Growing up in the multiracial, working class neighborhood of White Center on Coast Salish land, Sili Savusa (Samoan) learned from a young age that her role in life was to take care of her people. Now, as Executive Director of White Center Community Development Association in Seattle, Washington, she works to create places where working class communities of color can live their dreams. In conversation with an islander from the Caribbean, Seedcast’s Felipe Contreras, Sili explains how she held onto Samoan values against the “Big Mack truck of racism” and why humility is a strong element of good community development work.
Guest Host and Lead Producer: Felipe Contreras. Story editor: Jenny Asarnow.
Content warning: this episode contains strong language at 15:24, 19:48, 25:59, 26:24.
Seedcast is a production of Nia Tero, a global nonprofit which supports Indigenous land guardianship around the world through policy, partnership, and storytelling initiatives.
[00:00:00] Felipe Contreras: Hey everyone. Welcome back to Seedcast. This is Felipe Contreras, talking to you from the homelands of the Coast Salish peoples. Here at Seedcast, we share stories from around the world and honor the guardians of the land, those who have lived in relationship with their traditional territory since time immemorial.
[00:00:24] Jessica Ramirez is currently out on assignment for Seedcast, so I'll be your host for today, bringing to you an episode on island values, what it means to be from an island, and the intergenerational influences it has.
[00:01:11] The thing about living on an island is it's inherent that your resources are noticeably finite, and since time immemorial, islanders are some of the best examples on how to manage their resources. But this episode isn't about managing resources. Instead, it's about the values island communities have, values that contribute to why their resources are managed so well. Island cultures have evolved values of selflessness and togetherness in order to survive, and those values are passed on inter-generationally. They carry a spirit or an energy that can be felt even when you're away and on the diaspora.
[00:01:58] As an islander myself, for the longest time I've been curious to explore these types of conversations with other indigenous people living in the diaspora, conversations on how to tie and group ourselves and themselves to their values back home. How their lived experiences and culture influence how they show up to community and their work. For me, as a Mestizo with indigenous descent from Puerto Rico and El Salvador, I will forever be in this process of placing myself within my own connection to place, and because of that, I'm naturally drawn to other islanders and their experiences.
[00:02:38] A while ago, I met one of the most fascinating, inspirational people I've ever met. She works for the people of the City of Seattle and embodies those islander values. Her name is Sili Savusa. Sili is one of the most prominent Samoan community leaders in the Pacific Northwest. Today, Sili works for economic and social justice as the Executive Director of the White Center Community Development Association here in the Coast Salish neighborhood of White Center.
[00:03:13] In our conversation, we discussed her work, how her values directly tied to her Samoan identity, the lesson she learned growing up, and the role her parents played in the person she is today. You will hear some strong language in the interview and notice some audio clicks throughout it, but the interview was just too good to redo.
[00:03:33] Uh, hi, Sili. It's a pleasure to be here with you, um, and talk to you again. Um, I want to start off simple and ask you if you could introduce yourself.
[00:04:01] Sili Savusa: Okay. First of all, Talofa, Philippe. Uh, Talofa is hello in Samoan. Um, my name is Sili Savusa, and I am of Samoan and, um, [ovayan 00:04:16] descent, and, uh, the... I'm actually born and raised in Seattle, and my parents came here to the Pacific Northwest in the fifties, early fifties.
[00:04:31] Felipe Contreras: At that time, Sili's uncle was an active military member stationed out here in Washington. He suggested to her parents that it would be a great idea to move her and her family out here to Seattle, hinting to it's natural beauty and the opportunities it had to offer.
[00:04:48] Sili Savusa: There wasn't much of a future in my parents' eyes, I would imagine. They wanted their children to, you know, go to a, you know, go, go and get a college education and to land in a career that would, you know, that would be financially supportive, uh, with a livable wage, yada, yada. Those opportunities just weren't in Samoa.
[00:05:17] Felipe Contreras: Sili brought to my attention that America Samoa has consistently had the highest enlisted members of soldiers per capita than any other state and territory in the US, which I found interesting, because oftentimes that relationship between territory and the United States is surrounded by militarization.
[00:05:38] For those curious to know, Samoa is one of a few US territories. It is a geographical area that doesn't have sovereignty over its place and is under the control of the United States government. They have may have local government and autonomy there, but are subject to the laws that the state govern. This relationship between state and territory makes migration to the US a much simpler process. For Sili, this meant though her and her family were thousands of miles away from Samoa, their island and their people were always around them growing up.
