"Your net worth is your network"

I was selected to attend the Young Pacific Leaders Conference held in Suva, Fiji. There was a delegation of 46 young leaders from across the Pacific. The purpose of the conference is for leaders to build new skills and knowledge to advance the region’s economicvibrancy and civic engagement, thereby contributing to regional security and development.  What I wanted to get out of it was civic engagement, how do we get our young Pacific people talking about what is happening in the region and to become part of creating solutions to problems that directly affect them. 

On the first day we had the speaker Dwain Qalovaki, speak to us about sustainability. He project managed the 87% decrease in single use plastic bags by every fuel service station in Fiji; he did this on a budget of $4000 USD. He was also instrumental in creating a policy where the money from the levy of plastic bags went back into the communities, not only environmentally but in infrastructure too. The one thing we took away from Dwain was “your network is your net worth”. In order to create the change he wanted to he needed the help of those around him, He leveraged the Fijian cultural systems in order to get these projects working.

Day 2 saw us heading to the Pacific Island Forum, which is where leaders from 18 nations in the Pacific talk about regional issues. We were there to create a mock sitting where I was the official for New Zealand. My role was to support the New Zealand Leader, which normally would be the Prime Minister. I would write notes about discussions and pass it to the leader so he could be informed and add to the conversation or add to what New Zealand’s stance would be. We brought up the topic of our youth and suicide rates, our youth and cyber bullying, and added to discussions around climate change. It was then the official’s duty to attend the drafting committee and make sure everything that was tabled by our leader was in the communique that would be released to the public. This for me personally was the most powerful part of the conference. I was able to see how policies were created at a regional level, how decisions are discussed and solutions made.

Part 2 of the day saw us in breakout sessions on Civic Leadership and Education. The biggest takeaway from this session was the power of one person on a community, the change that one person can lead. They discussed their journey and the struggles they faced. This was from recognising it was them that needed to stand up and help their people, to people trying to tear them down because they weren’t the “right person” for the conversations being had.  It taught me the importance of understanding your audience, the structures with in the community and always come from a place of knowledge. Research and facts are the most powerful tool when talking on a subject.

On Day 3, we went out to see on the Uto Ni Yalo Vaka. This is a solar and man powered sailboat. We sailed the oceans as our ancestors did. This was a powerful moment for all of us on the Vaka. To feel what our ancestors felt when they sailed these seas looking for better opportunities for our families. We had workshops on Economic and Social Development, Environmental and Resource Management. These sessions discussed the power of mobilising the other half of our society (women) and how Papua New Guinea are developing ways for entrepreneur women to be able to sustain their livelihoods. The use of our stories, and how our ancestors created sustainable living that we can adapt and follow today. Kiana Frank who is a Bioscience researcher spoke to the fact that our stories do not need to be validated by western societies; it’s about using science and our stories in a collaborative way to always further our communities. Day 3’s evening was the most emotional night for me, we had dinner at the University of the South Pacific where they put on cultural items. Being in my home country, with like-minded people that are just trying to do better for their communities, for their families, I came to the realisation, that this is exactly the space I am meant to be in.

Day 4, our final day, was dedicated to future focusing. What’s next? We all think back to Josh Wharehinga, Gisborne City Councillor and his parting words to us: “and what?” We have just completed an amazing conference and now what? What are we going to do with it? We had Teina Mackenzie speak to us about her journey and her running in the Cook Island elections as an independent. The point of her running was to mobile those that can create change to do the same, the power will always be with the people. 
Part of the conference is coming back into your community and doing a service piece. I am currently talking to two other delegates about creating a series of videos either of spoken word or dear mum. This is still being discussed and a work in progress. 
The other piece to this conference is the LEADS funding. All delegates are able to apply for funding of up to USD $10 000 for an innovative project that will be implemented and benefit the pacific region. The process is that one member of the team must be an alum from the Fiji conference, the core team is made up of four members with assigned roles.

This has been a pivotal experience for me. I have gained knowledge on how communities have to mobilise in order to survive, the importance of our youth recognising the role they now play in sustainability of our countries. I have also gained knowledge on the unemployment in pacific communities and the implications and cycle it is creating for generations. Above all, I have gained relationships and networks throughout the pacific that will continue to strengthen the communities that we all serve.

I have three big takeaways:

  1. Your net worth is your network
  2. If you want to create change, you have to be at the table. 
  3. If you are at the table, draw on all your knowledge banks. Culture is as powerful as any textbook you read. Your stories are hundreds of years old; they hold weight, they hold power. 

Vinaka Vakalevu 
Lora Waqabitu