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AA and NHPI: Communities Made Visible Together

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), an agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce, is crucial in serving and safeguarding communities across the United States, particularly in Hawaii and American Samoa. The employees at NOAA are committed to preserving and protecting our marine resources in a region that reflects the diverse cultures of Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders.

Read more to meet some of the talented team members in NOAA’s AA and NHPI workforce.

Pua Borgess, Fishery Management Specialist, NOAA Fisheries

Pua Borgess, Fishery Management Specialist, NOAA Fisheries

Pua grew up on the island of O‘ahu in an area overlooking Pearl Harbor and is Native Hawaiian and of East Asian descent.

During high school, Pua learned the importance of obtaining knowledge and experiences to better Hawai‘i and the Earth. After High School, she received both her bachelors and master’s in biology from Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois. Shortly after, she spent over five years as a contractor doing permits and policy supporting NOAA Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. She feels it was an honor to work to protect such a sacred and beautiful place. Her job today as a Fishery Management Specialist is to help conserve and manage the federal fisheries in the Western Pacific. She is proud that she can be a part of preventing overfishing and maintaining healthy fish stocks that are so important to commercial and non-commercial fisheries.

Both of Pua’s parents were public servants, and Pua always felt the need to serve the community, give back and love and care for the land, sea, and sky. Pua feels that being part of the AANHPI brings her joy and pride.

“There are so many rich cultures and diversity within the AANHPI community. It is our differences that make us stronger as a people and as a Nation. AANHPI Heritage Month to me means being seen and helping others to be seen as well, says Pua. “With such diverse cultures, histories, health concerns, and socio-economic backgrounds and challenges we lose a lot when we do not look close enough. We cannot understand and adequately serve communities if we do not see them.”

Kilali Ala'ilima Gibson, O'ahu Marine Wildlife Response Coordinator, NOAA Fisheries

Kilali Ala'ilima Gibson, O'ahu Marine Wildlife Response Coordinator, NOAA Fisheries

Kilali grew up on the east side of O'ahu in a large family of Samoan and Caucasian heritage dancing the hula, surfing, and paddling–all of which continue to be favorite activities. She spent almost every school break in Samoa, and at one point moved there and attended elementary in Falealili. Her connection to her cultural and natural environment led Kilai to pursue her bachelors in biology at Canterbury University, and masters in marine conservation at Te Herenga Waka in Aotearoa (New Zealand). Today, Kilali coordinates teams on O’ahu to respond to issues with endangered Hawaiian monk seals, whales, and dolphins such as entanglements, strandings, hookings, and seal puppings in busy locations. Her job (kuleana) involves connecting with partners, and native and local communities to learn more about the issues to build solutions together. 

Kilali highlights an important cultural value that Pacific Islanders share: ‘tautua’ or serve/give back to families and communities.

“For me, service means protecting our environment and marine wildlife for our current and future generations in a way that reflects the communities we serve,” says Kilali. “To me, being part of the Pacific Islander community means being part of an incredibly diverse network of supportive, intelligent, respectful, and hardworking people. Our communities draw inspiration, knowledge, and strategies from everything around us including important information from our past generations to improve our future.” 

Isabel A. Halatuituia, Education Coordinator/It Specialist, National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa

Isabel A. Halatuituia, Education Coordinator/It Specialist, National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa

As an Education Coordinator for the National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa, Isabel gets to do what she loves every day: creating engaging and informative educational programs for public schools. She works with the American Samoa Department of Education, various environmental agencies, private schools, and many other partners to help further NOAA's mission of conserving and protecting coastal and marine ecosystems.

Her passion—to help and serve others—is fueled by her faith and the charge to love your neighbor as yourself.

“I feel fortunate to be able to motivate and empower people, especially teachers and their students, to become stewards of our ocean. I am humbled and honored to be part of a living and thriving culture, particularly with non-speaking Samoans around the world.”

Isabel has a bachelor’s in education from the University of Hawaiʻi. 

Kirsten Leong, Ph.D., Social Scientist, NOAA Fisheries

As a social scientist, Kirsten focuses on understanding why people may hold different understandings of and preferences for how they care for the environment. Differing views can sometimes feel like conflict, but Kirsten notes, “when you dig deeper, there are often more commonalities than differences. I try to help people see things from each other’s point of view to work towards outcomes that will benefit all.” As a descendant of Chinese immigrants, Kirsten grew up frequently visiting Hawai’I, where her dad’s family has been living for generations. She is Japanese American on her mother’s side. Members of her extended family were incarcerated during World War II in Colorado, and she honors their experience by volunteering as a board member of the Amache Alliance. 

