WOMEN OF THE ISLANDS - ELIZABETH KITE
Community Organiser / Founder of Tonga Youth Leaders / Pacific Youth Representative to the Commonwealth
Elizabeth V Kite is the Founding CEO of Take The Lead (TTL), formerly known as Tonga Youth Leaders, a Non-Government Organization that focuses on empowering underrepresented groups in Tonga to lead in places of national decision making. TTL run’s various leadership programmes including the only annual mock parliament for young women and girls, She Leads Fale Alea ‘O Tonga. All TTL’s programmes are focused on harnessing the skills and talents of individuals that are often left unheard, so that they can lead in confidence, and have their voices recognised and heard. Elizabeth also is the Pacific Regional Representative for the Commonwealth Youth Council, the world’s largest and most diverse youth group, with the council representing the 1.2 billion young people of the Commonwealth.
The coco team got to chat with Elizabeth about the inspiring work that she does:
How has life in Tonga been post-covid and how has the pandemic impacted your work (if at all)?
Unfortunately, all our lives have been impacted by CoVID since its outbreak, even in the Pacific where the virus has not affected as many people as it has in other regions, and in Tonga where the virus has not entered at all. It is a pandemic, and thus its impacts are inevitably felt in all countries including the few safe ones like Tonga, where the impact of CoVID here is felt by the decline of employment opportunities for young people, Tongan nationals being stranded overseas for prolonged times with no support from Government, some for over a year now, and it also has had a mental toll on many with the uncertainty of our future.
Like many other organizations, we have had to revise our strategy and look at how we could best continue our work within communities meaningfully and safely. From this, we realized that we needed to go digital. We are still in the transition of digitizing our platform and resources so that whether the virus hit’s Tonga or not, we can continue unaffected and serve our communities with the information and materials they need to continue to develop their leadership. Strong leadership is what we need especially during these times, and the needs of our people cannot be met by followers. I want every person, particularly those from underrepresented groups to know that their circumstances do not define them, but only their possibilities.
When founding Take The Lead what was going through your mind at the time? Where did your passion for Youth Advocacy come from?
What inspired all of this were the two most prominent men in my life growing up - my favourite uncle, who was mentally disabled, and my Dad, who was a national leader. I don’t open up about this often, because I’ve always felt it too personal, so usually accept the notion that I am my father’s daughter and simply just want to serve my country. While this is true, over the years I’ve learned the value in also sharing my uncles’ story. This was the first experience of major injustice that I would witness and what would ignite my passion to fight the injustices against those most vulnerable by empowering them to raise their voices. My uncles’ condition wasn’t one he was born with, and up to this day, the cause of his condition remains unknown. This still does not sit well with me. His family did the best they could to take care of him, and unfortunately, the government’s best resource for him when he was at his worst, was to put him in jail. Nobody questioned this or thought to seek the right resources and the right type of help because they didn’t know that they could. It’s this complacency among society and our leaders that my organization fights against every day in an effort to ensure that the needs of those most vulnerable are prioritized and addressed.
When I launched Take The Lead, I had just ended simultaneously volunteering for 2 separate Non-Government Organisations, the first one was for people living with disabilities and the second was for young women and girls. In the time I was volunteering for these two organizations, the gap between leaders and their constituents became more apparent and so I knew that a bridge needed to be created. A platform that could empower and educate the largest and most diverse grouping of our country which is also underrepresented - youth - to be heard, and to become catalysts of positive change.
You run a program for Young Women in Parliament. How would you describe this work and the purpose behind it?
She Leads Fale Alea ‘O Tonga (Parliament of Tonga) is the only programme of its kind in Tonga whereby it is designed by young women for young women to harness their potential political leadership skills through training, mentorship, and a mock parliament. This is an exclusive opportunity where young women can represent their distinctive perspectives on national issues to national leaders and the nation.
The mission of She Leads Fale Alea is to eliminate the low female representation in Tongan politics by providing young women and girls with the platform to expose them to the highest body of decision making in a country, which in Tonga, like many other Pacific countries, is male-dominated and in need of more female leadership.
How do you see women's political empowerment shaping our future?
Increasing the presence of the diversity that make up a society within spaces of national, regional, and international decision-making will transform how effectively issues are being addressed. Much has been revealed within the last year of female leadership - where countries run by women have handled the pandemic most successfully.
Are there any projects you're working on at the moment that you’d like to share about?
I’m excited to be launching a business this year. I’m taking my time with the setup but very much look forward to it going live soon. I had the idea back in 2018 but didn’t have the time for it, so decided that I would take the time in 2020 when I was supposed to have ended my role within the Commonwealth Youth Council, to pursue my first business, which even though my term didn’t end, I was still able to do. I piloted the idea last year for several months and saw that there was an interest and market for it which was great. The setup has been relatively smooth, thanks to the incredible help of Tonga’s Ministry of Trade and Economic Development, and although e-commerce isn’t made easy for Pacific islands at all. This is a challenge I’m keen to address so that we can start to see more Pacific-owned businesses come from it, and see our people, particularly our young and talented people, thrive.
If there was one thing you could change about the world right now that'll allow more Pacific Youth to reach their fullest potential what would that be?
I would completely rid the notion that the traditions and culture of our countries are limiting and backward. Each of our heritage holds significant value that more of us need to explore so that we can understand that they serve as our best compass for how we can navigate through life meaningfully and to our fullest potential. These values passed on to us from our ancestors are only seen as limiting when they are misunderstood. To example,
At a conference held by UNFPA last year on Sexual Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR), the Lord Speaker of Tonga’s Parliament explained:
“The word “taboo” was derived from the Tongan word “tapu”, but there are differences with the definition of both words. The English word “taboo” puts restrictions on topics such as SRHR, whereas “tapu” does not. It is important to include our narrative in this and differentiate what is Tongan and what isn’t, because in Tonga we encourage talanoa and dialogue on all issues affecting the family, which includes SRHR. Tapu is about respect and what is sacred, not secret. We do not keep things that are important for the well-being of our families and people secret, we talanoa and discuss them.”
I believe our cultures and traditions are very progressive but are too often misunderstood. I hear a lot of youth put blame on our traditions and culture for issues such as inequality, and while there is much work to be done around equity for all, I wish more youth spent more time exploring what our culture and traditions truly meant to realize that they are far more empowering than limiting.
What advice would you give to a young Elizabeth just at the beginning of her journey?
This is very blunt advice that I give to every one of my young leaders who are wanting to follow a similar path to creating positive and impactful change in their communities - forget about Non-Government Organizations, instead set up a social enterprise or business. You can make far more of an impact that way, as well as you’d be adopting a far more sustainable model and method to implement the changes you seek to accomplish.