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Polynesians encouraged to mentor, set high expectations for Pacific Islander youth

SALT LAKE CITY — Polynesians' ancestors were expert at navigating an ocean that takes up a quarter of the Earth's surface.

To do this, they relied on fixed points such as the stars. They also observed nature, such as the flight habits of birds or they studied clouds.

As it took other cultures tens of decades to discover other lands, Polynesians were crisscrossing a vast ocean and inhabiting every island that would support life.

Today's youth could take some lessons from the ancients in finding their way in modern culture, participants of the Pacific Islander event "Navigating the Future," were advised Wednesday night.

Wendy Anae, director of operations for Brigham Young University's women's basketball team, said the Polynesian culture is "sociable."

Historically, when Polynesians navigated the Pacific Oceans, they worked together. Their crews included a spiritual advisor, an expert navigator and others who provided the muscle.

"As Polynesians, we cannot allow our youth to navigate alone. That is not who we are as a people," she said.

Anae, one of a number presenters event held at the Joseph Smith Memorial Building to discuss challenges of Pacific Island youth and strategies to help them succeed, issued a challenge that each of the more than 400 people who attended the event to mentor a child.

The event focused heavily on the Polynesian community taking a frank assessment of issues such education, substance abuse and involvement with the criminal justice system as well as positive steps to help youth succeed in school, the community and in life.

Mark H. Willes, president and chief executive officer of Deseret Management Corp., in his welcoming remarks, said he had been asked why the Deseret News had sponsored Wednesday night's event.

"It is because is because we love you and those that you represent. Without that, it means nothing. With that it means everything," said Willes, who was president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' Hawaii Honolulu mission from 2001-2004.

A former publisher of the Los Angeles Times, Willes said he became familiar with an elementary school in Los Angeles that overcame the odds of poverty and children starting school with poor mastery of English.

But the principal held every student to high expectations and he enlisted the help of parents to ensure the children succeeded.

It was an important example for all communities to emulate, he said.

"We should never apologize for that," Willes said, referring to setting high expectations. "We should never let anyone do anything but their best."

His sentiments were echoed by a mother of five, who took part in a break-out session on education.

Sina Suesue said she and her husband regularly communicate their goals with their children. They follow up by making reading a priority, attending parent-teacher conferences and getting to know their childrens' teachers and principals.

Each of their children carries their goals in their school binder for a constant reminder.

"Their future is college. There is no other option," she said.

While families have the primary responsibility to steer their children on the right path, the community at large must get beyond stereotypes of Polynesian students as natural athletes or even gang members.

"We are so much more than that," Suesue said.

Richard Wolfgramm, a Polynesian community activist, said results of the 2009 Student Health and Risk Prevention survey indicated trends that the community must address.

A Pacific Islander youth is far more likely to use tobacco and smoke marijuana than same-aged peers in Utah. Moreover, they're more likely to have shown up drunk or high at school, more likely to have been arrested and attacked someone with the intent of seriously harming them, the survey said.

"There's a need to look at the social issues affecting our youth honestly," Wolfgramm said. "This is a safe mutual place to have those conversations."

Vai Sikahema, sports director for the NBC affiliate WCAU in Philadelphia and former pro and BYU football player, offered the keynote address. He reminded the audience of the power of change.

"Regimes are toppled when its citizens demand change. Political candidates are voted in and out of office at the whim of the majority when the majority expects and wants change," he said.

Some attending Wednesday night's event may have their lives on track — their children succeeding in school and their marriages may be thriving. No or little change may be required.

People whose children are in gangs or involved in criminal activity may need to engage in radical change to help steer them right.

"The most powerful force of change is spiritual in nature, is it not? When we change our inner core, when we change our character, that has lasting and eternal value, you follow me? When we change our core, who we are, that's more powerful than changing our habits."

Sikahema said the Polynesian culture is a source of strength and guidance. But the culture should not stand in the way of honest communication on issues such as sexuality or bind parents to negative practices such as physical discipline.

Sikahema said he has had to work hard to move beyond discipline inflicted on him as a child. "I'm going to suggest to you it is wrong. If you hit your child and beat them, it will create resentment."

His own parents, because of cultural mores, would not discuss sexuality with him or his siblings. When children don't have this guidance, there can be life-altering outcomes. Sikahema said he has had frank discussions with each his children about the issue.

"My children's chastity is more important to me personally than cultural barriers," he said.