This article is part of Mochi’s Fall 2022 issue on politics. In the late ’60s, the slogan “The personal is political” came out of a second-wave feminist movement, presenting an alternative thought that politics is about one’s dignity and agency. As Asian Americans, we know this to be true, since even our identities are political. In this issue, we talk about what politics mean to us — from the politics of our identities to political dynamics in our relationships and communities. Check out the rest of our issue here! And if you like what you are reading, please support us by buying us a boba through Ko-fi.
When Manufou Liaiga-Anoa’i was chosen as vice president for the Daly City school board, she was honored. Her family and community gathered to celebrate her achievement at City Hall, but then “a veteran board member literally lost her mind.” Liaiga-Anoa’i told Mochi Magazine’s Virginia Duan that a colleague felt that she “deserved” the role more. So what did Liaiga-Anoa’i do? She withdrew, and even nominated that particular board member for the position of vice president.
“That’s my culture,” she says, “Servant leadership in my Pacific Islander community is just an innate behavior and practice — and a value I embrace.”
That ruffled some feathers because Liaiga-Anoa’i was the board’s desired nominee. But this brand of humility is simply a part of who she is so much so that the following year the same exact scenario played out again. When asked why she conceded twice, Liaiga-Anoa’i responded, “I don’t need a title to facilitate the work.”
Manufou Liaiga-Anoa’i — simply “Fou” to friends and family — is a first-generation Samoan American activist and visionary running for city council in Daly City, California, a city with a population of just over 100,000 directly south of San Francisco. If she wins, she will be the first Pacific Islander in the state of California to sit on a city council.
But being the first or only Pacific Islander in these spaces is not new to Liaiga-Anoa’i. She was the first Pacific Islander to serve on the San Mateo County Commission on the Status of Women and the first Pacific Islander to sit in a number of seats over her 35 years of advocacy and servant leadership. While titles may not matter to her, Liaiga-Anoa’i understands the importance of taking up and occupying space in order to represent and elevate her community as well as other marginalized groups.
Though the busy mother of six was tapped several times to run for Daly City’s City Council in the last decade, she ultimately deferred until this year because she didn’t feel she was done in her role on the school board. Under her tenure, she connected communities of color — especially families raising and caring for children with disabilities — to San Mateo County services. Liaiga-Anoa’i is also passionate about youth development, creating programs that support entrepreneurship and internships as well as a successful youth cinema project that is aligned with common core standards in education.
“You Show Up”
If elected to the Daly City City Council, Liaiga-Anoa’i has multiple high priorities. Chief among them is to build a level of civility and cohesion on the council. She notes that when she started on the school board seven years ago, people would comment on the toxicity and unproductive nature of the meetings. At times, the interactions would even get physical.
“I asked myself, ‘What am I walking into?’ But again, that’s my culture, I feel like you show up. People recognize how you show up, and you model the behavior that you would like to see in that space,” explains Liaiga-Anoa’i.
After she’d served on the Daly City school board for just a year, a member of the California School Board Association and her fellow school board members remarked that the environment and space had been more positive since Liaiga-Anoa’i joined.
“I don’t want to take full credit for that,” says Liaiga-Anoa’i. “But I do know that if we’re intentional and there’s consistency, you can shift these behaviors and get people on board.”
Her ability to quell unrest might come from the fact that she is no stranger to community meetings: As a 7-year-old, her mother Papali’i Manufou Fonoti Liaiga-Mulitauaopele would take her to meetings in order to translate English into Samoan and vice versa.
“She had to make many tough decisions and her faith was unwavering and her word had great value in our community — folks relied on her and she never failed them,” Liaiga-Anoa’i recollected in a prior spotlight on her life. “It was important to her that she always delivered and set a good example for other women to follow.
Liaiga-Anoa’i’s mother serves as an inspiration — a bold advocate, board member for Samoa Mo Samoa, and member of many other Saoman organizations, Liaiga-Mulitauaopele balanced an active public life while raising her children as a divorcee and later widow in addition to sending money home as part of her duties as High Chief.
