Young Pacific Leaders Celebrate Heritage while Making History in Fiji

Arriving by plane rather than vaka and wearing mostly non-traditional attire—45 young delegates from 20 Pacific countries and territories celebrated their common heritage as they looked toward a promising future during a historic 2019 Young Pacific Leaders Conference (#YPL19) in Suva, Fiji.

It took some delegates 30+ hours to arrive at the conference in Suva, but only a few short days to establish networks and relationships for life.

The YPL19 conference, organized by the U.S. Embassy New Zealand and implemented in partnership with Cultural Vistas, took place March 6–9, 2019 and marked the sixth year of successful collaboration between the U.S. Department of State and emerging leaders in the Pacific.

The 45 conference delegates honored their ancestors during a program in which they outlined how to fight together in the modern Pacific region using the weapons of civic leadership; environmental and resource management; education; and economic and social development.

Though conference delegates arrived in Fiji by plane, they were also able to experience vaka sailing on the famed Uto Ni Yalo.

Celebrating Tradition Gives Strength to Pacific Voices

For those in the Pacific, deference to certain ancient customs and traditions is as important as demonstrating 21st century knowledge and expertise. A gathering of Young Pacific Leaders in Fiji would have been incomplete without honoring the Pacific tradition of telling stories through song and dance.

Another important way in which conference delegates were able to share some of their heritage was through time designated to wear traditional attire. Pictured here are some of the delegates during a “Pacific Night” reception.

In an air-conditioned banquet hall amid flashing cameras and blinking red lights, a singing group wearing traditional outfits officially launched the conference with a welcome ceremony which included offering a beverage made out of ground Kava root to honored guests.

Delegates were also introduced to Igelese Ete, the man who delivered the soundtrack of the Pacific to the world (or, at least—Hollywood).

As the leader of the Pasifika Voices choir at the University of the South Pacific, Igalese once self-funded a trip to California to tell Disney studios off for not using an authentic Pacific choir in its movies. Once Disney’s music team came to Fiji to hear Igelese’s powerful choir for themselves, they had no choice but to change their minds and use Pasifika Voices.

The Oceania Dance Theatre at the University of the South Pacific in Suva put on quite the show for our conference delegates. Read more about their modern approach to utilizing creative expression to honor Pacific dancing traditions.

Seeing the powerful performances of Pasifika Voices and the Oceania Dance Theatre leaves little room to wonder why people from the Pacific take such pride in their traditions of song and dance. And the global success of Igelese’s Pasifika Voices choir also provides a powerful statement on the potential of marrying the traditions of the past with the modern-day. Pasifika Voices consists of singers from a number of different Pacific countries and has had resounding success performing modern interpretations of songs from throughout the Pacific.

For their own part, conference delegates regularly elevated conference programming by giving public orations in their native languages (including sign languages) or public statements honoring conference speakers.

YPL19 strived to be an accessible conference for all. Above, conference delegate Krishneer Sen demonstrates some simple phrases in sign language.

By inserting a certain degree of tradition, custom, and performance common across the Pacific into regularly scheduled conference programming, YPL19 fostered a sense of a unified Pacific identity—allowing the delegates to speak with a unified Pacific voice.

Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary (PDAS) W. Patrick Murphy (third from left seated in front) with conference delegates during a unifying Pacific Night reception celebrating island customs and culture.

The Inaugural Mock Pacific Islands Forum Leaders Meeting

The greatest performance of YPL19 was also a historic one.

The delegates of #YPL19 take part in an inaugural Mock Pacific Island Forum at the Pacific Island Forum Secretariat in Suva.

The delegates of the 2019 Young Pacific Leaders Conference made history when they became the first group to ever take part in a Mock Pacific Islands Forum Leaders Meeting (MPIFLM) at the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat. Inspired by other mock forums like Model United Nations and Model ASEAN Summits, the inaugural MPIFLM event allowed delegates to assume the role of Pacific world leaders as they role-played what it would be like to take part in a regular session of the Forum.

