Last week I had the pleasure of hosting our inaugural Future Leaders of the Pacific Conference (#FPL13) in Pago Pago, American Samoa. Conceived here at the Embassy as a youth version of the annual Pacific Islands Forum of heads of government, the conference came to life in partnership with our friends at the East-West Center and the Government of American Samoa.
Working with our sister American Embassies in the region, we identified and brought together twenty-two young leaders ranging in age from 21 to 26 from the 16 Pacific Islands Forum member nations plus American Samoa. On the agenda for discussion were a wide variety of important regional and global regional issues such as women’s empowerment, democracy and governance, climate change, sea bed mining, and non-communicable diseases. You can access the full daily agenda here.
The delegates were Eugene Amor (Federated States of Micronesia), Toai Bartley (Samoa), Luana Bosanquet-Heays (Cook Islands), Berrick Dowiyogo (Nauru), Mua Galea’i (American Samoa), Tarema Henry (Kiribati), Aldric Hipa (Niue), Joe Iosua (American Samoa), Hiku Jackson (New Zealand), Tina Kivalu (Tonga), Karl Laulu (Samoa), Vitalina Niroa (Vanuatu), Mele O’Brien (Solomon Islands), Grace Pace (American Samoa), Theresa Penn (Samoa), Shon Satele (American Samoa), Isabela Silk (Marshall Islands), Jone Tamanikaimoturiki (Fiji), Kasipo Teo (Fiji), Jewel Vaka (American Samoa), Naomi Woyengu (Papua New Guinea) and Demei Yobech (Palau). Our Australian delegate was unable to attend because of a family emergency.
As Ambassador I have attended the Post-Forum Dialogue sessions of three Pacific Islands Forums (in Vanuatu, Auckland, and Rarotonga). The meetings were interesting and at times productive. As with most such conclaves, though, my mind drifted to how much more interesting and productive the conversation might be if the younger voices of promising future leaders were mixed in with those of the older, current leaders. FPL13 was the result of that persistent daydream.
FPL13 opened in fine form. The Honorable Governor of American Samoa Lolo M. Moliga hosted a traditional Samoan ava ceremony to welcome delegates the evening everyone arrived in Pago Pago, followed by a banquet and impressive performances by the Leone High School Swing Choir and the Iakina SDA New Hope Singers. Miss Grace Pace of Teen Challenge American Samoa gave the opening invocation, and the Governor, a representative of the East-West Center, and I offered opening remarks.
The next morning Dr. Jerry Finin (co-director of the East-West Center’s Pacific Islands Development Program) and I welcomed the delegates once again. My good friend His Highness Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Taisi Efi, the Head of State of Samoa, then formally opened the conference with a powerful address on leadership titled “Transforming Intelligence into Good Judgment.”
The Honorable Toke Talangi, Premier of Niue, offered strategic thoughts on “Facing the Future: Where and How Oceania Should be Engaging.” He was followed by Dr. Sitiveni Halapua, Member of Parliament from Tonga and Co-Director of the East-West Center Pacific Islands Development Program, who spoke on democracy and good governance.
Over the course of the next two days we ran a series of leadership trainings and expert-led break-out sessions on specific issues. One of the highlights was a presentation by Women in Business Development Inc Executive Director Adimaimalaga (Adi) Tafuna’i. Other expert discussion leaders included Dr. Allen Clark on natural resource management and sea-bed mining issues, and Dr. Nancy Lewis on non-communicable diseases, the leading cause of death in the Pacific islands.
Among the other presenters and facilitators were Dr. Falai Taafaki from the Government of the Marshall Islands, Mr. Solomon Kantha from the International Office for Migration in Papua New Guinea, and Pa’u Roy Ausuage, Director of Youth and Women’s Programs for the Government of American Samoa. As you can tell, a truly impressive list of experts and officials engaged with the delegates, who in turn enthusiastically and confidently engaged right back.
Delegates even had the opportunity to take a field trip to see the only “Science on the Sphere” south of the Equator, at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa. Dr. Victoria Keener, a climate change expert from the East-West Center, used the Sphere to illustrate climate change data and projections, and led a dynamic discussion on climate change risk mitigation in the Pacific islands.
The real sphere struck back, in the form of an 8.0 earthquake in the Solomon Islands that provoked a tsunami watch throughout the Pacific, including for American Samoa. The heads of state and government in attendance were evacuated to higher ground, and we moved the delegates to the second floor of the hotel. We rearranged the agenda a bit and plowed forward in the 2nd floor hallway with our Deputy Chief of Mission from the American Embassy in Fiji, Jeff Robertson, leading the group through a Harvard Leadership Exercise.
Of course, the whole point of the conference was to help prepare the delegates for the leadership roles that they are likely to assume in the future. Near the end of agenda, I therefore circled back to share what I have observed and learned about leadership in my legal and diplomatic careers to date. I focused on the traits and approaches that I believe separate workmanly good leaders from impactful great leaders. The delegates jumped in with excellent questions, and another vigorous discussion ensued.
I provided examples of outside dynamics and personal characteristics that can impede or defeat a leader, and I emphasized the importance of cultivating leadership potential in others if you really want to effect positive change and make a durable difference in your environment. I ended with a favorite quote of mine from Jack Welch: “Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.”
Of course, we didn’t work the delegates around the clock. There was time to relax, bond, and network, which are essential elements of professional and leadership development. In addition to a couple of field trips and casual dinners, one evening we held an impromptu talent show in which each delegate shared a bit of home country culture.
Even though no one had time to prepare, there were too many great performances — from graceful Cook Island siva, to fierce Niue haka, to exuberant Nauru hula, to hip modern dance moves from Palau and a very American Samoan Harlem Shake – for me to pick a favorite. To help represent my current home country, I joined New Zealand delegate Hiku Jackson for a rendition of the All Blacks haka.
On the final evening of the conference the Hon. Governor Lolo Moliga graciously invited delegates and presenters to dinner. There were moving prayers, great local entertainment, another grand meal, and gifts from the Governor including lava lavas, commemorative shirts, and cans of American Samoa’s famous Wahoo tuna. To thank the Governor for his generosity and support, two of our Samoan delegates presented him with a siapo on behalf of the group. The evening concluded with a special performance of the taualuga by the First Lady of American Samoa.
While everyone seemed to have fun, the heart of the conference was the serious, substantive engagement – treating folks under age 25 as meaningful players, facilitating detailed discussion of complex issues, and listening to what the youth had to say. To me, it’s obvious that educating, empowering, and amplifying the young voices of the Pacific are not only the right things to do, but the smart things to do. No doubt about it.
And the delegates proved my point. They engaged in an intense, confident, and sophisticated manner, and made full use of the resources that we assembled. They quickly forged strong bonds with each other, forming what I hope will remain a vibrant pan-Pacific leadership and support network that further expands over time. The network is off to a good start — I’m told that the private Facebook page that we established for the delegates to continue their conversation has been heavily trafficked.
In my view, the conference was an unequivocal success. I was so impressed that we’ve asked the #FPL13 delegates to select two spokespersons whom I will take with me to this year’s Pacific Islands Forum in Majuro, Marshall Islands so that they can observe the proceedings, participate in the Post-Forum Dialogue, and hopefully engage directly with additional island leaders.
I see no better investment in our shared Pacific future than convening, mentoring, and empowering our future leaders. So, we are going to continue the conference as an annual event. In fact, we have already started planning #FPL14. Stay tuned …