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Alama Uluave: Adopting service as a way of life

8/21/2018

If there is one word that frames the life of Alama Uluave, it is “service.” A commitment to serve others has always been one of his defining traits, due both to his South Pacific culture and his religous faith. But what perhaps truly sets him apart is his continuing determination to serve even as a father of seven girls struggling with lupus, a chronic and debilitating autoimmune disease.

And serve he has, winning a seat for two terms on the Salt Lake City (Utah) school board—not only as its first Pacific Islander, but also to represent all other people of color from “the poor and supposedly bad side of town.” 

“It’s important to not just be represented among the workers, but among the policymakers too,” says Uluave, who was the first Polynesian in the entire state to serve on a school board.  “The other board members are mostly white and it was important for me to voice our concerns, to show them what city issues—such as racism, police violence and the school-to-prison pipeline—look like from different angles. When I sat at that table, I knew I was representing not only people from Tonga [his home country], but every other minority group in my jurisdiction, including American blacks, Native Americans and Hispanics.”

Culture of service

Uluave, his wife and seven daughters!
Uluave was born in Tonga, an archipelago of more than 100 islands in the South Pacific. His older brothers moved to the United States to pursue their university education, settling in Hawaii only 10 years after it became the 50th state. Uluave and his parents followed when he was 9 years old. Over time, most of the clan moved on to Salt Lake City, pursuing master’s degrees in the capital city for the Church of Latter Day Saints (LDS), which the family had joined along with many other Tongans in the 1940s.

“My grandfather, Sione Makaafi Lotulelei, was the patriarch of the family, and he taught me and then my daughters that ‘a pen in your pocket is lighter than a shovel on your back’,” says Uluave. “This wise saying has been a driving force in my life, pushing me to strive for the highest achievements in education for myself, my children and others in my communities."

A love and an aptitude for mathematics ran in the family, and most of Uluave’s brothers and sisters studied to teach the subject. He did too, until his senior year, when he changed course to better support his growing family. (Uluave jokes that he learned in one of his statistics classes that the odds of having seven daughters is just 1 in 128. And the youngest are 20-year-old twins!) Since he also liked industrial arts, Uluave began maintaining heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems, although he never gave up on getting a degree. He went back to school in 2013 and earned a bachelor’s degree in ethnic studies—a field in which he has developed “life” experience.

“In my culture, community is more important than the individual,” he explains. “I guess you could say it’s similar to the American country lifestyle, in which everybody helps out, especially in times of emergency. Part of me doesn’t feel fulfilled if I don’t serve.”

It is this dedication that later led him to be nominated by NeighborWorks Salt Lake for a NeighborWorks America Dorothy Richardson Award for Resident Leadership.

Service in action

Uluave tutored Semisi Latu when he was in middle school and failing in English and math. Latu later excelled in physics in high school.
One of Uluave’s ways to serve was to translate. His family lived in sort of a little “Tongatown” with other Pacific Islander immigrants. Many of the elders still spoke their native language and thus faced communication barriers when going to doctors’ offices, etc. Uluave would accompany them as translator, and soon began providing that service officially for the LDS church. Many of the local leaders spoke Tongan like his parents, and he would help them communicate with more senior, white Mormons in the national organization.

“That was a challenge, because it wasn’t just language that separated them, but cultural stereotypes as well,” he recalls.

Uluave volunteered in many other ways. He joined his community’s neighborhood watch team, assisting police officers by keeping an eye out for gang and other negative activity. Even more importantly, he worked to prevent conflicts from breaking out to begin with by teaching classes to help parents intervene before their kids felt the need to join gangs for comradeship and support. More than 100 parents participated, and he translated some of the material from English to Tongan.

Uluave also was a leader in Boy Scouts, which had been so important to him as a kid; offered math tutoring at no charge; and encouraged and supported fellow Tongans who wanted to become U.S. citizens. This community work brought him to NeighborWorks Salt Lake, and he was selected for a seat on its board of directors.

Commitment put to the test

That commitment didn’t change even when Uluave was diagnosed with lupus in 2000.

"That was really devastating,” he says now. “My oldest daughter was just in junior high and my wife had been staying at home to take care of our kids. She went back to work and I stayed at home. But I still had this burning fire for service. It wasn’t enough to just do what I could for my own family. Plus, being so inactive was depressing.”

Uluave had become involved in the local PTA and other school-related activities because of his children, and in 2004, a position on the school board opened up. The chair asked if he’d like to run.

“I was still really sick, but I took the opportunity,” he recalls. “Getting back out there and serving was like a remedy for me.”
 
It was an important role for Uluave. The school dropout rate among people of color was above 38 percent in the West Side neighborhoods, the two elementary schools were dilapidated and the district was so gerrymandered that “his” residents were grossly under-represented. During Uluave’s tenure, the school board expanded to include four members from the West Side instead of two. Members representing West Side schools now are the majority on the school board, and they have been instrumental in redirecting resources to the students in greatest need. For example, the rundown elementary schools now have been replaced by new facilities in response to the growing student population.
 
Uluave’s children are following in his footsteps. Six of his seven daughters have graduated from Harvard, UCLA and other universities. (We wrote about his daughter Moana in 2015. While studying for her master’s degree at Harvard as a Bill Gates Millennium Scholar, a former middle school clasmate was shot and killed by a police officer. She wrote a powerful spoken-word poem about the incident that helped inspire creation of a community coalition against violence.) Two currently work in the neighborhood—one in the mayor’s office and the other as an elementary teacher.

Today, Uluave continues to battle his illness. He has had open-heart surgery and is on kidney dialysis, waiting for a transplant. But he lives by the same principles he taught his daughters:

“I taught them to lead by example," he explains. "Integrity is important, and hard work. Don't let the negatives hold you back; sure, they exist, but we have the opportunity to prove we’re stronger."

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