[00:06:12] Sili Savusa: From a very young age I learned that my role in life was to take care of our, of our people, of each other, and of our communities. I clearly remember folks coming from back home, uh, you know, my siblings and I would, you know, sleep in the living room. It was natural not to have your own bedroom, because family always came through growing up. And, um, my, my older siblings used to say, "Yeah, we'd tease mom and dad, 'Why don't you just put a hotel sign over our house.'" [Laughs]
[00:06:49] Felipe Contreras:[Laughs]
[00:06:49] Sili Savusa: Um, but, you know, that, it's, that's, that was how everybody lived in everybody's home back then, right?
[00:06:56] Felipe Contreras: Yeah.
[00:06:57] Sili Savusa: The village. Your home was your family's home.
[00:07:01] Felipe Contreras: Sili’s parents are a huge reason she is the person she is today. The lessons and the values she learned from them was one of the reasons I was excited to interview her.
[00:07:12] Sili Savusa: What I got from my parents is, you know, uh, holding on to our traditions and our customs was critical. Um, my parents knew that as soon as we entered the education system, you're gonna lose the language. My mother and father would not speak to us if we spoke to them in English, so that-
[00:07:33] Felipe Contreras: I love that.
[00:07:33] Sili Savusa: Yeah, so, but it was all part of you've got to hold onto the language.
[00:07:39] Felipe Contreras: The role of taking care of community wasn't something she was told to do, it was something she was shown at a very early age.
[00:07:48] Sili Savusa: My mother and father, when they first came here there was a hurricane. I think there was a hurricane like in, in the sixties, but that was a really devastating hurricane in American Samoa where my mother and father, this was my first, um, uh, recollection of them starting community work. So, here they started a fundraising drive to send relief items to, of relief back to American Samoa. So they, my uncle used his connections in the military to get a big container to, you know, purchase and donate items to put into a big container to ship back home during the hurricane.
[00:08:32] Um, they started a... My mom and dad, they started a bingo, but the money was to raise money to just continually send back home, to send people up here. And, again, this was in the sixties. Many relatives who came back home, that was their like first job when they got here. So they put together this social club, primarily Samoans, nothing but Samoans, basically islanders, just coming together to be community together. I remember that growing up being a constant, being a place for people to make some money, transitioning, uh, migrating here to the United States here in Seattle, and then ultimately, you know, coming through our house, um, that, you know, that's why I said I'd learned really early in life that our, my people are my family.
[00:09:29] Felipe Contreras: How young were you then?
[00:09:31] Sili Savusa: I had to be like eight, nine years old.
[00:09:34] Felipe Contreras: Yeah. And the fact that that still resonates in your brain like that.
[00:09:36] Sili Savusa: Yeah.
[00:09:36] Felipe Contreras: Sili remembers the time her uncle died. She was four.
[00:09:43] Sili Savusa: I just remembered, um, looking around. It's normal for people to be sitting on the floor of the funeral home, you know, they're all the way into the foyer. My mom, you know, dishing out curry soup, but then, looking over, my aunties are playing, you know, they're playing Rummy. It was like that was, you know, we're here because Uncle is going to be buried pretty soon. I just... Remembering that we're there to, you know, think about who has gone, who has gone on in their journey, and what is it that we take from that life that we can continue to, to carry forward, and I think that resonates with any culture. Who do we take? Who is it that I have with me here in a meeting with you? You don't have just me, right?
[00:10:31] Felipe Contreras: Mm-hmm [affirmative]. No.
[00:10:31] Sili Savusa: I’m with you, too. I'm not just talking to you. I'm talking to grandma-
[00:10:34] Felipe Contreras: Mm-hmm [affirmative].
[00:10:34] Sili Savusa: Your parents.
[00:10:35] Felipe Contreras: Yeah.
[00:10:35] Sili Savusa: Right, right?
[00:10:36] Felipe Contreras: Mm-hmm [affirmative]. Everyone who has influenced me.
[00:10:38] Sili Savusa: Right, a-absolutely. And so, and, uh, these are the kind of conversations that we don't have enough.
[00:10:52] Felipe Contreras: We'll be right back with the rest of the episode. Let's hear a little bit from our friends at the Subtitle Podcast, who have a new episode coming soon.
[00:11:06] Kavita Pillay: Hi, it's Kavita Pillay with the Subtitle Podcast. Have you ever wondered why so many people hate the word moist?
[00:11:15] Or what it's like to witness the birth of a new language?
[00:11:18] It was like somebody just wiped away the fog and you could see the grammar right there in front of you.
