Tagata Pasifika

The Pacific voice on
New Zealand television
since 1987

Tagata Pasifika

The Pacific voice on
New Zealand television
since 1987

‘We’re racist, now we’re leaving’: Young Pacific climate activists left with more work

Pacific climate activist Helena Fuluifaga Chan Foung

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Simone Kaho | Reporter/Director

The disbandment of School Strike for Climate (SS4C), for self-confessed racism, increases the load on already heavily committed Pasifika youth, says climate activist Helena Fuluifaga Chan Foung.

SS4C was established in 2019 by youth in Aotearoa. The organisers were inspired by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg. The group brought a surge in support to the climate change movement, drawing hundreds of thousands to participate in nationwide marches throughout Aotearoa and effectively pressuring the government to announce a climate emergency.

However, even conceptually, there was a problem with inclusivity.

“I didn’t really feel connected to the group,” says Helena. “There was a lack of representation, but also proximity. For me, Greta was so far away.”

Helena volunteers with Pacific Climate Warriors, a group which prioritises the voices and outcomes of Pacific people. She spoke as their representative at the first School Strike for Climate march on March 15, 2019 in Wellington.

The School Strike 4 Climate March in Wellington, 2019. Photo: David Tong
The School Strike 4 Climate March in Wellington, 2019. Photo: David Tong

“I didn’t really see big crowds of Pacific Islanders, or visually obvious groups of Pacific Islanders,” Helena says. “Until I saw a big Tokelau flag in the far off distance. In a sea of people that don’t look like you at all, it was my one big anchor.”

In Auckland, thousands of Pasifika high-schoolers were unable to join the march because the day it took place clashed with Polyfest, the biggest Pacific cultural event in the world. Polyfest participants spend months preparing for the festival, which provides a vital cultural connection for Pasifika youth.

“It kind of just showed, actually, in the climate conversation, Pacific Islanders are not on people’s peripherals, or radar, at all,” says Helena.

Although she says the Pacific Climate Warriors’ relationship with the SS4C Wellington arm was more positive than what they observed in Auckland, Helena notes that was coming from “us putting ourselves on the radar, and that’s a lot of work”. Work initiating conversations, meetings and education on Pacific history and viewpoints.

In June this year, SS4C disbanded, in an announcement made on social media, saying the decision was made “under the suggestion and guidance of the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Colour)” members of the group, “as well as individual BIPOC activists and organisations”.

“We are disbanding because, since 2019, SS4C AKL (as well as the wider national group, though we can’t speak on their behalf) has been a racist, white-dominated space,” their post reads. “SS4C AKL has avoided, ignored, and tokenised BIPOC voices and demands, especially those of Pasifika and Māori individuals in the climate activism space.”

Helena’s first response was shock. Then laughter.

“I had to laugh,” she says, “because if I didn’t laugh, I’d cry, because of frustration, anger and disappointment.”

There were layers of problems with SS4C’s disbandment, Helena says. Including issues with the framing and language of the announcement which Helena outlined in an Instagram post.


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A post shared by @lenas_fcf

“They said, ‘Oh, we were told to do this by you guys — brown, black, indigenous and people of colour groups, BIPOC communities.’ And then they said, ‘Oh, it’s because we were racist’ on the third or fourth slide. And then they said, ‘We’re sorry’ towards the end.”

It’s also a problem that the group were apologising for racism by leaving the climate change cause.

“By pulling themselves out, they were also pulling out the potential and the political leverage that they have that other communities don’t have, other brown communities don’t have,” says Helena. “It leaves everyone else more work.”

More work for young Pasifika activists who are often campaigning across multiple issues for Pacific people, and shouldering work, study, family and community responsibilities that are different to their Pākehā counterparts.

Recent reports have highlighted that Pasifika youth experience higher levels of distress, depression and anxiety than the mainstream population and are less likely to benefit from mental health services.

The impact of Helena’s activism, on top of her study and life commitments, is clear, says her mother, Aanoalii Rowena Fuluifaga.

“Physically, you could just see the toll, which is pretty heartbreaking for a mum.”

Rowena, who is an educator, sees there is room for older generations to listen to and support young Pasifika activists.

“In the Samoan space, we can get quite hierarchical and there’s lots of, ‘Oh, sit down. You’re too young.’ We’ve also got to remember that we need to be nurturing our young leaders, our young activists.”

Helena was raised with Samoan culture but discovered her Tokelau culture, language and dance at Te Namo Te Lumanaki, the Tokelauan cultural association at Victoria University.

Pacific climate activist Helena Fuluifaga Chan Foung
Pacific climate activist Helena Fuluifaga Chan Foung discovered her Tokelau culture at university. Photo: Supplied

Her ‘amazing cultural breakthrough’ segued into sadness as she realised the precarious situation Tokelau faces.

“Tokelau is on the frontlines of climate change,” she says. “There is no huge mountain or volcanoes, like in Samoa or in Hawaii. There’s nowhere to go.”

Helena’s activism is propelled by her desire to protect Tokelau, her ancestral homeland, and guided by her Samoan values. 

“The Samoan word for placenta is fanua, and it’s the same word as land. So literally, our body, or the earth is a body that we need to take care of, because it is a body that provides.”

Despite her and other POC communities’ initial feelings of anger, and universal agreement that racism is not acceptable, Helena hopes that SS4C reform and return to the climate movement.

They’ve put together a group that has so much potential, and they’ve done some awesome things, and then they’ve just closed it down with all the good stuff inside.”

“We really do need all hands on deck to help our world.”

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