This Utah woman was born in Tonga and adopted by a LDS family. How she found her identity.

Susi Feltch-Malohifo’ou, CEO of PIK2AR, was highlighted this summer in Forbes’s ‘50 Over 50′ project.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Susi Feltch-Malohifo'ou, one of the founders of Pacific Island Knowledge 2 Action Resources (PIK2AR), who was recently named to Forbes' 50 Over 50 project, attends the Lehi Farmers Market, featuring business owners who are part of PIK2AR’s Pacific Island Business Alliance on Saturday, Aug. 21, 2021.

Tucked in a box of family photos, there is a black and white image of a smiling 5-year-old Susi Feltch-Malohifo’ou sitting between her mother and brother.

In the background sits a teenager with his arms crossed. That 17-year-old, who roasted the pig on the table in front of Susi, is Simi Poteki.

More than 40 years passed between when this picture was taken in Tonga and when Simi and Susi reconnected in 2010 and wed in Utah shortly after. They like to say their “marriage must have been made in heaven.”

Together, the couple founded the Utah-based nonprofit PIK2AR (pronounced pick-tar), which stands for Pacific Island Knowledge 2 Action Resources.

And for that and other contributions, Feltch-Malohifo’ou was featured this summer in Forbes magazine’s 50 Over 50 project, highlighting women who “are changing their communities and the world.”

Since starting in 2015 with a focus on domestic violence prevention, PIK2AR has expanded from a team of three to 25, to include programs related to economic development and cultural preservation, among other topics.

As PIK2AR has grown, so has Utah’s community of Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders. From 2010 to 2020, they experienced the second highest growth rate in the state of all racial and ethnic groups, at 49.9%, bringing their total population to 35,831, according to a report from the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute based on new census data.

While Feltch-Malohifo’ou was born in Tonga, the 57-year-old Taylorsville resident said she hasn’t always felt accepted by the Polynesian community, largely because of her upbringing in a white, Latter-day Saint family.

Creating PIK2AR “has been very healing for me,” said Feltch-Malohifo’ou, after a lifetime of figuring “out my my identity” and where “I fit into this world.”

Sometimes, that journey “took me down some very wrong routes,” she said. But Feltch-Malohifo’ou said she wouldn’t change the “unconventional” path she took because those experiences “are who made me today.”

Once charged with a felony in a dispute over a rental car, Feltch-Malohifo’ou did not imagine that she would one day receive a community leadership award from the FBI for her work with PIK2AR. Her dad, a retired judge from Vernal, cried in 2019 when she told him, she said.

“My story is, take those experiences in life and don’t let them bury you,” Feltch-Malohifo’ou said. “…Stand on them to elevate your story.”

(Susi Feltch-Malohifo'ou) Susi Feltch-Malohifo'ou, sitting in the center the right side of the table, pictured at age 5 in Tonga. Simi Poteki, who is in the back left with his arms crossed, helped roast the pig in front of Susi. More than 40 years after this photo was taken, Susi and Simi reconnected and married in Utah. Together, they founded the nonprofit PIK2AR.

From Tonga to Utah

Feltch-Malohifo’ou was 3 years old when she was adopted by a family who worked for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“My dad managed the coconut plantation that the church owned in Tonga,” said Feltch-Malohifo’ou. Meanwhile, her biological grandfather was the foreman of the plantation, she said, and her biological mother was the head maid.

“My life in Tonga ... was exactly the same as when I lived here in America,” she said. “We had Easter egg hunts. We celebrated Halloween.”

Looking at old pictures, Feltch-Malohifo’ou noticed “there were no Tongan kids at my birthday parties. … They were all white kids.”

When she was 5, her family lived in New Zealand before moving to Vernal, Utah, around the time she was 12.

Feltch-Malohifo’ou said her parents “did a really good job” when she was growing up of making sure they bought “every book you could ever imagine” about her homeland for her to read. She developed a “scholastic” understanding of her culture, but it wasn’t until Feltch-Malohifo’ou went to college in California the early 1980s, she said, that she met another Tongan in the United States.

“That was a very big culture shock for me,” she said, being around “people that look like me, but didn’t understand me, and I didn’t understand them.”

Her life took her from Utah to other states, into three marriages before her reunion with Poteki, and through careers in the travel industry and other fields. In 2010, she said, it was “really traumatic” for her to move back to Utah, with its large Polynesian community that she struggled to relate to.

As a survivor of domestic violence and abuse in previous relationships, Feltch-Malohifo’ou said, she was also worried about returning to a place where one of her abusers lived. She tried to seek out “culturally relevant” services for domestic violence in the state, but, disappointed, she came up empty. So, she changed that.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Susi Feltch-Malohifo'ou, one of the founders of Pacific Island Knowledge 2 Action Resources (PIK2AR), who was recently named to Forbes' 50 Over 50 project, attends the Lehi Farmers Market featuring business owners who are part of PIK2AR’s Pacific Island Business Alliance on Saturday, Aug. 21, 2021.

Preventing domestic violence

The impetus for PIK2AR actually came from Simi Poteki, she said, who had eventually settled in Utah and inspired her to return.

After they went to a national domestic violence conference together, he suggested to Feltch-Malohifo’ou that they create a community support group for Polynesian men. He reasoned that in order to address the issue of domestic violence, “men have to be part of the solution,” he said.

Feltch-Malohifo’ou had a background in social services, working with people experiencing homelessness in East Palo Alto and sports for inner city youth. She and Poteki developed his idea into KAVA Talks, which stands for Knowledge Above Violence Always.

