A voice for Pacific Islanders

How do we ensure that Pacific Islanders are part of Auckland in “a very real way – and are encouraged to be part of it?”

This question is top of mind for University Chaplain Uesifili Unasa as he gets down to business in his new role as chair of the Super City’s Pacific People’s Advisory Panel.

“The Mayor has put out a discussion paper on the dreams and aspirations for Auckland,” he explains “and the first job of the panel is highlighting what issues there are for Pacific people, and what their aspirations are for the next 30 years. The Council and Advisory panel are holding four workshops and consultation meetings across the city and we’ll be there as the Pacific face of Auckland Council business.”

Uesilifi is drawing on governance and strategic roles he’s held in the New Zealand and Samoan Methodist church to lead the panel which is made up of eight professionals ranging from qualified town planners, a clinical psychologist, a journalist, educator and television producer, and representing Samoan, Cook Island/Nuean and Tongan nationalities.

Uesilifi also brings a wealth of experience and community and church involvement to the role.

Born in Samoa, Uesilifi was named Westfield after the Auckland Westfield freezing works where his father was working at the time. (In the Samoan language, Westfield translates to Uesifili.)

When his family immigrated to New Zealand nine years later, Uesilifi went to New Lynn Primary School followed by Kelston Intermediate and Kelston Boys’ High before enrolling for a BA in History and Political Studies followed by an MA in Political Studies at The University of Auckland. He then trained for the Methodist Ministry at Piula College in Samoa, did a postgraduate degree of divinity at Knox College in Dunedin, more training at Trinity Methodist Theological College in Auckland and then took his first post in Dargaville.

His next period of service in South Auckland at the Mangere Otahuhu Parish gave him a totally different and multicultural experience. “It grounded me in the realities of life for those who are poor and struggling in New Zealand.”

After a period as District Superintendent (the Methodist equivalent to Bishop) at Dunedin City Methodist parish, he joined the University more than six years ago and has worked hard to make MaClaurin Chapel a “sanctuary in the busyness of University life”.

“I think I have a diversity of experience in terms of understanding Auckland and its different socio-economic groups and populations,” says Uesifili. “I grew up in West Auckland, ministered in South Auckland and now I live in central Auckland.” He also has an understanding of tertiary education in Auckland and says his involvement as University chaplain has confirmed “the vital contribution tertiary education makes to the prosperity and wellbeing of our society. Especially for the Pacific peoples in Auckland City, tertiary education is one sure step of addressing head on the adverse effects of inequality and marginalisation from important decision-making processes”.

He is mindful that the Pacific population is an increasing part of the Auckland context and that things like education, employment, business while issues for the wider community are acutely challenging for the Pacific community.

“My vision is that Auckland affirms and celebrates its Pacific-ness. Moreover that it recognises that presence in the involvement in the life of the city in two ways: firstly in the decision making processes of the city and secondly in resourcing the Pacific presence in the community. For example the University having a Fale in the middle of its campus is an important commitment to the interest and aspirations of Pacific people and festivals like Pasifika are iconic events that affirm the Pacific presence in the city.”

Though he has watched the University make significant strides in engaging with the Pacific community since he’s been here, he suggests there’s more to do to “make the engagement real and appropriate”.

He sees his role as chair of the Pacific Panel complementing the University chaplaincy and as being consistent with the University’s commitment to engage widely with its Auckland community.

“I think it will allow the chapel to be involved in the University’s aspirations to be the conscience of Auckland City.”