One time, her mother and a group of other Samoan headed to Sacramento with Liaiga-Anoa’i in tow. Their mission: to advocate that Samoans be included in government forms, such as the Census. This was typical of Liaiga-Mulitauaopele. Despite her limited English language proficiency, Liaiga-Mulitauaopele would walk into the offices of mayors without an appointment and demand to be seen on behalf of her people, all with a young Liaiga-Anoa’i by her side to translate.
Her mother would tell her, “Fou, all you have at the end of the day is your name, your word, so make sure it’s worth something.” Every day, Liaiga-Anoa’i follows in her mother’s footsteps, listening to the needs of her communities and taking action in partnership with allies.
Keeping Tradition Alive
A San Francisco native, Liaiga-Anoa’i appreciates that people can see themselves through her, not just as a Pacific Islander but as a woman of color from an immigrant community.
Her parents came to this country like many other AAPI immigrants in “search of the American dream.” As founding members of the first Samoan church in Northern California, her parents kept the Samoan culture alive through her, a practice that Liaiga-Anoa’i continues with her own family and community.
A memory that Liaiga-Anoa’i shared in a previous interview was that her mother would store fortune cookie papers in an empty Pond’s jar. Every day, after saying a prayer together, Liaiga-Anoa’i was tasked with translating a fortune from the jar into Samoan for her family. It’s a ritual she continues today with her family, not only to promote the continuation of the Samoan language but also to spark a sense of purpose and hope.
Beyond her own household, Liaiga-Anoa’i keeps tradition and language alive for her community. The brainchild of Liaiga-Anoa’i, Camp Unity is a summer program for Pacific Islander youth that has served over 8,000 children across the San Francisco Bay Area. Started in 2011, the summer enrichment program gives participants six weeks to explore their creativity and culture through Polynesian performing arts, language classes, traditional music appreciation, and more.
A strong proponent for ethnic studies, Liaiga-Anoa’i has shared that ethnic studies is inclusion. “Ethnic studies affords us the opportunity to enhance awareness of the numerous contributions, struggles and all that we’ve been able to do in our vibrant communities. The positive influences of having one’s cultural traditions, language and history magnified in our classrooms is truly transformative,” Liaiga-Anoa’i said.
Not only does Camp Unity showcase the wonders that being in touch with one’s own culture can do for youth, it has a 98% retention rate following students from K-12 and beyond. It also is a pipeline for educators of color. The all-volunteer staff reflect the population served, allowing for cultural congruence in educational spaces but also professional development for those looking to go into teaching.
Liaiga-Anoa’i is also the founder of the Polynesian Heritage Celebration and Awards, and the Miss Samoa Golden Gate Scholarship Pageant. She co-founded the San Mateo County Pacific Islander Democratic Club and Samoan Heritage Week in San Francisco, and coordinates and participates in programs for the Pacific Islander community throughout San Mateo County.
In 2009, she founded the Pacific Islander Community Partnership as a direct response to the growing decline of Pacific Islander student graduation rates, rising incarceration and the need for advocacy that was culturally appropriate. With a mission to “Engage, Educate and Empower Our Pacific Communities,” the partnership continues to serve communities with a local, state and global reach.
“I Know My Worth and Value”
For those who question whether Liaiga-Anoa’i can speak for more than her Pacific Islander community, she shares, “I get the backlash of that, where people feel that it’s not inclusive of everyone, [or say] that I’m running just to represent my community. I can understand the comments and where it comes from. My biggest thing is making sure people hear that I’m qualified to do this. I know my worth and my value. I know the importance of coming to the table with intention and humility, because there’s no ‘I’ on the council. I don’t make a decision as an ‘I’ because there has to be consensus.”
Liaiga-Anoa’i’s passion transcends racial and ethnic ties. When she first ran for the school board, it was as a mother of a child with special needs. Liaiga-Anoa’i recognized that her youngest child’s needs weren’t being met by the school district and she wanted to be a bridge for that community.
