Council on American Islamic Relations

What We Are Learning

Empowering Pacific Islander Communities

Judith Foisia

Judith Foisia
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Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities have been deeply impacted by the pandemic, facing economic impacts, sickness, and death at high levels that exposed deep and ongoing inequities. We are proud to highlight the work of Empowering Pacific Islander Communities (E.P.I.C.), a partner based in Los Angeles that is doing critical work to respond to immediate needs while building community leadership.

Established in 2009, E.P.I.C.’s mission is to advance social justice by engaging Native Hawaiian & Pacific Islander (N.H.P.I.) communities in culture-centered advocacy, research, and leadership development. E.P.I.C. is led by Executive Director Tavae Samuelu who has served in that capacity since 2017. E.P.I.C. actively serves and engages Native Hawaiians, Samoans, Tongans, Chamoru, Compact of Free Association migrants, Palauans, and Fijians in three ways. First, its Pacific Islander Leaders of Tomorrow (P.I.L.O.T.) leadership development program provides culture-based and community-focused empowerment and development training geared to increase the number of emerging young leaders in the NHPI community. Second, it advocates to reduce barriers for N.H.P.I. And lastly, it performs critical disaggregated research on national and local issues that impact N.H.P.I. communities.

The N.H.P.I. community has been ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic because of historic racism, poverty, and disinvestment. Many in this community are essential workers, live in multi-generational households, and a significant number experience high rates of diabetes, heart disease, and other pre-existing conditions. As a result, N.H.P.I.s have the highest rates of COVID-19 infection and mortality in California.

“When California first shut down mid-March, there was no demographic data available to us,” said Ms. Samuelu. “When data became available, it showed that health disparities were severe.” She added that this crisis led to the formation of the National Pacific Islander COVID-19 Response Team, a national group of N.H.P.I. researchers, health experts, community leaders and advocates, formed to plan and implement infrastructure for informing and supporting families and communities about COVID-19.

As one of the few organizations led by and for N.H.P.I.s, E.P.I.C. responded by shifting its programs and services to provide food and other critical aid to the community. It has also emerged as a beacon of health education for N.H.P.I.s, providing the community with culturally competent information about how to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and how to access vaccines.