GENERATION NEXT PROFILE: JOSIAH TUALAMALI'I
Talofa I’m Josiah, a cheese roll loving, railway and Temuka Pottery admiring, Samoan New Zealander. I grew up in Ōtepoti Dunedin with my grandparents, parents, and aunty Key, surrounded by antiques, a roaring log burner, newspapers, and records like ‘Tie a Yellow Ribbon.’
So far, if we are thinking about stereotypes, this might not sound like the description of the upbringing of a Samoan New Zealander. However, I am a son of the Pacific, a son of Aotearoa and to embrace who I am, I need to be comfortable not being the successful sports player, or other Pacific stereotypes, rather I am proud to be who I am - a Pacific advocacy nerd with lived experience of depression.
Mum was born in Australia when Nana and Grandad went over for their honeymoon and came home before mum started at school. Dad came to Aotearoa when he was 17 to support our family in Samoa by sending remittances. When I was younger we didn’t have a lot to do with the Samoan community. When Dad came to Aotearoa he found a world pressuring him to assimilate, and he had to rediscover what identity meant here. We often talk about how Grandma changed his name before he arrived from Potogi Amosa Tualamali’i, using her maiden last name instead. Dad was renamed in an effort to set him up for success in the predominately Pākehā world as James Brown. (When I spoke to Grandma about the connection between Dad and James Brown a little while back it didn’t seem like the famous singer had any impact on the choice of James.)
Dad and I recently had a conversation about how I didn’t learn much Samoan as a kid. It made me teary as Dad apologised that we don’t speak our indigenous language or know lots about our heritage. It was an apology, I told him, that he didn’t need to make because the pressures and experiences he had, well, he survived those times and I am proud of him for how difficult that was and still is.
Growing up I had very few Pacific friends. Along with hearing constant negative comments, seeing news stories and the infamous Police 10/7 line “Maori or Pacific Islander male, mid-20’s”, someone I loved very much stoked racist views in me when I was very young so I grew an avoid at all costs attitude. I felt I was better to live life as a Pākehā person and distance myself as much as possible from the other part of my heritage.
Visiting Samoa for the first time when I was 14 my mum and school teachers encouraged me to get involved in the first Pacific Youth Parliament. That was a transforming moment for me. I was embraced by the Pacific young people I met there. I was never once asked to be someone I wasn’t. They mentored and encouraged me along the journey to learn more about my culture, history and identity. Reading and later meeting Tusiata Avia and other leaders who have also taken the journey through the crossroads of identity and have said that we can be proud of all of who we are, we are enough. While our ancestors navigated vast oceans, we have a belongingness journey to travel, to be able to navigate the seas of our current world.
It was at this time, we set up a charity to empower Pacific young people’s voices in Aotearoa.
It is called Pacific Youth Leadership and Transformation – PYLAT, and its aim is to give our peers the opportunity to experience belonging. To be encouraged and supported to fully participate and be influential in decision making in Aotearoa, and that the Pacific identity of our country and connection to our region is elevated. Since 2010 we have given advice to decision makers, hosted numerous spaces for Pacific young people’s voices to be heard, and trained communities on how to connect best with Pacific young people.
After finishing school in 2013 another major part of my life took place when I moved to Uni. I felt motivated by my new Pacific friends and a $20,000 law scholarship helped me start along that path.
Early on I started seeing a psychologist Andrea who offered me so much in my first year, things went well.
During 2015 and 2016 there were significant difficult patches. It all came to a crescendo in mid-2017 when I dropped out of Uni. For months leading up to that, I had struggled to maintain a sleep pattern, sadness in the morning drew me back under the covers protecting me from the day. Dad asked his boss if I could work alongside him as a host in the weekend at their work, all the while my family and my friends, access to culture and spiritually loved me back into wellbeing.
After six months I got a phone call from the government asking me - a 22-year-old - to join a national inquiry alongside people who I considered the most eminent leaders in this space.
We lived together, and on the road and in the public meetings where people shared their raw experiences, and those of their loved ones bringing our cultural experiences together. Towards the end of the inquiry I began to see the difference that being on a team where equity and honouring of Te Tiriti was at the heart of what we were seeking to do, and it also helped having a panel with three members with whakapapa and two Pacific members.
Having a Polynesian team has led to a different report being written, something that better aligns with our future when 2050 projections say half of Aotearoa will be brown. It also showed me how solutions lie in our culture, spirituality and families and, without our voices being heard, Aotearoa misses opportunities and choices. When I was experiencing my depression and looking down on what I wasn’t in terms of my cultural connectedness, it was in this moment that what I needed was to bring a youth, student, ‘afakasi Pacific person and everything else about me.
When looking back at the mentoring, opportunities and learning I have been blessed with some words from a familiar name, Mr James Brown in 1969, stand out:
“…my part is to do, and to speak for my people, to show the dignity and pride and respect; and my part is to make stands and take a stand where it’s needed. As a kid I didn’t want to be called black because they black was wrong to be called black, but then I found out it was different, black was me, and a man should be proud of himself.”
We help enable Aotearoa to be the place of wellbeing it can be, when we choose the complex path to better understand who we are, and to proudly celebrate it with others. To round off the story so far, I went back to Uni in 2019 and finished my study. I didn’t go back to law but History and Politics instead and I crossed the stage, was the only grad to give the Chancellor a kiss and poke my tongue out as I walked back to sit with my fellow grads. Since the inquiry my opportunities to speak up for other people who experience mental health and addictions challenges has only grown and I have been blessed to bring these with me into many governance spaces. I notice that the blessing of my cultural heritage, what my family and community have taught me, and mental health lived experience shapes different conversations alongside decision makers. I see that while as I kid I didn’t feel like my background was worth something, I now can see the inheritance of my ancestors.
I’m proud to be a ‘afakasi Samoan New Zealander with lived experience of depression. I am immensely grateful for the people who chose to say to me I have something of value to contribute when I open up all of who I am. We all have that opportunity, and we get to make that choice each day whether Aotearoa really is a team of 5(ish) million or, not.
Generation Next is a Radio New Zealand video series profiling young New Zealanders talking about the issues they care about.