She’s head girl, a viral star, a poet. But none of those credentials can ever capture the force of nature that is Aigagalefili ‘Fili’ Fepulea’i-Tapua’i.
Portraits by Edith Amituanai.
The sky above Aorere College is a brilliant blue. Sunlight gets into every corner of the campus, and music spills out into the morning from a classroom full of kids jamming a song with a laid-back, summery feel. I wait for Aorere’s head girl, Aigagalefili ‘Fili’ Fepulea’i-Tapua’i, to come find me. I catch her peeping through the glass doors of the admin entrance before she comes through, her smile shy, hair falling to her waist in thick waves. She’s wearing her school uniform and it’s impeccable – trousers, a jumper, a tie. I’m familiar with her because she’s been in the news this year, speaking up about inequity in the school system for Pacific students, but I’m not prepared for the way her nature envelops me with its quiet generosity and humour. Fili is 17, but when she talks I feel I’m in the company of someone much older than myself. She’s got a way about her that feels like she’s seen it all, and she’s holding it deep inside her.
In a quiet office beside her photography class Fili sits on a chair and wraps and unwraps her dark hair around her hands. She’s tentative, and I don’t blame her. In May this year, she wrote a post on Instagram that went viral. It’s a furious and moving free-form poem in which she calls out the social inequality her Pasefika community faces: “If education is key, why do our locks keep changing? If knowledge is power, why does it come at a price we cant afford?” She talks about how many of her fellow year 13 students left school for good after the first Covid-19 lockdown, abandoning their education because they had to help support their families who were struggling because of job losses. Kids are essentially losing their childhoods because of poverty. It’s not something students in higher decile schools have to face. She rages against the portrayal of her community in the media, a community on the front line of essential services, and vulnerable. “I just wrote it because I was angry. I was just so fed up throughout the lockdown, seeing all those issues that I had mentioned in the post, and this helplessness, and not knowing what to do. It came out in the best way I know how: poetry.”
She’s appeared on Tagata Pasifika to talk about it, and later, during the second lockdown, on Breakfast, but she’s wary of becoming the spokesperson for her friends and the kids at her school. “I don’t really like when people say ‘you’re the voice.’ That’s kind of missing the point. There shouldn’t be one voice. You should be listening to all of us.” I ask her if she feels pressure speaking up in the way she has, and she laughs, but it’s a heavy laugh, with no joy in it: “Yeah.” I ask her if she ever gets time to just be a kid, to be 17, and the expression on her face answers the question for me. She’s uncomfortable, and she’s tired. “All my close friends know that’s one of the things I think about heavily. I’ve even had my friends say to me: ‘Man – you’re 17!’ I wish that things weren’t the way they were. For all of us, really.”
There was a bit of uncertainty as to whether Aorere College would reopen after Auckland’s second lockdown because the Americold community cluster that forced the lockdown is close by in Māngere. There are health assessments in class each morning at 8.50am, and then the gates are shut at 9am, and late students have to go home. While that’s good on a health and safety level, Fili says it’s affecting the senior school roll. “A lot of our students, they work night shifts. It’s this thing where everyone’s like: ‘There’s no point coming to school because I won’t be able to come before nine.’” It’s a blow to the year 13 students facing their final exams who’ve already lost weeks of education because of lockdown. The school has extra study support in place, but again, the kids who need it, who are working after school, can’t make it.
Despite Fili’s voice in the news, despite the likes on her Instagram feed, and her appearances on TV, nothing appears to have changed; Fili and her friends are lauded for their courage, yet life returns to normal. She shakes her head and laughs at the absurdity. “It’s really jarring having people calling my friends, or students who are going through this inspirational. It’s cool that you find inspiration from the sacrifices that they make, but at the same time, you’re kind of just letting them go through these things, instead of offering help.” Fili is fortunate – she doesn’t have to work a part-time job as well as study, but many of her friends and fellow students do, and it keeps her up at night. I ask, perhaps naively, if anyone has come forward to help them. “People who have power in the education sector? Not really. It’s a bit kind of exploitative. Like, they invited me to do a webinar! And talk to a bunch of influential educators!” Her expression is incredulous. “I know that they did have a plan for Pacific people, but it’s just the whole disconnect between how long those things take to put in place, and like, what’s happening in real life.”