A product of public school education herself, she has stood alongside other families and organized protests against multiple school districts to overturn policies and action that negatively affected students of color.
As part of the school board, she realized that affordable housing was the biggest issue in recruiting and retaining educators and staff for her city. These days, she drives past the site where school district staff housing is being erected. “We’re the only elementary school district that is building workforce housing in San Mateo County,” Liaiga-Anoa’i proudly exclaims. “It’s amazing.”
With a deep commitment to equitable access to education, Liaiga-Anoa’i has developed youth programs to bring entrepreneurship opportunities and creative extracurriculars.
A self-described “youth development junkie,” Liaiga-Anoa’i saw that there was a lack of programming that supported entrepreneurial thinking and pathways into internships in San Mateo County, particularly in Daly City. Just a few weeks ago, Daly City agreed to build a youth employment program modeled after San Francisco’s Mayor’s Youth Employment and Education Program (MYEEP).
One time, Liaiga-Anoa’i ran into the actor Edward James Olmos at a conference. Together, they talked about the need for a space for youth to be in the arts, particularly behind the camera as directors in order to create a pathway towards the entertainment industry. The youth cinema project Olmos proposed was taken up by Santa Clara County, but no other Bay Area school districts. Liaiga-Anoa’i jumped at the chance to bring the program to Daly City. That was four years ago; today the program in Daly City is flourishing.
“We get to go to our local movie theaters. And just recently, we saw our students’ films on the big screen,” Liaiga-Anoa’i says. “The program is aligned with common core standards in their learning. So that was an ‘aha moment’ for me.”
Building Civility and Cohesion
What goals does Liaiga-Anoa’i have if elected to the Daly City City Council? The former liaison between Mayor Willie L. Brown and the Pacific Islander community says: “Work has stalled. Movements and initiatives that could have been handled differently on the Council could have had seen the light of day, but because there is tension, there are things that have not been productive from the city’s goals.”
Another of Liaiga-Anoa’i’s concerns is mental health and how these interventions and wellness programs are implemented. “Women and girls continually do not prioritize themselves and many times neglect ensuring that they are in a good place — mentally, spiritually and physically,” she noted previously. “I have found in most recent years is that if I am healthy, I am able to be a more thoughtful contributor to important decisions that impact the work I believe in and belong to.”
She highlights that addressing mental health requires going beyond that of cultural/ethnic acknowledgement, and fostering cultural competency or sensitivity. Her experience and expertise comes into play because cultural competency should live in all spaces.
Finally, Liaiga-Anoa’i speaks to housing and displacement. “How are we doing in programming and engaging our populations in a dignified manner?” she asks. “I’ve heard multiple constituents in the community say, ‘I just won’t go [to the community centers]. I’m not treated with respect.’”
She adds that it’s about revamping the systems, and government entities asking how they’re connecting the dots to ensure they’re engaging their community with respect and keeping them in the loop of opportunities and resources that they can access.
Liaiga-Anoa’i acknowledges that there won’t be a solution overnight. She emphasizes a desire to work with law enforcement and other government entities in order for them to transparently and honestly confront the explicit bias in their institutions, while also noting that her son has often been racially profiled in her own city.
“People feel uncomfortable about those conversations. They say, ‘Oh, we’re doing it,’” she says, “but are you doing it with intention and accountability and transparency? We can’t just do it, leave it alone and check the box and move on.” Liaiga-Anoa’i insists there has to be great intention, follow up, and accountability with how they are implementing what has been learned.
“I want to be the bridge,” Liaiga-Anoa’i says. “I’m on the ground. I understand the needs. But the biggest component for me is being an avid listener and not telling people what they need, but allowing the space to be heard and being the vehicle to connect to resources and creating the space for conversation to meet solutions.”
Cover credit: Reno Anoa’i
Last modified: September 23, 2022