Susi Feltch-Malohifo’ou experienced an identity crisis of sorts when she encountered Pacific Islanders in college in San Francisco in 1981. She was Polynesian, too, but raised in a white family. She was 3 years old in 1966 when a couple working in Tonga for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints adopted her and brought her to the United States, where she lived what she calls a privileged life. Her dad was a judge in Vernal and her grandfather was a Utah legislator.

Her folks cocooned her from concepts like racism, she says. She didn’t wonder if she belonged or question her place in the world. Later, when she learned about racism, she saw new meaning in comments that as a child she’d just chalked up as “weird.” Her ethnic community treated her as “fia palangi,” which translates as “wannabe white.”

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Wondering where she fit in, Feltch-Malohifo’ou got somewhat lost as a young adult. She was arrested for auto theft in Texas in 2000 and convicted of a reduced felony charge, theft of services. Looking back, she thinks there are no mistakes unless you never learn from them. She’s used her missteps as building blocks to craft a fulfilling career, focused on accepting and meeting others where they are.

In 2015 she co-founded Pacific Island Knowledge 2 Action Resources, a nonprofit focused on violence prevention and education, economic impact, and preserving and celebrating Pacific Island arts and culture. The organization is a force beyond her ethnic community, connecting Utah business owners and entrepreneurs, convening a national violence prevention conference, and even launching its own film festival.

During the first year of COVID-19, she co-chaired the Community Health Workers Section for the Utah Public Health Association, helping her hard-hit community navigate the pandemic. In 2021, Forbes included Feltch-Malohifo’ou, 58, on its 50 Over 50 Impact List. And in 2018, she won the FBI’s Director’s Community Leadership Award for Utah — “a bit of redemption for an ex-felon to say that people can change,” she says. 

Deseret talked to her about why cultural sensitivity matters in lifting communities, where leaders miss the mark by ignoring culture differences and “code-switching,” where people alter their identities in exchange for fair treatment and opportunity. 

Deseret: How hard is it to navigate two cultures?

Susi Feltch-Malohifo’ou: Salt Lake City is the first place I’ve ever lived where there are a lot of Pacific Islanders, and I didn’t fit in at first. I was invited to sit on the board of an ethnic Tongan nonprofit and — wow, that was a learning experience. I learned to stop discounting myself as a Pacific Islander, because the blood that runs through my veins is 100% Tongan and it’s OK that I’m not typical. 

Deseret: What led you to the nonprofit field?

SFM: After a couple of years of college in California, I came back to Utah and became a victim of domestic violence and sexual assault. That took me down a path of healing, learning and self-reflection. I started volunteering at shelters and it made me feel good; corporate work was not so fulfilling. At the same time, I had gotten a felony, so I could no longer keep the job that I had.

So I became an entrepreneur out of necessity. I was trying to figure out how to make money and survive but also do what felt right. So I started to volunteer with nonprofits and recognized that they weren’t run like a business. That was a problem in my mind. That’s the reason they’re not surviving and don’t ever have any money. 

Deseret: You’ve said that outside organizations often fail to help ethnic communities. Why?

SFM: There was a lot of education, but not culturally relevant education that empowered people to move themselves forward. Unless people find the answers within themselves, it doesn’t stick. You can’t change lives for good by just filling a room and paying somebody per head to teach certain concepts.

Once, some Polynesian young men asked me for advice on running their small businesses. I recommended a counselor, who met with them and said they had a great session. But the young men told me, “We didn’t understand a word.” Did they even go to the same meeting? He couldn’t make his material relevant to them, but their culture taught them it was disrespectful to ask elders questions, so they couldn’t let him know.

I recognized that what we were missing was cultural translation. It’s something I could see because I’d spent a lifetime code-switching — changing who I was to fit into two cultures. 

Deseret: What’s lost when people don’t understand cultural differences or how to address race?

SFM: What if we let people bring their whole selves to the table? Do you understand what they go through every day? Can you see through their eyes? When COVID-19 hit, no one in the Pacific Islander community understood the words being used to talk about it. The messaging was not right. We needed infographics. To this day, the COVID numbers in our community have not improved. We are No. 1 or 2 in deaths and hospitalizations. 

Deseret: Tell us about the anti-violence program your husband, Simi Poteki, started.

SFM: Nothing had been done about domestic violence in my ethnic community in the 30 years since I was assaulted. How could that be? I took my husband to a national conference on domestic violence in San Francisco. He came back to our hotel room and said, “I’m going to start talking to Tongan men about violence in our community. The reason that this is still an issue is because the men are not holding each other accountable.”

He came back to Utah and started KAVA Talks. KAVA stands for Knowledge Above Violence Always. He got seven Tongan men certified as domestic violence advocates and off they went. Then women started calling, so we started a women’s empowerment group. And we — my husband, me and a close friend, Cencira Teo — launched Pacific Island Knowledge 2 Action Resources to inform people where they could go for help. 

Deseret: What are the organization’s priorities?

SFM: First, eliminate violence. Second, increase income for Pacific Islander homes through business creation and support. Third, help people to stay grounded in their positive Pacific Island roots.

When I visit high schools, if I ask kids what makes you Tongan, what makes you Hawaiian, they often have nothing good to say about themselves that is concrete. It’s always things like, “we’re funny” or “we’re good athletes.”

We have similar talks in our women’s empowerment group. You can look like you’re white. You can dress like you’re white. You can live in neighborhoods that are white. The truth is, you’re not. What’s wrong with being proud of who you are? Our ancestors navigated the oceans wide. Our job now is to learn and navigate systems for ourselves, our families, our communities and others that need it. Everyone when they come to this country needs the same things: a roof overhead, food, a job.

At the same time, our organization is multicultural. We have served as many white people and Hispanics as we have Pacific Islanders. We believe you meet people where they are, give them dignity and hope, and empower them with education and the resources they need to prosper. You become their cheerleader. They’re going to move forward as they see fit. 

Deseret: Why start a film festival?

SFM: This comes back to my own background, and that idea of identity. And I didn’t see us on film. Our kids, do they see themselves and identify? They’re growing up in a white society, trying to make sense of their own traditional culture that mom and dad are keeping, expected to be one way at home and another when they go out. How do kids survive that? I feel like I didn’t survive that myself, and I didn’t want them to walk the path that I did. Representation helps. Film is the easiest way to have rich conversations about ideas that challenge culture without hitting people over the head with it. I was talking to a young man who was a filmmaker and said, why don’t we show all Pacific Island films? 

Deseret: Any last words?

SFM: Please join me in working together so everyone feels valued and responsible for what happens in our communities. Everyone plays a crucial role in our holistic wellness. 

This story appears in the March issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.