Kirsten Leong, Ph.D., Social Scientist, NOAA Fisheries

Kirsten attended Brown University, where she double majored in biology and anthropology. She received her master’s degree in wildlife ecology and conservation from the University of Florida and her doctorate in human dimensions of natural resource management from Cornell.

For Kirsten, AANHPI Heritage Month is a reminder of how diverse the AANHPI experience can be and a time to bring attention to lesser-known stories.

“As an Asian American in the continental United States, there are often few people who can relate to your experiences and heritage, so you get used to dealing with things on your own and not talking to others about them. Being part of the AANHPI community is finding those connections to others with shared histories who can understand your experiences even if you have never met them before.” 

Kaipo Perez III, Ph.D., Resource Management Specialist, NOAA Fisheries

Kaipo Perez III, Ph.D., Resource Management Specialist, NOAA Fisheries

A native of Hawaiʻi, Kaipo grew up in a traditional fishing family where he learned lessons about stewardship and conservation that carry into his work today. He received his doctorate in zoology from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, where his research focused on bridging the gap between Western science and traditional Hawaiian knowledge to understand and provide a holistic approach to marine resource management in Hawai‘i. Kaipo works as part of a team that is helping to sustainably manage the Marine National Monuments of the Pacific, including the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, Marianas Trench Marine National Monument, and the Rose Atoll Marine National Monument.

For Kaipo, AANHPI Heritage Month provides the privilege of honoring Native Hawaiians from our past, present, and future.

“AANHPI Heritage Month calls attention to the need to ensure that our diverse sets of perspectives are included in the decision-making processes that affect our people, our lands, our waters, our resources, our culture, and our way of life. Furthermore, it reminds me of my kuleana (responsibility) to carry and pass down the teachings of our people to ensure that generations to come will be fed, sustained, and protected by the lands, seas, and resources of our elders or Kūpuna. No one can truly own the lands and seas; however, we can own our responsibility to care for them.”

Hoku Kaʻaekuahiwi Pousima, Policy Analyst, NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, Pacific Islands Region

Hoku Kaʻaekuahiwi Pousima, Policy Analyst, NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, Pacific Islands Region

Hoku is a Native Hawaiian from Mākaha on the island of Oʻahu and feels exceptionally grateful to have experienced the diversity of cultures and values of Hawaiʻi from a young age. She attended the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. She received a bachelor’s degree in Hawaiian Studies, a Master of Business Administration, and a Juris Doctor of Law from the William S. Richardson School of Law with a certificate in Native Hawaiian Law. Today, Hoku’s job focuses on executing the policies and procedures of the National Marine Sanctuaries Act and working with communities, partners, and other co-management agencies to further protect and conserve the cultural, biological, and historic significance of our oceans and its natural resources. Hoku chose to enter public service because she wanted to be a part of the oversight that NOAA has of the oceans and the natural and cultural resources in the Pacific.

Hoku recognizes the shared connectivity between Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders in Hawaiʻi because of the diverse makeup of Hawaiʻ’i’s population and the historical connections these communities continue to have today.

“The contributions that these communities have to the local culture in Hawaiʻi have played a big role in my life and are very near and dear to my heart,” says Hoku. “I celebrate being aKanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) and honor my heritage every day.”   

Iosefa F. Siatuu, Fiscal Administrative Assistant, National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa

Iosefa F. Siatuu, Fiscal Administrative Assistant, National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa

As a native of American Samoa, Iosefa grew up appreciating the connection between the land, the sea, and the people of Samoa. A graduate of American Samoa Community College, Iosefa makes that same connection for the students who participate in events and programs, including working as a tour guide at the Tau'ese P.F. Sunia Ocean Center.

Iosefa believes AANHPI Heritage Month and the celebration of diverse people from different cultures and backgrounds has made our great nation what it is today.

“My job is to raise awareness about ocean conservation and why it is important to protect our ocean, and to show them what they can do every day to help keep our ocean clean and protected. It is truly an honor to be able to do what I do for the betterment of our community, to be able to offer up my knowledge and share my experiences with our people. I believe that the services that the National Marine Sanctuaries provide benefits not only the people, but also the ocean and its resources for generations to come.” 

To learn more about NOAA Fisheries and their mission to protect our ocean resources and habitats, please visit https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/. To learn more about NOAA’s National Marine Sanctuaries and their mission to protect America's most iconic natural and cultural marine resources, please visit https://sanctuaries.noaa.gov/about/.