Le Mana Pasifika fosters a sense of belonging during COVID-19

Remembering to stay connected and looking after your mental health has been the overarching message we have seen during the COVID-19 pandemic, and it’s exactly what our Le Mana Pasifika crew have been nailing through their social media channels.

CMY’s Le Mana (Empower) Pasifika Project supports young people and helps them gain a sense of connection and belonging within their communities. The groups get together regularly to unpack some of the issues young people and their communities face, including issues that would normally be considered taboo in their cultures – mental health and cultural identity.

Shenei Penaia, Le Mana Youth Ambassador

Shenei Penaia, a Le Mana Youth Ambassador who is currently pursuing a Bachelor in Biomedicine at Victoria University, says she too struggled with her cultural identity as she grew up in a community that was predominantly indigenous.

“When I hit university, it was a culture shock to see so many people who were like me and were heavily involved in their communities. When the opportunity came up to be part of Le Mana, I dived straight in,” she says.

Through engaging with Le Mana, she found that cultural identity was a common issue amongst her peers and could immediately relate to them.

Since COVID-19, Shenei and her fellow Le Mana Youth Ambassadors have been running daily campaigns on the Le Mana Instagram channel – with themes like ‘Meaningful Mondays’, ‘Tune in Tuesdays’ and ‘Wellness Wednesdays’ – to continue to foster a sense of community and connection, despite physical distancing.

Shenei admits that although online interactions presents its issues, moving these types of conversations online has inadvertently meant that young people are more likely to respond and be engaged, as they find the online platforms less confronting.

“We got a lot more engagement than we anticipated and mental health was one of the deeper issues we touched. It ‘shook’ us but it was a conversation that needed to be had.”

“In our culture, our communities and even our parents struggle to talk about mental health, so Le Mana has been a gateway into normalising those conversations. The community know we’re there for them and are offering support.”

Lorayma Taula, who is currently pursuing a PhD in Sociology at Deakin University and is also a Le Mana Ambassador, says being part of Le Mana has created a real sense of belonging and community for her.

“For me, there weren’t many groups that were for Pasifika youth, that were Pasifika-led so I really struggled with my sense of identity and belonging growing up in Melbourne,” she says.

“It’s one thing to talk to about struggles with cultural identity and its another thing to go out into the community and build relationships with those people. I wasn’t really engaged with other Pasifika peers outside of my family, so Le Mana bridged those gaps.”

The current restrictions have also meant that many of the young people, including Shenei and Lorayma, have become much closer to their families.

“COVID opened a door to normalising conversations and having heart-to-hearts with our families. We gather in the lounge and just talk, which is a positive from this situation,” Shenei says.

Lorayma says she has also been spending time with her grandfather who was unable to return to Samoa due to border restrictions. “I’m having more time with family and appreciating the small things in life.”

Follow the Le Mana Youth Ambassadors on Instagram

Find out more about the Le Mana (Empower) Pasifika Project