health Policy Analyst with the Multnomah County Health Department. “That's the spirit here.”

And also: “There are many Pacific islands, but we are not all similar. We have different customs and languages, although English is our national language,’’ said Sandra “Sandi” Mincer.
And finally, “people don’t recognize us and how we view the world,’’ said Makerusa “Mak” Porotesano, president of the Samoan Pacific Development Corp. “As Epeli Hau'ofa, the founder of Pacific Islander studies says, it’s not about the smallness of our islands, but the greatness of our oceans.’’

So began a nearly two-hour listening session so the Chair could learn more about these county residents and their experiences. Pacific Islanders are among the fastest growing groups in the county. But although formal estimates have placed their number at 4,000, the community in Multnomah County is closer to 10,000, Enlet said. And therein lies a key problem.

Pacific Islanders, often called Asian Pacific Islanders, are ethnically and racially lumped in with all American Asians. As a result, data that would identify critical employment, health and education issues and priorities are blurred or obscured by the larger Asian population.  

Saane Pongi explains how lack of data obscures Pacific Island issues.
Saane Pongi explains how lack of data obscures Pacific Island issues.

“We need data,’’ said Saane Pongi, who has worked at FamilyCare Health Systems for more than two decades. “We have a lot of goals that we would like to accomplish once we get the data. Education, poverty, areas we live in, smoking rates, diabetes -- without the data, there is no way for us to move forward.’’

Chair Kafoury said it was sad to know that the community's validity, in a sense, is determined by access to a few numbers. “I don’t need the numbers to see you, but it’s the way the world works. By not even being able to collect the data, it’s one more way your voices are silenced and you are not even seen as people.’’

The Coalition members meet regularly after work to network and advocate for their community. Members organized after Joe Enlet was hired as a senior policy analyst and community liaison for the Health Department’s Health Equity Initiative and tasked with working on culturally-specific health equity strategies within the Pacific Islander community. He leveraged his relationships to help organize the Coalition as an advisory committee chartered by the Health Department.

Lilian Ongelungel listens as Coalition members discuss concerns.
Lilian Ongelungel listens as Coalition members discuss concerns.

At Wednesday’s meeting, former Army public affairs officer-turned-communications professional Lilian Ongelungel spoke of how real estate speculators and gentrification has driven entire neighborhoods of Pacific Islander families from North Portland.

“How many people are we losing to Vancouver?” Ongelungel asked.

Other concerns included the difficulty of reaching older non-English speakers; the myriad of licenses and certifications that independent small businesses face, the lack of information around how to buy a home or manage money and the burden on community groups to problem solve because no formal help is available. And, there is racism, despite generations of living in the mainland United States.

Chair Kafoury listens to Coalition members' stories about racism, housing prices, and employment barriers

But the Coalition has already realized some important wins. The volunteers successfully advocated for a Pacific Islander-specific community health worker training cohort to begin in January 2018. The group worked with the Health Department to seek funding, plan and design curriculum and recruit participants.

Coalition members thanked Chair Kafoury for Multnomah County’s funding, along with other partner funders.

“The struggle is real,’’ said Saane Pongi. “We each have our own stories, educated or not, we are here to make a better life for our families and our children, who are going to be the future of Oregonians.”