[00:11:23] Or how home time during the pandemic had us recycling old words and not just in English.
[00:11:29] I am saying words I haven't said since I was 18 [laughs], like slang words, senda, and now I use senda again. I haven't used it since I had a night retainer.
[00:11:40] We talk with comedians and writers, anyone obsessed with language. Subtitle. Stories about languages and the people who speak them.
[00:11:57] Felipe Contreras: The neighborhood of White Center is a working-class neighborhood in the southern west end of Seattle. Over the years it's had it's different waves of migration, making it one of the most diverse neighborhoods in all of King County. In a typical walk through the neighborhood, you can hear Spanish, Chinese, Arabic, Vietnamese, Thai, Samoan, and so many other languages.
[00:12:25] Sili grew up here, and has lived here all her life, immersed in a multicultural environment that has been a hub for transitioning people for decades. She has seen the waves of immigration that has brought people together to a new place, but also the turnover. Over the past 20 years, as Seattle's rent and housing market skyrocket gentrification has occurred, making it increasingly more and more difficult for people to be able to stay in their communities.
[00:12:57] Felipe Contreras: Sili has spent her life not only enveloped in the Pacific island community here, but also the time learning about all the communities here, what interconnect them and the threads of racism that marginalize all black, indigenous, and people of color.
[00:13:12] Sili Savusa: Growing up, you know, meeting Native American, uh, friends who have taught me about the earth, right? And, you know, meeting folk, folks, um, from the southeast Asian community who have, you know, also taught me about kinda their rituals and spirituals that really speak to their humanity, right? So, how do you, in a multicultural environment that, where people are fighting to hold on to who they are, how do you do that against this wave and a big Mack truck of racism to coming through our communities and trying to crush those things that are important to us.
[00:13:59] Sili Savusa: I think many communities, we're also thankful to be here. I get that, but we're, we came here for the opportunities. Look what we have? Yes, but [laughs], but also this is, you know, having the question around equity, right?
[00:14:15] Felipe Contreras: With her parents showing her the way and her upbringing in the White Center neighborhood, Sili began her career helping and building coalitions throughout her community. She used her experiences and perspectives to seek opportunities where her voice and representation could be of value. She worked in education and in organizations to fight racism. She helped create the first Samoan Pacific Islander Parent-Teacher Association in the nation. Even though she has received a formal education at the University of Washington, that isn't how she developed her skills and knowledge that have allowed her to fight for justice and equity in her communities.
[00:14:54] Sili Savusa: I've had to learn this from community.
[00:14:58] Felipe Contreras: Yeah.
[00:14:58] Sili Savusa: I didn't get this in school. I didn't get this in a college. So, that street cred, uh, it means a lot to me [laughs].
[00:15:05] Felipe Contreras: Yeah.
[00:15:06] Sili Savusa: Which is marginalized informal institutions, right?
[00:15:10] And so-
[00:15:12] Felipe Contreras: valued-
[00:15:13] Sili Savusa: It's not [crosstalk 00:15:10].
[00:15:14] It's totally not valued.
[00:15:15] Felipe Contreras: Institutions have played their part in questioning the legitimacy of traditional knowledge. These are the challenges of decolonization that can be so frustrating.
[00:15:24] Sili Savusa: Institutions of higher ed were saying, "Okay, where's the research?" The fucking research is just go, go visit a village. There's your fucking research.
[00:15:35] Felipe Contreras: In our interview, I asked Sili if she had any stories that were lessons early on in her career. She remembers a time with her father, a lesson that grounds her in humility.
[00:15:47] Sili Savusa: This Samoan man, a Samoan leader in the community who was very, let's say, um, h-he was shady, and so-
[00:15:57] Felipe Contreras: Mm-hmm [affirmative].
[00:15:57] Sili Savusa: He was always cutting deals with folks in the system, and, um-
[00:16:02] Felipe Contreras: Mm-hmm [affirmative].
[00:16:03] Sili Savusa: So, uh, made money off of his community, because of who he re-, he represented and who he kinda like let in the gate. You either are a good gatekeeper or, and you let the community in, or you're a bad gatekeeper and you don't create access for the community. So he was a bad gatekeeper. So, um, he came to one of the meetings and it was all the Matais, or like chiefs, and so of the different families. So we were at a Matai meeting and started running his mouth, and kinda shut the elders down. Elders are very respectful, and... But it's not in the Samoan culture to be, you know, bragging about who you are.
