West Valley resident receives award from FBI for Pacific Islander community activism
Aug 07, 2019 03:15PM
By Jennifer J Johnson
FBI Director Christopher Wray gives Feltch-Malohifo'ou a community leadership award.
By Jennifer J. Johnson | [email protected]
“Well, at least this time the FBI is honoring you, not looking for you!” said Susi Feltch-Malohifo'ou's father over the phone. She had just returned from Washington D.C. where she was honored by the FBI for the work she has done within the Pacific Islander Community, a far cry from years ago when she was jailed in Texas for grand theft auto.
At the Bureau's headquarters, FBI Director Christopher Wray shook the hand of West Valley resident Susi Feltch-Malohifo'ou, recognizing her and her Pacific Island Knowledge to Action Resources group with the Bureau’s distinguished Director’s Community Leadership Award.
During the ceremony Wray praised the PIK2AR non-profit as providing “outstanding contributions” to the Salt Lake area, and he indicated “being grateful” for the organization’s three-pronged mission to eliminate violence, increase income in under-engaged and ethnic households, and preserve Pacific Island cultures.
Utah is home to a burgeoning Pacific Island community, with almost 40,000 Utahns identifying as Pacific Islanders. Indigenous inhabitants of the Polynesia, Micronesia and Melanesia groups of islands of the Pacific Ocean comprise Pacific Islanders.
In April, Feltch-Malohifo'ou’s PIK2AR 501(c)(3) nonprofit hosted its sixth-annual National Pacific Island Violence Prevention Conference in West Valley, attracting and engaging scholars, community leaders and service providers around the world to share information to culturally inform how domestic violence is recognized, discussed, and increasingly prevented within the Pacific Islander community.
This month, Feltch-Malohifo'ou is the main organizer of the seventh-annual Utah Pacific Island Heritage Month, which boasts a slate of cultural activities throughout the state, with a lion’s share of community happenings in urban Salt Lake, South Jordan and other suburban communities.
It's been a long journey for Feltch-Malohifo'ou, who was adopted in Tonga and raised by a white family. She was a smart, pretty, piano-playing prodigy who also took to sneaking out of the house, running away, and even asking to move into foster care.
“My perspective growing up was as being part of a white family,” she says. “They had a cocoon for me—I was the special one. When I left home, I did not know what racism was."
At Skyline College in Northern California, Feltch-Malohifo'ou says she met her “own ethnic community” for the first time since leaving Tonga with her parents. “I was, culturally, out of water,” she says of the time she flopped around, struggling with understanding who she was. “There is a difference,” she observes, “between the culture you are raised in and ethnicity.”
From there, Feltch-Malohifo'ou was involved in a relationship where she endured domestic abuse. “A lot of shame and embarrassment,” she says.
Getting the courage to leave the relationship, Feltch-Malohifo'ou left California and returned to Utah. The rental car was broken into, her purse stolen. After filing a police report, she headed to Texas, where she planned to hang with friends. Feltch-Malohifo'ou was pulled over, charged with grand theft after the rental car company was repeatedly unable to bill the card they had on file.
She was not concerned.
It was, what she figured would be seen as a mistake, easily made and just as easily cleared up.
“I thought they would be reasonable,” she says—reasonable like her father, a judge.
She was destitute, unable to make bond let alone pay off the credit card charges which racked up. She was adrift. While in jail, she got in a fight, even landing in “the hole” after someone took her Book of Mormon and would not return it. Feltch-Malohifo'ou says she contemplated her life and looked at what was important, what was necessary for her—in terms of what she needed and what she needed to give back. She needed her own commitment and then needed hard work to find her way to what she deemed redemption.
Feltch-Malohifo'ou was taken to court in shackles. She was first offered a five-year prison term plea bargain, which she flatly refused, insisting her honesty in the difficult situation.
She was given a three-year probation with plenty of rigorous check-ins and other requirements. “It was the hardest judge in Fort Worth,” she recalls. “I took the deal.”
She later turned her life around for good when she reconnected with her childhood contact Simi Malohifo'ou, who had been a widower for nine years.
Simi, a gentle Tongan man who has been known to find peace with white supremacists living in his neighborhood and even broker friendly entrance into a KKK biker bar in the South, told her, “You understand you come from a good family—your white side and your Tongan side.”
This recognition, this embracing of her lineage, helped her forge a future dedicated to positive trailblazing.
The two began a partnership in marriage and with their PIK2AR organization.
Every month now, there are Pacific Islander writing groups at Salt Lake’s Day-Riverside Branch of the Salt Lake Library. There are Pacific Islander men who gather monthly at Jordan Valley Medical Center West to express commitment to “KAVA” (Kommitment against Violence Altogether). Pacific Islander women have a weekly group to openly discuss and heal from abuse. There are Pacific Islander teens who flex their multimedia skills through partnerships with Art Access and Spy Hop. All of these programs are offshoots of their work.
“There is redemption in life,” Feltch-Malohifo'ou says.