Fili lives across the street from Aorere College, in South Auckland’s Papatoetoe. She’s the second youngest of a big family, and her parents are deeply involved in the Samoan community in New Zealand. Her father, Seminare Fepulea’i, was a politician and Matai (chief) in Savai’i, and it’s from him she credits her oratory skills. “The purpose of the Matai is to speak for the village, for their people. So I was always growing up hearing him speak in Samoan. That was something that really influenced me in the way that I look at what I say, and how I move through the world as an indigenous child.” To see Fili perform spoken word is something truly special. Last year she won the New Zealand Storytellers competition with her piece Waiting for Water, a response to the threat of climate change in the Pacific.
She acknowledges, wryly, that a run-in with Green Party co-leader James Shaw is partly responsible for the haunting words. At a youth climate conference in Auckland in early 2019, at which Shaw was a speaker and Fili was a youth attendee, she put up her hand: “I asked him – what are you going to do for the Pacific Islands? And he responded ‘Oh you know, when the Pacific Islands sink…’” Shaw said it matter-of-factly, like it was a given, and the force of his words hit Fili like a blow. “I was very sad. It felt like there was nothing we could do. Our islands are sinking and the people who are supposed to be the voices for climate change aren’t considering us.”
Fili had learnt about the threat of climate change to the Pacific Islands when she was 13. She was watching a Saul Williams interview on Democracy Now, and the next clip in line was about the Dakota Access Pipeline and indigenous climate activism. “There was an elder, and he was talking about climate change, and he brought up the Pacific and I was like ‘what’?” Her face reregisters the disbelief and shock, and she holds her hands up like she’s trying to protect herself from an attack. “It was him talking about how endangered indigenous people are, and then bringing the Pacific up as an example kind of made me lose it. I started crying.”
Fili joined climate groups and started applying to attend youth climate forums, which is where she came across “disappointing” James Shaw. She cites the Taranaki “Green School” debacle as a good example of the disconnect with the people on the ground in the fight for the climate. It’s a kind of environmental elitism, she says, and a “eurocentric” approach where indigenous perspectives aren’t examined. Fili thinks it’s ironic that New Zealand is meant to be at the forefront of climate activism but is forgetting its Pacific neighbours, who are under immediate threat, and the Pasefika community in its own country. “The diaspora of Pacific students is the largest in South Auckland, in our low decile schools, so giving the $11.7 million funding to that private school is like a slap in the face in so many different ways.” Fili attended a climate conference in Taranaki, the proposed city for the Green School. She’s still amazed by the lack of understanding she encountered over the week, where she was one of only five indigenous kids there and the only one from South Auckland. She tells me a story about a local politician that I’m repeating here verbatim because it’s a good example of the cultural disconnect Fili is talking about:
“He (the politician) did some bullshit analogy like: ‘How many of you have a phone?’ And I didn’t put my hand up, because I didn’t have a phone, and he was like: ‘If I asked you to give up your phone to save the world for climate change, would you do it?’ And everyone was like: ‘Yeah!’ And then he goes: ‘Put your hand up how many of you donate to a climate fund or charity?’ And I was like, what? You’re shaming us for not donating? I don’t even have a phone in the first place, and all of your solutions are money based! So I asked: ‘What if you come from a low socio-economic community? What are the ways that we can mobilise, and encourage our people, if they can’t give money? His answer was: ‘Oh well if you don’t have money, you have time — you can volunteer.’ My hands were shaking. I was like, what is this bullshit? In a family of seven, you need to feed your kids. You don’t have time. Time is money. I stormed out of the room. I was crying.”
The climate conferences inevitably left Fili frustrated, which is why she and a group of school friends formed 4 Tha Kulture (4TK), a climate change group for Pasefika kids that works from an indigenous perspective. They’d been frustrated by the School Strikes For Climate (SS4C) group, who arranged the first protest during Polyfest when all the Pacific Island students wouldn’t be able to attend. The first meeting of 4TK was at the Manukau McDonalds: “We knew that we couldn’t be a part of SS4C. We didn’t want to be like ‘these are our token brown people’. We knew what we had in front of us, which was the next strike. So our goal was to make sure we could get our students out from Southside.” The group organised buses and made sure all their students turned up, and Fili spoke at the rally. 4TK is also involved in support for year 13 students who are struggling, working with a community-led group to hook them up with food parcels, gas money, data cards and more.
Fili went on a retreat organised by Action Education last year and spent time with Māori activist Tame Iti and his family. It came after the climate summit with James Shaw when Fili was feeling despondent. When she tells me about her time on the land in Rūātoki she starts beaming. She says learning about Iti’s life in activism inspired her: “Meeting Tame made me feel different. Just hearing his experiences, this real hearty dude who no matter what pushed through, who still held it down. It was like having an epiphany. Like even if none of this works out, even if the islands sink tomorrow, even if bad things happen to our students every day like they are now, they are always worth fighting for.” That retreat, along with Shaw’s words, ultimately led to Waiting for Water, the six-minute spoken word dream that weaves her sadness and worry into a rousing elegy for her island home, and for her ancestors, and future generations.
