Her family is from Tonga, the South Pacific island chain, but she was born in Salt Lake City, a Mormon Pacific Islander living on the city’s west side, the middle child among seven girls, who titled her college honors thesis “Nourishing the Space Between.”
One way or another, Moana Uluave-Hafoka has lived her whole life in the “space between.” She works there now, too.
First hired as a community liaison for Mayor Jackie Biskupski, she was promoted in December to serve as the mayor’s adviser for diversity and human rights policy and community outreach — the office’s go-between with a constellation of marginalized constituencies.
“I often tell people, ‘Where else could a Tongan girl from the west side be at a policy level in Utah?’ There isn’t any other place that I’d be allowed this opportunity,” she said in a recent interview.
“But at the very same time, I grew up here, and I know the real divisions that are the east-west divisions,” she added. “Growing up as just who I was — being Tongan, a woman, and my parents were and still are from the working class — my experience has also taught me that things in life aren’t fair. There are real opportunities to make them fair, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re there yet.”
Making things fair, or at least fairer, for Salt Lake City’s underserved, underrepresented populations is what her job is about, a role whose mission has been expanded and now reaches out to ethnic and racial minorities, people with disabilities, the LGBTQ community, young people, refugees and immigrants — documented or otherwise.
“I know it’s huge, and I’m only one person, she said. “And that’s why I think it’s so important to me to go and reach out to other organizations that already exist. I’m the first to say I know many things, but I don’t know everything.”
It’s not just reaching out to such groups, but ensuring city policies and programs are operating, or being crafted, with these diverse communities in mind. That means being sensitive and responsive to outside sensibilities and finding “mechanisms for bringing those folks in” to policy discussion and implementation.
One minor but edifying example of cultural obstacles: city signs that tell drivers not to idle their cars to limit air pollution.
“In some languages, like Tongan, there’s no translation for idle,” she said. “People are like, ‘What does that mean?’ ”
“She’s been working in the community since she was a young gal,” said Blake Perez, who interacted with Uluave-Hafoka when he headed the Rose Park Community Council. She also worked with him in organizing the University of Utah Bennion Center’s Legacy of Lowell community service day last September. He called her “a great candidate” for her new job.
“She was such an outstanding community liaison during my time at Rose Park that I just want to help her succeed,” Perez said. She’s a down-to-earth person — very approachable, very warm, doesn’t get wrapped up in a lot of jargon.”
Remembering the people who helped
Raised in the city’s Glendale neighborhood, she was the first daughter in her family to be born in Salt Lake City when her parents arrived here 30 years ago, drawn by their LDS faith and a desire to buy a home and build a life. For Tongans, it’s not an uncommon move: The Salt Lake Valley is home to 1 in 4 of all Tongans living in the U.S., mostly due to the church connection.
Besides their strong faith, her parents placed high value on education, civic involvement and community engagement — the young Moana went in tow with them to countless community meetings, something she now does with her 2-year-old daughter.
In her senior year at East High School, she won an Oprah Winfrey high school essay contest and a Gates Millennium Scholarship. She enrolled at Brigham Young University, interrupting her studies for an 18-month Mormon mission in New Zealand, where she served in Tongan-speaking neighborhoods in Auckland.
After she returned and finished her undergraduate studies, in 2014, she earned a master’s degree in arts in education from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. Her plan was to earn a doctorate by age 30, probably at a school back East. But there was never any question that she would first return to Salt Lake City.
In her family, “There was a deeply held value and expectation that we were supposed to come back,” she said. “It’s this cyclical thing where my mom and dad [said], ‘Yeah, you can get your whole education, but if you don’t remember the people who helped you get there, then what use are you?’ ”
Her educational pursuits got sidetracked by romantic ones when she met her husband, Maiki, who’s now studying construction management at Utah Valley University. Uluave-Hafoka worked as a program assistant at the city’s Sorenson Unity Center. After maternity leave and Biskupski’s election in 2015, she came on board as a community liaison, initially for City Council District 6 on the east side, before moving to the same position for Districts 1 and 2 — which include the neighborhoods where she grew up and now resides.
“Four years ago, I would have never guessed that I would have still been home doing this work,” she said. “So my life is very different. But I look back at it and see how grounded the work is, because I do have a family, and how that’s changed my perspective.”
‘A city for everyone’
“Part of my job that is a little bit easier is because the mayor’s already stated that she wants equity,” Uluave-Hafoka said. “She wants a city for everyone.”
She took over amid a public tiff between the mayor and the city’s Human Rights Commission over the departure of her predecessor, Yolanda Francisco-Nez. The position was posted and she went through a standard series of interviews before getting the job. If there are lingering hard feelings, or groups that don’t want to connect with city government, she’s accepting of it.
“Everyone has their own autonomy and agency, and whether or not they decide to work with me as a representative of the office, I understand and respect that,” she said. “I’m ready to see whatever we can move forward with and work on. … But I also respect anybody’s decision not to work with us as well. And I think that is the name of the game in this political world that I live in now.”
She maintains a sense of humility and gratitude for the chance to shape policy.
“My parents came here in the ’80s. They had no idea that we’d be one generation later sitting in this office and influencing policy and helping craft it,” she said. “I always enter a room knowing that I’m there because many others can’t be. … I always recognize that I’m there for a reason, and I need to do the work.”
She counts her lifelong experience juggling ties to varied communities as a strength that informs her work connecting to populations who haven’t had much of a voice in broader dialogues about city governance and policy.
“Because I grew up on the west side of Salt Lake City, but I was raised LDS, I’ve always had an insider-outsider perspective,” she said. “I’ve always lived within the mental space, the in-between.”
She continued: “Being a woman, being Tongan, being Mormon, being from Salt Lake and from the west side — those are all parts of my identity, so I can’t erase any of them. So that lens — maybe it’s an anthropological lens — I think will lend [itself] to whatever work that I do from this position.”