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Exclusive Interview: White House Policy Intern Tonga Hopoi

Community, Exclusive 02 Jun 2014   »   by TheWhatItDo


TWID: What motivates you on a daily basis?

Tonga Hopoi: My daily motivation comes from my wanting to make the world a better place for my future children. Whomever they chose to be or choose to love, I want them to have the freedom and space to make that choice. For everything I wish for them to have in their future lives, I am working to ensure today. In this way, I am able to remove myself from situations with short gratifications and live for the bigger picture, a “better society, greater world” kind of picture.

TWID: How do you represent and conduct yourself as a pacific islander?

Tonga Hopoi: To think of someone who has had tremendous influence in how I conduct myself as a Pacific Islander, I have to refer to lessons from Mr. Utoikamanu Fifita. He is well known and adoringly referred to as “Uncle Ika” in the Corvallis and Oregon State University (OSU) community. He and his family have lived in Corvallis, Oregon for over forty years. The night I won the student presidency, he told me that by this accomplishment I have done the unimaginable, I have lifted Tonga to the sun. From a small Kingdom in the South Pacific to being recognized leaders of one of the best land-grant universities in the United States – the unimaginable has become imaginable. Now, when people think of Tonga they will see people with humility, intellect, endurance and compassion. Above all else, he said, there is great cultural responsibility that comes with such achievements. For instance, for some on campus I may be the only interaction with a Pacific Islander they’ll have, thus I had to carry myself respectfully and with compassion at all times. “Seek to represent the best of our Pacific people”, Uncle Ika would say, “Because at the end of the day, that’s your best bet in making a difference in peoples’ lives”.

TWID: Who inspires you?

Tonga Hopoi: As a child, I would read Bible stories of Samson, Esther, David and Goliath – these tales contributed to the foundation of my ethics and morality. My inspiration comes from things I see in my life today that fit the lenses I developed as a child. When I see young adults have the courtesy to hold the door for elders walking near them – that inspires me. When I see young kids dressed in their cultural attire walking in public full of pride and comfort – that inspires me. When I sit next to an elder on the bus, coming home late from a long days’ work, and manages a smile – that inspires me. I am inspired by ordinary people making the most with what they have and hopeful that life will be better – modern day Samson’s, Esther’s and David’s are my inspirations.

TWID: What would you like to achieve in 5 years?

Tonga Hopoi: In 5 years, I would like to see a Tongan American in United States House of Representatives. In 10 years, I would like see to a Tongan American in the U.S. Senate. There are so many social justice movements happening with Pacific Islanders in education, music, fashion, professional sports, health, and if we were able to house this energy into some form of political awareness then we can hit these 5-year, 10-year political markers. The concept I have of how to “house this energy” would be an educational institute to track and connect the progress of Pacific Islander social justice movements. This way, there is more connection between our social justice movements and with measurable goals of having more local, statewide and federal representatives. For Pacific Islanders, our newness in this country provides a full slate for opportunities and vast potential. It is a grand of a dream for what I would like to achieve in 5 years but you never know how far you can go until you try.

TWID: Can you sum up a typical day for you in the White House?

Tonga Hopoi: Since I started this position in January, I really have not had a “typical day”. The truth is there is no typical day in the White House. One thing you can count on is being surrounded by brilliant people doing amazing workday in and day out. These past couple of months have been quite an adventure, but it has been an inspiring, unbelievable and majestic adventure to intern at the White House.

TWID: What do you believe are social issues being faced by pacific islanders and how can we overcome them?

Tonga Hopoi: Every community is different. Every community in every region is unique. Specific social issues for Pacific Islanders living in Anchorage, Alaska are not going to be the same with Pacific Islanders living in Los Angeles, California. I believe everyone has a duty to fight for social justice, especially with our Pacific Islander community. The areas that I have chosen to focus my energy on are education, civic engagement, women empowerment and cross cultural leadership.

TWID: How does it feel to be a Polynesian trailblazer working in the White House?

Tonga Hopoi: Firstly, I am from Portland, Oregon and trailblazing is what we do. For the life this country has provided for my family and me, I am grateful for this opportunity to pay forward our kaveinga (dutiful obligations) to the President, First Lady, and the nation. At the end of the day, I am just an ordinary person with a passion for helping others, and hopefully I am able to make a difference.