Watching Fili perform is mesmerising. She comes over like she’s in a trance. You can hear students in the audience calling back to her, whooping their appreciation for the way she owns the space, and sucks all the oxygen out of the room. “It was the first time I was able to write about climate change where the perspective wasn’t just hurt, it wasn’t just me being so anxious and scared of the future. It was me being: we are worth the fight and we are beautiful enough to be fought for.”
It almost seems inevitable that someone who writes the way Fili does would end up a poet, but she tells me it’s all by chance. A friend put her name down for a spoken word competition, and she ended up in the auditions against her will. “I was like, so scared! I was the only year nine [student] in my team, and I was like ‘I have no idea what I’m gonna say!’” In the end, she used an “angsty” poem about being 13. “Oh my gosh, these guys said the adult world is hard, but being 13 is hard too!” Shaking her head, she starts laughing, her cheeks flushing with embarrassment. “When I think about it now it’s like: ‘That was my first poem? What a little shit!’”
Fili completed year 13 English while she was in year 12. She’s always had a gift for language. Her blistering love and fight poem, 275 Love Letters to Southside, was first performed at Green MP Marama Davidson’s campaign launch in 2017 and was then published in the 2019 Poetry New Zealand Yearbook. She got bitten by the reading bug at a young age, during school holidays when her parents were working and her brothers and sisters had time to kill. “The things that we did for fun was go to Māngere East Library. I used to bring home all these massive piles of books and my mum would be like ‘are you ever gonna read all that?’ and I’d be like ‘yeah!’” She cracks up at the memory. “I had massive reading stamina.”
She says her stamina has decreased as she’s gotten older because she doesn’t have as much time, but now she’s into film. She loved Parasite, and was thrilled that it won so many Oscars this year: “When Parasite came out it blew my mind because it was like a story that could not only be visually pleasing, but talking about capitalism, and climate change, and all these things I found myself facing in my own life!” At those same Oscars, Taika Waititi accepted his award for Best Adapted Screenplay and gave a shout out to indigenous kids: “His speech made me cry … I sent it to a bunch of friends and was like: ‘He’s talking about you!’ They said: ‘He’s talking about us!’” Fili’s eyes and smile are wide, she’s radiating joy. She rates auteurs Wong Kar-Wai and Barry Jenkins among her favourite filmmakers and especially loves Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk. She’s a huge fan of James Baldwin. She says the wait is too long for his books to come in at the library, so she reads what work of his she can online, and watches old interviews with him.
Fili has a clear intention for her writing, and that’s partly why her live performances are so affecting: she knows her purpose. She wants Pasefika kids to be represented, to be seen and heard. “Because a lot of the time growing up, the only representation we had was the negative media. Stereotypes about South Auckland, about Pacific Islanders, that’s kind of the only representation we had. It was always like us being the butt of the joke.” Fili believes the kids around her are every bit the voice that she is; they just need the platform, and they don’t have it. She refers to her friends often, saying they’re the most inspiring poets she knows. She spends a lot of time encouraging her fellow students to write and perform spoken word, convincing the kids on the basketball court that their rap battles are poetry, that Tupac was a poet.
She’s going to university next year to study climate engineering, so she can be at the front line of climate change for the Pacific Islands. This year her subjects are maths, physics, geography, chemistry and photography where, by chance, our photographer Edith Amituanai is the artist she’s studying for her boards. She’s worried about exams but determined. We go out to join her mates so that Edith can take their photo. It’s such a change seeing her with friends. They’re cracking each other up, giggling behind their hands. They lean on one other, their hair falling on each other’s shoulders as they fix their uniforms for the photos. The laughter has lifted the heaviness from Fili, and it’s good to see her just being a kid with her mates, easy with laughter. Edith is teasing them, and they’re bashful, but they love it. It’s how it should be – kids intrigued by a photo project, and no other care in the world. Watching them pose and laugh I feel the crushing unfairness of their situation, and the strain they’re under every day while they try to finish school and get on with the next part of their lives. A 17-year-old kid shouldn’t have to be the one speaking up to get these problems addressed. Fili hugs me goodbye and I go home and watch Waiting for Water again. The last lines hurt.
“This story is not a story of destruction
This story is our story
This is a story of creation
So what if the world is cruel?
Let us be beautiful,
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.