They started with a handful of men who came together to discuss, “How does our culture play into [domestic violence]? How do we be better fathers? How do we be better husbands?” Feltch-Malohifo’ou said.

“Now, because of COVID, it has expanded,” as “we went online,” she said, drawing “Pacific Island men from all over the world.”

The couple later created the Women’s EmpowHERment Group for Pacific Islander women to come together, as well groups for women of all backgrounds. And PIK2AR also provides case workers who will “walk with people” and “be that cheerleader” for whatever they need, according to Feltch-Malohifo’ou.

“Utah has the best resources, amazing resources,” she said, but these are often most “effective for mainstream white people that are comfortable with saying, ‘Here’s a phone number, call them for housing. If you need food, go over.’”

She saw a need to better serve members of marginalized communities, who may speak a different language or distrust government or the police, and need a different approach. At PIK2AR, “we don’t care how many times you have to call us,” she said. They are available 24/7 and don’t turn anyone away, according to Feltch-Malohifo’ou.

“Nobody is going to say to a woman or man that we work with, ‘Don’t go back,’” she said. “We always say, ‘We worry about your safety. …. The statistics say that when women go back [to a domestic violence situation], there’s a high probability of homicide. What would happen to your children, if that happened to you?’”

According to Feltch-Malohifo’ou, ”Those are only conversations that you can have when your case manager has built a trusted relationship with someone.”

And Feltch-Malohifo’ou said her PIK2AR team plans in the near future to bring its violence prevention and economic education and arts programs to the South Pacific. She sees this as a proactive move for Utah’s growing Polynesian community.

Pacific Islanders and Native Hawaiians account for a little more than 1% of the state’s population, but they made up 2.2% of prisoners in Utah’s state and federal facilities in 2019, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

“When do people, when they come to this country, learn the laws of violence?” said Feltch-Malohifo’ou. “... In a plane ride for 10 hours? No. They learn it when they’re getting arrested.”

And that, she said, doesn’t work.

‘Grounded in being a Pacific Islander’

On a sunny Saturday last month, a stream of people came to say hello to Feltch-Malohifo’ou, who was seated at a table covered in pamphlets about PIK2AR’s programs and services. A dozen or so booths from PIK2AR’s Pacific Island Business Alliance were set up at the Lehi Farmers Market, where customers wandered around the grass square to buy Fijian curry and colorful leis.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dallas Tupola, 6, who started Dallas Lemonade + Thangz which includes the tie dyes he makes is joined by his mother Tihani, left, and his grandmother Oreta Tupola as they attend the Lehi Farmers Market featuring business owners who are part of PIK2AR’s Pacific Island Business Alliance on Saturday, Aug. 21, 2021.

One of the youngest sellers was 6-year-old Dallas Tupola, who made lemonade and tie-dye shirts with his mom, Tihani Tupola, and grandma, Oreta Tupola. They had started by selling lemonade and peanut butter rolls from their home in Utah County, but with Feltch-Malohifo’ou’s encouragement, they brought their goods to the public.

“We’re not business people at all,” Oreta Tupola said, but Feltch-Malohifo’ou helped the family see this step was possible.

Oreta Tupola also coordinates and trains the community health workers for PIK2AR and the Utah Public Health Association, which have been instrumental in supporting the Pacific Islander community as members have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

Pacific Islanders and Native Hawaiians make up 1.6% of Utah’s population and 2.3% of the state’s COVID-19 cases, according to data available last week from the Utah Department of Health. They also have the highest case rate of any race or ethnicity, second highest hospitalization rate and third highest case fatality rate, the data shows.

As cases continue to rise in Utah, with the spread of the contagious delta variant, Tupola said, she and others are continuing to help people get the vaccine. As of Wednesday, 31.5% of Pacific Islander and Native Hawaiian Utahns were fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

Feltch-Malohifo’ou also helps community members navigate American business culture, including fielding calls from companies about their Polynesian employees. In one instance, a business was concerned that a Pacific Islander employee may have exceeded limits on time off by lying about needing to attend funerals for grandparents.

Feltch-Malohifo’ou said she explained that “our genealogy chart is different than yours.” Her own husband has six siblings, she said, and all the grandkids call them grandma and grandpa. This employee wasn’t lying, Feltch-Malohifo’ou said, businesses just need to widen their perspectives.

She has returned to Tonga since she left as a young child, and “every year that I go there, I learn something about me,” she said. She’s realized, she said, that she can take the good parts from her life growing up in the U.S. and combine them with her Polynesian culture.

PIK2AR aims to do that for other Utahns, too, with its arts, music and film programs, and by celebrating Utah Pacific Island Heritage Month. It holds events and workshops, including teaching how to make healthier versions of traditional dishes or how to do traditional carving.

The goal, Feltch-Malohifo’ou said, is to help people be proud and “reconnect back to the strength of our culture, so that people don’t have to be grounded in being a gangster or ... a football player, but grounded in being a Pacific Islander, and learning to understand what that means.”

She was “stunned” to be highlighted by Forbes, she said, and grateful for the recognition of the impact that PIK2AR has had.

“I’m only one person in this team of people,” she said. “And so this accolade really represents all of our work, not just mine. I’m just one piece of this puzzle that makes it work.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Kanani Pua dancers at The Craft Lake City DIY Festival at the Fairgrounds on Saturday, Aug. 14, 2021. That day was Pacific Island Heritage Day at the Festival, which continues through Sunday..

Becky Jacobs is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of women in Utah for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.