[00:16:46] Sili Savusa: This person had clearly had been part of the system for a long time. I just thought that was so disrespectful. And I went off, called him a liar. My father just looked down. And I remember I was talking, not getting as loud as him, but, you know, I was pretty firm.
[00:17:03] Felipe Contreras: Yeah.
[00:17:04] Sili Savusa: And looking at my dad, you know, kinda looking at my dad, "Don't worry, Dad. I got him. I g-, I'll put him in [crosstalk 00:17:09]."
[00:17:11] Felipe Contreras: [Laughs]
[00:17:11] Sili Savusa: And so my father never looked at me. Like the other Matais were like, "Thank you for telling us, Sili," right? That kind of thing. And, um, the meeting ended. So he is leaving the meeting, and, you know, and I'm looking at my dad. "Dad, did I do good?" Crickets. And, uh, I don't think my dad talked to me for another couple days, and the first thing he said to me was like, "That meeting?" And I said, "Yeah?" And then thinking I'm gonna get all the, you know, the yeah, good job. "Don't you ever disrespect your people in a setting like that. I don't care if you don't agree with them, do not disrespect your people. Or actually, don't disrespect other people that way."
[00:17:59] And so I'm like, you know, and I'm like getting close to tears. I'm like, "But he was lying." "I don't care. Stuff like that comes back to people." He said, "Lies will always catch up with people in one way or another. Maybe not the way that satisfies you, but if you, if you're, if you put out a lie, it's gonna come back." He said, "There's always a place and a time for you to have that kind of conversation, but I don't want you to disrespect people in front of others. You could do it by yourself. That's respectful of him." So, and I just, you know, I was just really pissed, but I always thought after that it was like, okay, I'm like, I won't be going off on people, although I will go off on some people, but-
[00:18:44] Felipe Contreras:[Laughs]
[00:18:44] Sili Savusa: But it was just a, that was one, that was the best lesson to me on humility and how people will respect you more if they can hear you, right? And I always think about my dad.
[00:19:06] Felipe Contreras: Her story on humility shows the kind of selflessness and togetherness you need to have to work in a community, an understanding that your ego cannot get in the way of what is respectful, values that Sili credits to her Samoan upbringing. After over 30 years of working for her community, Sili finds herself in a position that encompasses all her lived experiences and her strengths in community advocacy. But also her strengths as a person, as the Executive Director of an economic justice organization called the White Center Community Development Association.
[00:19:48] Sili Savusa: I've been here at the helm for this is going on nine years. I really doubted my knowledge abil-, my... I just doubted my ability to lead an organization, and so... And that was eight years ago, nine years ago. So that stuff is deep, the, the stuff that would, the beat downs, the telling you you're not good enough, that you won't succeed. That stuff is real. And so, um, now I'm just in a place, I'm a lot older, and, you know, having worked at the City of Seattle, having been on school board, it's like, "Oh, okay. I got this game. You w-, you're not, you guys you're not gonna fuck with us." It's like, "No. I know what you're doing."
[00:20:33] Felipe Contreras: White Center CDA is a community development association created by the residents of White Center. The association represents the community and its dedication to the revitalization and preservation of the neighborhood's culture and diversity. They focus on the issues that affect the quality of life for White Center residents, like affordable housing and the support of small businesses. Sili oftentimes is the microphones of hopes and fears from her community. She's in the ears of city officials and developers who are thinking of building new housing for businesses in the neighborhood.
[00:21:11] Sili Savusa: I can't tell you, Felipe, how many developers that I've met with when they, when, after we've met with them, they're like, "Oh, shit. Somebody really does care about White Center." [Laughs] That's the kind of look that I get. "Oh, there are people who really care about this community." So, it really is how do you... If you're gonna be here, you've got to know how to be here.
[00:21:34] Felipe Contreras: And as a leader, Sili stresses that she's trying to put humanity back into the work of development, and a big way she does that is by focusing on how she can keep people who want to live in White Center able to live in White Center.
[00:21:47] Sili Savusa: It is about how do I take my relationship with King County and together start to acquire some property? Put housing on there, build housing that's rent to own, right? How do we work with developers and funders and lending institutions to really create these, um, kind of supports to purchase or to build with terms that are very affordable and kind of long-term, too. So, really trying to create out of the box thinking, um, figure out how do I work with state to get them to a place where any development that's done anywhere in the State of Washington that a portion of that development is returned to the coast Salish tribes, the Duwamish, right? We should have been doing that generations.
