By Nina Huang
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
At a young age, Sili Savusa was exposed to community work through her parents. As a result of a hurricane in Samoa in the 1970s, her parents did a lot of organizing to help with the relief of those affected. Through that work and the ability to help the community, her parents started the first Samoa nonprofit agency.
Savusa’s parents arrived in the 1950s from American Samoa to the Puget Sound and was one of the first Pacific Islanders living in the area at the time.
Working with her parents and other community leaders in the nonprofit sector was something that Savusa grew up with and she was heavily influenced by it.
As a long time White Center resident, she has had a unique life experience that she’s able to bring to her community work. Now she’s the executive director of White Center Community Development Association and she loves the fact that the CDA was created by the community. The organization will celebrate its 15th anniversary next year.
“It’s an honor to live and work in the community. Also, 80 percent of our staff live in White Center also. The way we work is very grassroots and nontraditional compared to other community development organizations,” she said.
Not only did she help establish the first ethnic Parent Teacher Association in the nation, specifically for Pacific Islander and Samoan parents, Savusa has also worked with The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond for the past 20 years.
As a Pacific Islander, Savusa relies on community partners to help elevate the voices of Pacific Islander families and communities because they’re a small group.
She works to bring people together to build and establish relationships with organizations and individuals based on trust.
“You can count on Sili to fight for communities of color. She wields her powerful voice to break down institutional silos to alleviate poverty, close opportunity gaps, and build community,” Michael Itti, executive director of the Washington State Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs, said.
On the other hand, one of Savusa’s biggest frustrations is that people are afraid to talk about racism and institutionalized racism.
“Racism continues to manifest itself through policies and decision-making that happens even in the communities, we need to figure it out. You have to be able to talk about race and how it plays out in our system. Until we get to that place, we’re just going to get stuck in siloes that get created,” she said.
In addition, Savusa is a huge advocate for youth voices.
“We have to make sure we’re taking care of the community and each other because young people are next to take care of all of us. Sometimes the most important thing I can do as a leader is get out of the way for other folks to come behind and get a sense in the work of community building,” she explained.
“I grew up in a house where people believed in me. The kids need to be in schools where people believe in them, not just at home,” she said.
Continuing in her parents’ footsteps
“I couldn’t have had better teachers to take care of my siblings, figuratively and literally,” said Savusa. I remember [my parents’] community efforts growing up, there was always someone in our bedroom sleeping, and my siblings and I used to tease our parents, ‘Why don’t you put up a hotel sign in front of our house?’” She didn’t realize that the impact of her childhood would amount to taking care of others.
Savusa is also involved in a lot of education initiatives.
She’s a trustee at Highline College, where she often tells the teachers and administrators, “If you don’t believe in the kids that come in through these doors and who are part of the system, then I don’t want you to teach me.”
Savusa wants people to teach in communities like White Center and acknowledge and affirm that students of color bring gifts into the classroom.
“Education shouldn’t just take place in the four walls of a classroom. Kids are even more successful when the education system partners with the community in a real way that impacts the way education reform should happen,” she explained.
Savusa makes sure her daughters and son don’t forget where they came from, even if they don’t speak the native language perfectly.
“These basic things that we value as people of color, letting kids hold on to who they are and not to let anyone take that away from them. Our dreams are valid and you need to surround yourself with people to help you make sure your dreams are still intact. That’s what I would want for any child, to help the younger people not lose sight of what’s important — which is how you take care of each other in the long run.” ■
Sili Savusa will be honored on Dec. 2 at the Northwest Asian Weekly’s annual Top Contributors Awards Dinner, held at the House of Hong Restaurant in Chinatown.
Nina can be reached at email@example.com.