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Op-Ed: Keynote Speech on women's empowerment at MASI Cultural Workshop

Thank you for the invitation.  It's wonderful to be with you and share a few thoughts on women's empowerment.

The good news is, there's progress, and the less good news is that sometimes it's slow, and some places are a little slower about it!  Here in American Samoa we live in a traditionally male leadership culture.  It's a wonderful thing when anyone with leadership qualities, male or female, finds the right fit to use those God given abilities.  We don't want extra obstacles for anyone.

Education is a foundation of empowerment.   It can open doors and build confidence.  

My office's Chief of Staff is in Washington today.  She is our first ever West Point graduate, and highly educated, with two Masters degrees as she worked her way up the ranks to Colonel. We need to keep working on educational opportunity — both acceptance and affordability elsewhere, and supporting our ASCC, where I made sure that 3 million dollars is designated from our DOI operations account, and I'm doing so again for the next fiscal year and the next.  

In Congress I've seen change. There were two dozen women Members of Congress in the 1980s; 50 by the mid-1990s; I was first elected in 2014. That year there were about 100 women. Now it's about 155, with three of the five territories represented by women. Women are 28 percent of the Congress.

Every election there are a few more. When we think of empowerment, we think of seeking leadership and success in business or military or public service or any field.  Go for your dreams and goals! There will be times the world around you is not yet as empowering as it should be. While we work together on that empowerment, realize that your persistence can win out. 

I hope I've done my small part, as they say, breaking the glass ceiling. Depending on your age, you might or might not know about the days when I was running ten consecutive times. I'd hold a wave on our roadside, and people were kind and friendly, and then a majority would go vote for the popular incumbent with the title Congressman! I always understood. Now, I am blessed to represent the people of American Samoa. I do not take it lightly.

On the subject of empowerment, I also think of my grandmother on my dad's side. She embodied what it is to be a strong Samoan woman. She did not speak English, and in our thinking, was not empowered — but I can just imagine someone suggesting that to her! No, her word was law!

No one has ever solved the fact that women who want to have it all often have competing priorities and difficult decisions in career and family and that's very personal to each one.

The one title I am proudest to hold is that of mother. I would not give up being a mother to my three children for anything. So be authentic and be you, and support each other.

It's wonderful when our best and brightest can stay right here in the islands and build a life. Or return here after gaining education and experience. Keep in mind you can be an empowering example.

For those who go elsewhere, remember your heritage here, and embrace it. Being a Samoan is empowering. The world — the United States — is learning to value diversity. One of the best decisions I ever made was to wear the puletasi in the halls of Congress. Do you realize, I have to try to remember the names of 300 men in blue suits and red ties and 150 women mostly in businesslike pant suits?

They have it much easier remembering me. They see me and connect me immediately to the islands. It's a little thing but it's often better to stand out than blend in. So if you're working or studying in some American city, I encourage something like a little Samoan print in your outfit; it can help keep you mentally in tune with your island home.

Thank you again.  Soifua ma i manuia.