30 Nov Be the Warriors we Need

Parents, teachers, friends and students – It’s a joy for us to gather here today and celebrate the class of 2018. I see assembled here, the faces of the future. Can we start by taking a moment to realise just how significant your finishing Yr 13 really is?

A 2017 youth tracer study showed that the school drop out rate for secondary students in Samoa is a staggering 78%. Nearly 8 out of every 10 children who start school in this country? Drops out and never finishes Yr 13. Never makes it to where you are now. Graduating today means you are amongst the 22% who have made it. You are the exception to the norm. Which makes you exceptional. I know it hasn’t been easy. You’ve been through loss, disappointment, failure and triumph. But through it all, you continued to choose to come to school, to learn, to keep moving forward. You didn’t quit. Be proud of who you are and what you’ve accomplished.

Why is the dropout rate so high? The main reasons given for not finishing is because families could no longer afford to pay school fees, and for some, their families had them stay home to take on the job of looking after the elderly, and helping in the plantation. This tells me that a big reason why you are graduating today, is because of your families, your parents, grandparents, your extended family. They have supported and nurtured you from the beginning, made sacrifices so you could afford to come to school. Class of 2018, you wouldn’t have made it without your parents, your family, please let’s give it up for your parents and families.

At this time I want to acknowledge the great blessing you have had to be a student at the Church College of Samoa. This is the best school in Samoa – am I right? I’ve visited many schools and taught at a few of them, so I can say with confidence that this school has the best resources in the whole country, and  excellent teachers who have been dedicated to your education.

Here you have acquired knowledge and skills that will open certain doors for you. You’ve been given opportunities that many other youth haven’t. I’m reminded of Spiderman – that with great power, comes great responsibility. And my favorite hymn, because I have been given much, I too must give. My question to you class of 2018 is, what will you give? To your family, your community, your country? What will you do with everything you have learned here? What dreams will you dream? What goals will you pursue? What mountains will you climb?

I love the theme of your graduating class – Change begins with you and me. There’s so much hope in that statement. Hope that change is possible.

But when I look at the world we’re sending you out into, I have to tell you, I’m worried. You are our futures, but the world you will lead is much different from the one we inherited from our parents.  The internet and the use of fake news and social media to manipulate and mislead us. Climate change, the single greatest risk to our security and our survival – what will our islands look like 5, 10, 20 yrs from now? Family violence – A National Inquiry report released a few months ago,  found that violence has become an accepted part of life for most people in Samoa, with 60% of men abusing their wives.

We are a people in crisis. Its not just our families that are hurting, it’s the very earth we walk on, the air we breathe and the life-giving ocean that surrounds us.

I know you don’t want to think about such depressing things on this day of celebration, but you must. Because this is the world your education has been preparing you for. These are the challenges we hope you will conquer. Today we celebrate, tonight you dance and have fun, you deserve it. But tomorrow you will step up. Because we need warriors. Smart, strong, brave, creative and resolute young people who are ready and willing to change the world.

How do you do that? First? You have to believe. In yourself, in your talents, in your capabilities. There will be setbacks and failure. I guarantee you that. My first novel was rejected by more than 30 different publishers in NZ, Australia and America. Every rejection was like a knife in my heart. I was tempted to chuck that manuscript in a drawer and forget all about it but writing that novel had been my lifelong dream. You don’t give up on those. I started my own digital publishing company and published my book online. To date, the book that publishers told me would not have an audience – has been avidly read and embraced by thousands of people of all ages worldwide. Telesa has been signed by publishers and received multiple option offers for film. My journey has shown me that rejection and disappointment are merely an opportunity to start again, in a new and wiser direction. But to do that, to be able to keep moving forward in the face of rejection and failure, you have to believe in yourself and hold fast to your dreams.

2.You have to be bold, you have to be brave. Does that mean you should shout swear words and throw a pig’s head at the Prime Minister? I hope not. You’re smarter than that. You know you can be brave and advocate for change without being abusive and le-mafaufau. This time last year I was in Germany reporting on the United Nations Climate Conference. I met many activists from around the world, including Samoa, who have been fighting tirelessly for climate justice. I met courageous climate warriors from Tokelau who reminded the big nations (the big polluters and fossil fuel harvesters) that – ‘Here in Oceania, we are not drowning, we are fighting.’ Even though they will be one of the first to go under as the ocean rises, they aren’t giving up. I listened to a great man Anote Tong, the former president of Kiribas, tell us of the isolation that the first climate change believers felt, being the only voices speaking a message that nobody believed or wanted to hear.