Easy to mistake for an actual world leader, conference delegate Melissa Menefise Ako from Tuvalu played the role of Chair at the Mock Pacific Islands Forum Leaders Meeting. She is pictured here sitting next to Alifeleti Soakai—the Secretariat’s Political Issues Adviser.

During the exercise, Secretariat staff noted how similar the mock session was to an actual meeting of country representatives.

Secretariat Officer Angela Thomas said that she was “very impressed” with conference delegates by “how well they engaged and knew their country positions, obviously having researched the issues,” whereas Secretariat Officer Penisoni Naupoto noted that “the level of the discussions at this meeting was not very different from the country leaders when they meet.”

As if assuming the role of a world leader wasn’t enough, some conference delegates were asked to assume the role of a country that wasn’t their own. This was the case with New Caledonia—which did not have a delegate at the conference.

Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that it was easy for #YoungPacificLeaders to demonstrate leadership qualities, even on such a grand stage. Indeed, throughout the rest of the conference, the delegates further demonstrated that they were already the regular leaders of a different forum.

A Forum for the Future of Young Pacific Leaders

In his remarks to the Young Pacific Leaders on Pacific Night at YPL19, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary (PDAS) W. Patrick Murphy said that he was glad that the Young Pacific Leaders program was no longer known as the Future Leaders of the Pacific program.

“We want to acknowledge that your impact is not reserved for some time in the future. You are already making a difference.”

PDAS Murphy delivers his opening speech at the “Pacific Night” reception of YPL19.

Though it would have been impolite for PDAS Murphy to acknowledge, the Young Pacific Leaders also won’t be young forever. But throughout YPL19, the delegates lived up to the lifelong diplomat’s remarks by making it clear that they do not need to be groomed into becoming leaders anymore—they have already proven themselves to be Pacific leaders regardless of age.

Special thanks to Dwain Ah Tong Qalovaki (second from left) for giving the YPL19 keynote address and joining conference delegates while sailing on the famed Vaka Uto Ni Yalo.

In addition to celebrating Pacific customs in Fiji and role-playing what it would be like to be a modern Pacific political leader at the Pacific Island Forum Secretariat, the delegates of YPL19 spent most of their time in Fiji tackling issues related to one of the four YPL pillars in which they specialize. Importantly, the delegates did not approach these issues as students—but as leaders utilizing existing expertise to find the best path forward.

Program alumna Carinya Feaunati shares a personal success story with fellow delegates and advises them on how they can secure funding for projects through the YPL Small Grants Program. Several alumni of past YPL programs attended the conference in Fiji and served as mentors for the next cohort of Young Pacific Leaders.

Though the conference which brought them together is over, the delegates remain connected as Young Pacific Leaders. Since returning from Fiji, they have begun participating in post-program activities as they prepare for YPL LEADS (Lead, Engage, Advocate, Drive Change, and Serve)—a weeklong event in the first week of May which will bring together YPL19 alumni and other members of the wider YPL alumni network to collaborate on a service activity and social media campaign.

And in addition to each other, the Young Pacific Leaders have another proud partner to help them in their future efforts.

In his opening remarks at the Pacific Night reception, PDAS Murphy noted that the United States “has a long history of partnering with the Pacific Islands to address local and global challenges” and mentioned a number of specific programs open to Young Pacific Leaders.

“Through our Department of State, we offer a number of educational exchange programs such as Fulbright scholarships, International Visitor Leadership Programs, the U.S. South Pacific Scholarship Program and more to enable driven individuals like yourselves to spend some time in the United States, to study at great institutions to take knowledge and skills back to your home islands, and also to share your vision for a brighter future with us in the U.S.”

Teina Mackenzie, President of the Te Ipukarea Society gives the YPL19 capstone speech on “Staying Engaged as a Young Pacific Leader.”

As they continue to engage their expanding networks across the Pacific and increase their knowledge of the four YPL pillars, delegates will also have the opportunity to put their ideas into action through the YPL Small Grants Program.

The descendants of the Pacific no longer need to battle each other or the waves of the world’s largest ocean. Their greatest source of strength today comes from fighting for the Pacific together. And thanks to Young Pacific Leaders, they are now connected through a forum of their own.

See more highlights and interviews with participants of YPL19 below.