TWID: What do you do for The First Lady?

Tonga Hopoi: My main duty is to support the needs of the Policy Office in the Office of the First Lady. This can be a wide array of duties from scheduling to preparing meeting materials and supporting the First Lady’s Leadership & Mentoring program. As interns, we also support other offices in the Office of the First Lady that need assistance. There is a big team dynamic here, all of our efforts support to the best of our abilities the goals and initiatives of the Office of the First Lady.

TWID: How was being Student Body President of your University help you in your work today? You worked to serve your student body and now you are working to serve the First Lady and the whole nation? How has that opened your outlook and perspective?

Tonga Hopoi: There are many similarities in the work that I do today and the work I was tasked to do while serving as Student Body President of Oregon State University. Serving in both positions, I am held to high standards of professionalism, service to the public and work ethic. When I was Student Body President, I lived the position – there were no days off. I would go to class, gym, out to dinner and shop for groceries knowing that I carried the responsibility every minute of every day. It is in that “knowing” where I was able to produce change. People see the title but what they appreciate is the work, conviction and commitment. There were bright times and not-so-bright times during my tenure OSU and I am proud to stand by the fact that I was a hard worker, lead inclusively and produced results.

TWID: What kind of advice can you share with pacific islanders aspiring to work in government?

Tonga Hopoi: When I think about where I am at today, interning in the White House, I am amazed to think about the wrong paths that led me here. That is one thing people tend to overlook in their journey to success is that failures, like the successes, are 50% of the overall outcome. One of my mentors would tell me, “100% of what you know is realizing the 100% of what you don’t know”. I think for some Pacific Islanders and just people in general, realizing that you do not know something could be unsettling. What I have realized over the years of my short time on Earth is that life is a growing game. If you are not growing mentally, physically, spiritually and emotionally then you are stuck – stunted and lifeless. It is okay to come to the realization that you do not know something because then you can learn something new.

For Pacific Islanders aspiring to work in government, my piece of advice is to be an expert in your experiences; understand the different oppressions that enable or disable your participation in the United States. Take the time once or twice a week to organize and reflect you thoughts. By doing so, you will be stronger versed and comfortable to carry conversations that inspire others to either be a part of your story or help move you forward in your dreams. If you are able to package your life’s story with different facets that tie into universal truths about yourself that is when you are going places and fast.

In the government, like any other area in the public sector, there are not clear pathways to particular positions. Many people who I have met in DC can attest that there is not a set track to get to the White House but there are clear tools to help along the way: perseverance, resilience, compassion and courage. One of my favorite people in the White House once said, “There are many people here in Washington that want to be the title but not necessarily want to be or do the work. Be the person who wants to do something or is doing something. Do not just seek the title but aim to complete the work. That is how you make it to Washington. That is how you make a difference in DC.”

TWID: You are very rooted in your Tongan culture. What is a quote or theme you have learned from your heritage that you live by and have implemented in your life?

Tonga Hopoi: When I think about the dual-life that I live being Tongan and American, I sometimes find myself overwhelmed and suspended – at times it can be disorientating. Though disorientating, I know that from great challenge comes great reward. What I have found to be helpful is sticking it through, keeping both my Tongan and American lives intact by relying on some type of consistency in my life. One of the consistencies in my life has manifested to the conviction to honor my mother. Everyone in life needs a north star, some purpose to live for. For others it may be money, fame or material things but for me, it has always been to make my parents feel happy, validated and supported. In the Bible, Exodus 20:12, reads “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be prolonged in the land which the Lord your God gives you”. This verse has been my true north for appreciating my mother and honoring the memories of my fathers.

Before my mom married my father, she was a schoolteacher in a nearby village to Ha’ateiho, a netball athlete and very proud Queen Salote ex-student. As a child, she would never let me miss Sunday school, and she would encourage me to read scriptures or the hymn in her Sunday program. She would also volunteer me to help clean the church grounds after events, participate in youth church activities and sew puletahas (Tongan dresses) for me to wear at every Tongan event we attended. I am very fortunate to have my mother for it was through her love and limitless devotion to her home, the Kingdom of Tonga, that I have grown to love and miss a country I have never lived in – I have only had her. For all that I am or ever hope to be, I owe to my sweet mother – the woman who sewn the Tongan inheritance into my identity.

Interview By: Elizabeth Lavulo

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