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The War on Drugs: How an East Palo Alto Pacific Islander Organization is Tackling the Post-Pandemic

Written by Tonga Victoria Fakalata

As Fall 2023 approaches, the ‘Back-to-School’ sections of neighborhood Targets and WalMarts crowd with parents and kids looking forward to another school year. The two year pandemic did a number on students, learning-methods, and teachers across America and although classrooms have returned to in-person sessions, the psychological impact COVID-19 had on students, from elementary to college age, has had a very real effect. 

According to a CDC report, more than 37 percent of high school students reported they experienced poor mental health during the pandemic, and 44 percent said they persistently felt sad or hopeless the past year. The mandated stay-at-home order may have begun as something heavenly — the rat race of America required to slow down by law was how many regarded it at first —but as one year doubled to two years the negative impacts became tangible. Communities across America experienced severe uptrends in small business closures, the existential housing crisis due to national lay-offs, and of course the public education system closing its doors to millions of students

According to the National Institute of Health, “fatal drug overdoses in the U.S hit historical records during the COVID-19 pandemic … due to COVID-related stress, and heightened levels of anxiety and depression.” Young people have had to process COVID-19 and severe disruption of day-to-day life, on top of going through the adolescent nature of identity-crisis, social development, and experiencing bouts of early-adulthood that for most high schoolers, include experimenting with drugs and alcohol. According to a 2019 Monitoring the Future survey, “by the time teens reached their senior year of high school more than 50% reported alcohol use, more than 40% had vaped, and about 36% had used cannabis in the past year.”

So what is being done to combat these statistics at a local level? In East Palo Alto, one collaborative solution is in its early formation and being led by the only Pacific Islander organization in the community.

“We want to make sure we’re doing our part in making East Palo Alto a safe and healthy neighborhood,” Tiffany explained during a Tuesday chat. As the Executive Director of Anamatangi Polynesian Voices and youngest daughter to community legends, Mama Dee and Papa Senita, Tiffany understands that in order to effect real change, solutions need to be a community effort. 

“Right now, we are working with the City Manager, and the [East Palo Alto] Chief of Police on a community workshop where we hope to facilitate some tough conversations around relations between the community and the police, and this includes our young people.” Tiffany mentioned when asked about some of the ongoing work to address the City’s most pressing issues. In its third cohort, ‘Anamatangi Polynesian Voices just completed another six weeks of summer program for twenty-five youth living in the East Palo Alto and East Menlo Park area that included activities and leaders chats with community elders, and cultural practitioners on topics like respect, humility, reciprocity and service. 

“We are going to take these conversations to the Chief of Police and to the City of East Palo Alto …” in reference to what the upcoming Fall season will look like for the community organization that was selected as a Elevate Youth California partner to further the state-level and county-level goals against the War on Drugs. The Elevate Youth California statewide program “provides funding and technical assistance for organizations that are developing or increasing community substance use disorder prevention, outreach and education focused on youth.”

Through community-led action and collaborative solutions-building, ‘Anamatangi Polynesian Voices hopes to expand the foundations of Restorative Justice Practice (RJP) to include Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander cultural ways of healing and reconciliation. This method of restorative justice aims to be integrated into local schools and school districts as an approach to support students of all backgrounds who are dealing with the social pressures and inequities of the 21st Century that too often result in alcohol and substance abuse. 

To learn more about ‘Anamatangi Polynesian Voices and to join the action, visit: 

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