Earlier this week, I dropped some fire at API Cares about their tokenization and marginalization of Pacific Islander students. Let’s stop for a minute and pose a serious question: If API Cares (perhaps under a new identity) moves to focus on the Asian American student community, what spaces are available for Pacific Islander students to talk about and advocate for mental health awareness in their communities? It’s a serious question because there are currently no student organizations at UW that specifically focus on mental health for the Pacific Islander student community (short of API Cares). But I argue that Pacific Islander students have already been creating such resources for their communities. This group has been under my nose the whole time that I have been arguing with API Cares. It’s called Research Family.
For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, Research Family (an offshoot of “Research Sisters”) is a group of Pacific Islander student researchers and community leaders who cultivate collaborative spaces to address issues that Pacific Islanders face. Recently, Research Family advocated for healthcare for Compact of Free Association (COFA) communities in Washington State, discussed stories and legends, and re-imagined what nuclear legacy looks like through healing and relationship-building across communities that have been affected by U.S. nuclear testing. Along the way, Research Family members regularly engage with each other on a personal level to make academia more accessible and less alienating for their peers. All this to say: Research Family has many of the same functions that API Cares does. The topics and issues that Research Family discuss are intricately tied to the many dimensions of well-being for Pacific Islander communities, including mental health. Importantly, these are topics that Pacific Islander student leaders passionately believe are most useful and impactful for themselves, their peers, their families, and their communities.
I mentioned this before, but the idea of “Registered Student Organization” (RSO) is very outdated. RSOs are based on a framework of constitutional democracy that is elitist and heteropatriarchal in nature. I don’t say this to mean that RSOs have not done great work. Indeed, organizations like Polynesian Student Alliance and Micronesian Islands Club have real power in terms of the institutional resources they can access (and have accessed) and the political space they hold within the campus community. My point is, however, RSOs do not work for everyone or every community. I touched on this briefly in my anthropology thesis, but there are real and perceived barriers to participation in RSOs by Indigenous students. For some students, the RSOs do not completely resonate with the myriad of identities the students hold in addition to their Pacific Islander identities. For other students, particularly transfer students and student athletes, they have family responsibilities in addition to their coursework that preclude them from participating in student activities.
I want to let you know that today, Pacific Islander student leaders are ahead of the issue. Pacific Islander student leaders, especially those who we may not think of as ‘activists’ or RSO officers on the surface, are creating new spaces and opportunities for their peers to build community. They are developing innovative ways to build bridges across their communities—whether with elders who have not been afforded the privilege of higher education access, or with student-athletes who have not been afforded the privilege of regular participation in on-campus social spaces. In Research Family, Pacific Islander student researchers are promoting well-being for their families and peers through activities that range from weekly check-ins to intimate discussions of broader societal issues that impact their communities. They recognize the importance of family, and the value of everyone’s voices and contributions.
I am writing about this because I believe that Pacific Islander students are already creating supportive spaces for their peers to talk about topics that pertain to health and wellness in Pacific Islander student communities. I also believe it’s important to acknowledge the work of Pacific Islander students whose spaces they create fall outside the ‘RSO’ designation—but are nevertheless important for the Pacific Islander student population. More importantly, I feel that doing so is enough to convince API Cares that they can confidently address their use of the term “API” without their perceived need to cling to the Pacific Islander student community. Research Family continues to be an asset to the Pacific Islander student community, and the students who are part of this group are well equipped to sustainably create awareness on mental health and wellness among their peers.