“For me it was a very lonely journey because nobody else was talking about climate change. I was talking about climate change when nobody else was talking about it in the United Nations. For quite some time, I spoke alone. I was very angry. And very frustrated. And there were times when I was so depressed.” He was at the first climate conference in 2009 and he said, “that was a huge disappointment, one of the saddest nights of my life. Because I could see what nobody else could see. I could see it coming. And that’s part of the problem we have. We see what nobody else can see and we care when nobody else is. There’s been times when I’ve said to myself why should I continue to waste my time? Nobody’s listening. They pretend but they’re still pursuing their own  agenda.” Anote Tong is 66yrs old and he’s still fighting for our people of the Pacific. He’s tired but he’s not quitting. That’s what being brave and bold means.

3.You have to be strong. Able to endure. It’s not easy to try to change mindsets and attitudes. I use my writing to speak out about family violence and sexual abuse, to advocate for gender equality and some people don’t like it when a Samoan woman has so many fiapoto things to say. In the past year I’ve had death threats, people telling me to kill myself, that I should be beaten and drowned, gang-raped, that they were going to chop me up and drag me in pieces behind their car. Their goal of course is to make me shut up. To be silent. But I won’t. Because I know God didn’t give me the gift of words so I could hold them in my throat and swallow their fire. Because like you, I’ve been blessed with good parents who made sacrifices so I could go to school, like you I was blessed to have a good education. I know I have a responsibility to use what I have been given, to try and make a difference.

4.Remember that there are many ways to be a changemaker. You don’t need to be a climate warrior at the United Nations or a fiapoto writer to create positive change. We must remember that strength comes in many forms.

I once knew a little girl who was so gentle and softhearted that she would cry when the teacher told off another student in the class. Her parents would get her from school and ask, why are you crying? Whats wrong? Was anyone mean to you? She would say, ‘No the teacher yelled at the other children and made them sad.” They would drive down the road and she would cry when she saw rubbish. Her mother asked, whats the matter now? And the little girl in tears said, “Look at all those plastic bags on the side of the road. We shouldn’t do that to the earth. It hurts plants and animals. Those plastic bags could choke a dolphin or a turtle.” Her parents were worried, they asked each other how can we make this child tougher? Stronger? Meaner? How is she ever going to make it in this world if she cares so much?! That little girl grew up to be the peacemaker in her family, the first to forgive, the quickest to remind you that the answer to most problems is to listen better and love more. Today she graduates and I think she holds the record for being a prefect who didn’t give out a SINGLE citation or put anyone on detention all year. Not once. Her uncle asked her, What do you do when you see someone breaking the school rules and doing something wrong?! This young woman replied, “I talk to them, I try to be friends with them and encourage them to do the right thing.”

In this young woman’s example I am reminded of Ghandi who said, “In a gentle way, you can shake the world.”

Theres many different ways to change the world, to make a difference. You don’t need to be rich and famous, powerful and have thousands of followers on Instagram. It doesn’t always have to be loud and forceful. It can be quiet and peaceful, it can be grounded on compassion, empathy and kindness. And in my experience, the most important work we will ever do, is within our own homes, within our families. My 10th book was published last month but that sense of achievement doesn’t compare to the joy I feel when my children overcome adversity and succeed in their goals, or a day like today, when they graduate from high school.

The biggest lie the world out there will try to tell you, is that you can’t make a difference. That you, one Samoan teenager can’t change the world. I’m here to tell you that’s not true because you can make a difference. In your family, amongst your friends, in your community, your church, your nation. But like the theme emphasizes, you can’t do it alone. You have to work together, you have to put aside pride and be willing to listen, accept counsel from parents/teachers/mentors and stay close to the Lord who will direct your path.

In closing, You are young, gifted and blessed with precious opportunities. There is no limit to what you are capable of. Other than the limits you place on yourself and your imagination.

Class of 2018, I leave you with a question. You have been given much – now, what will you give? To your family, your community, your country? What will you do with everything you have learned here? Be the warriors you are meant to be. The future is looking bright in your hands.

Edited version of a Commencement speech given at the 2018 Graduation Ceremony for the senior class of the Church College of Samoa. 

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