[00:22:44] Felipe Contreras: Sili and the CDA is currently in the process of breaking ground on the White Center HUB, an acronym that stands for Hope, Unity, and Belonging, where working families can find affordable housing along with other essential services that nurture their stability and create greater opportunity. A space for community that will focus on equity, sustainability, local knowledge, and the diversity of an expanding economy.
[00:23:12] Sili Savusa: And with the White Center HUB, I've made it really clear to the county, yes, you're giving us this land, but remember it's not our land, either.
[00:23:20] Felipe Contreras: Hmm.
[00:23:20] Sili Savusa: So, can we set up that at the end of 50 years it goes back to the Duwamish, right?
[00:23:25] Felipe Contreras: Wow.
[00:23:26] Sili Savusa: So those are the ways that I see humanity playing out. Even the conversation itself, how do we keep that moving?
[00:23:34] Felipe Contreras: Sili goes on to express how everything she's learned is for the next generation.
[00:23:38] Sili Savusa: I'm creeping up on retirement, so how do I get the community ready to be able to support the CDA, right? You remember that, um, Willy Wonka movie? How he, he does it? [Laughs] Remember, he doesn't want an old person to take over, he wants a young person to just kind of live their dreams. That's kinda how I want to see how community development happens. How do we ensure that the community gets to live their dreams and just think outside of the box? Well, we have to hold that space as community. We have to hold... We owe that to our young people who come behind us, that their dreams, that they can see their dreams happen in communities like White Center.
[00:24:25] Felipe Contreras: Sili is adamant about passing it forward, even within our conversation, making sure our youth know what they have is theirs.
[00:24:36] I see that transfer of knowledge very common and, uh, almost as, uh, a, a value in a lot of indigenous communities.
[00:24:56] Sili Savusa: Mm-hmm [affirmative].
[00:24:57] Felipe Contreras: How, how important is that for you to mentor and, and to specifically like empower youth?
[00:25:05] Sili Savusa: It's all these things and all these lessons and what I've learned is really are the things that the same seeds that I try to plant for my kids growing up. And I, uh, you know, that doesn't make my life better, Philippe, it just makes it different, and that hopefully my kids will continue to take what they feel is in their heart, they carry with them in their heart, to, um, to pass on and share stories, and, uh, you know, like remember when I told you my mom told me when I was young, younger, the o-, the reason mom and dad spoke to you in Samoan only is because we knew as soon as you hit school you're gonna lose the language. And so she told... Which is like saying, "I knew when you're gonna hit school, you're gonna lose, you're gonna lose part of yourself."
[00:25:59] Fast forward to my kids, while my oldest going into kindergarten, I was a fucking mess. I had to drag myself to take her to school, because I, I knew how horrible kindergarten was for me, and now I'm putting my daughter in this same system that told her, that's gonna tell her she's not smart enough, she's not good enough, but that's the system that we have. So it was most important for me to make sure that every day my daughter sees me, that she's reminded that, "You are brilliant, that you are beautiful, that you can do anything you fucking want, that the world is yours, too."
[00:26:43] Felipe Contreras: Sili's early lessons on community being home and home being community, a value learned from her parents, is visible in her work, but also in the conversations she has every day with the people she meets. It's in these types of conversations that we learn not only where we come from, but who we are and how we walk through the world. I want to thank Sili for coming on to the show and sharing her story.
[00:27:20] And for all of you listening, I want to end with a fact that reaffirms these values for me. Our planet is 71% water, so if you really think about it, our planet is one large series of islands, and maybe the lesson Sili taught us on selflessness and humility can teach us how to be better stewards on the big island we call Earth.
[00:27:53] Felipe Contreras: Thank you for listening. [Niataro 00:27:55] is a Seattle-based foundation. We're both indigenous and non-indigenous peoples with a mission to secure indigenous guardianship of all vital ecosystems. That means we provide support to indigenous peoples globally who are protecting their homelands from colonization and destruction. Their practices are one of our best guides for making earth livable for humans and other species for generations to come.
[00:28:24] Felipe Contreras: To learn more about Seedcast and about our work at Nia Tero, please visit our website NIATERO.Org, and follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Have thoughts to share with us or liked what you heard? Email us at Seedcast at Niatero.org. We would love to hear from all our listeners. This episode was mixed and produced by me, Felipe Contreras. The story was edited by Jenny Asarnow. Our Executive Producer is Tracy Rector. Our fact-checker is Romin Lee Johnson. Our consulting producer is Julie Keck. Marketing and social media support from Hill Osip. Theme song by Mia Kami. Our host, Jessica Ramirez, will be back in January.