Diversity Heroes: Martha Metuisela

14 June 2018

A youth worker from Melbourne’s Western suburbs received a top honour in last year’s Multicultural Awards for Excellence.

25-year-old Martha Metuisela received the Youth Award for her work with young people from Pasifika backgrounds.

Martha, who has Tongan heritage, said the young people she worked with often felt like the Pasifika and Australian aspects of their identities were in conflict.

“A lot of what we talk about is basically how young people can merge those two worlds together without having to play two different identities,” Martha said. 

For example, when she mentors high school students, Martha often talks about making the most of the positive values Pasifika youth are taught at home.

“When I talk to the young boys I tell them ‘the way we respect our parents at home is exactly the way we should respect the teachers and principals and the elders in the outside world.’”

“A lot of young people, they’ll go home, they’ll have a high respect for their elders in our community, but when it comes to the outside life they just tend to not use that. So it’s about how to use those strengths in our culture,”  Martha said.

Martha’s qualification is in public relations, but after graduation she started volunteering with Brimbank Council youth services, and soon found community work had an appeal she couldn’t resist.

“While I was volunteering there were a lot of young Pasifika people coming in because they could see a familiar face. I did a lot of consultations, like ‘what do you want to see the Council do for you guys?’ ‘What programs am I able to produce to help you guys out?’”

She began by creating a group were young Pasifika women could talk about mental health.  

“That kind of issue in our community is very taboo, and we’re basically not allowed to speak about that. So what I did was just organise a fortnightly Wednesday night where the girls could come in…we’d share a lot of stories using a method called weaving, which women used to use back in my country, where they’ll sit and weave and just talk and tell stories,” she explained.

Eventually, Martha landed a job with Brimbank Council, and she now splits her time between work, mentoring high school students, and providing cultural competency training for teachers, police and others.

She said when it comes to acknowledging young people’s heritage, a little can go a long way.

“I usually break the ice [at the teacher training] by teaching all the different greetings from the Pacific Islands.”

“I always say to the teachers, ‘if you’re just able to know that that person’s from Tonga and you say ‘malo e leilei’, it just clicks that you have that connection…and you went out of your way to learn that greeting,” said Martha.

As well as helping teachers to better understand their students’ cultures, Martha has also recently worked on a project to help young people understand the cultures of their peers.

Dubbed Stir It Up, the project involved young people from African and Pasifika backgrounds. 

Martha explained that in the Western suburbs, the African and Polynesian communities, especially the young people, weren’t communicating with each other, but they kept fighting with each other.

The project brought the two groups together to focus on their similarities – from their connections through church, to the ingredients that featured in both groups’ traditional dishes, to the shared experience of prejudice.

“The African community said they’re a minority, they get stereotyped, and then I asked the Polynesian community and they said the exact same thing, so it was just that borderline of not knowing the similarities,” Martha said.

Another large project Martha spearheaded was My Island Dream, a Pasifika cultural show that was held in Sunshine in 2016.

Over eight weeks, Pasifika youth leaders, artists and elders visited nine schools in the Western suburbs to teach traditional dances, culminating in a performance to an audience of almost 1,000 people.

“Most of these young people, they’ve danced [in traditional style] before, but they never really understood the importance of it and why we do it and why each movement is the way it is.”

“When the girls dance they would have to learn how to be graceful and modest and that just shows what a Polynesian woman is…and with the boys it’s very warrior-type, very strong.”

“The guys are always standing behind the girls, and that replicates the respect between a guy and a girl. So he will always lift up a girl as his queen or his princess, someone that he really respects and thinks highly of,” said Martha.

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