The narrator of The Polynesian Gift to Utah, Alema Harrington is a sportscaster for KSL-TV and ESPN.
Q: Alema, you were talking about how you wanted to help the community so far as seeing the Polynesian people become increasingly more accepted. What are some of the techniques, or how can you help?
A: I think the thing about my position is that people see me just as a person and the color line is erased at least for a fraction of a second. And when they see me on the news or on Sports Beat Saturday, they say "Oh look, there's Alema Harrington," they don't say "Oh look, there's a Polynesian."
I tell the story sometimes about being on the sidelines at a high school football game and one of the officials came up and asked me about my job and said "You do a great job. I watch you all the time. You always dress so well. You always look so good." And he said, " You know you better be careful. There are a lot of Tongan guys out here and they might steal your clothes." And for a second there I think he caught himself when he said it because he didn't see me as a Polynesian and I said to him "No they won't, because they are my cousins and they wouldn't do that." And it made him think for a second, "Hey you know what, he's right. And he's a Polynesian just like they are."
And maybe they next time he sees that group of kids, he'll treat them the same way he treated me. And that's the progression that we're looking for, as far as the way that we are treated as a people. And I think that my position will help that happen, hopefully, if I continue to do the things that I'm doing, then people will treat other Polynesians better. And that's what we're looking for.
Q: You were saying earlier about how sports opened the doors with the acceptance of Karl Malone. Do you want to elaborate on that?
A: You see a Caucasian kid out there wearing a Karl Malone jersey. That says that "Hey, I want to be like him." Or a Michael Jordan jersey says "Hey, I want to be like him." And despite that fact that I might be Caucasian, I want to be like a black guy. Or you see a black kid out there wearing a John Stockton jersey. It's the same thing. Sports is able to do that, to go beyond the color barrier, and people see others for their talents rather than what color they are. And the same thing with our Polynesian community here. If you cover sports in this town, and I do, on a Friday night when I'm covering high school football you better know your Polynesian names, because you are going to be mentioning David Fiafia and Nafahu Tahi, and the list goes on.
But there are going to be Caucasian kids at that school or who are growing up watching a sports cast and say, "I want to be like that running back right there." And they'll want to be like David Fiafia, or like Junior Mahae from BYU. And so for that second they don't see that kid as a Polynesian, they see that kid as a talented athlete. And they want to have those attributes as well. And the next time they see that kid on the street they say, "I wonder if that guy is related to Junior Mahae?" And they might treat him like Junior Mahae. And that's the way we all are. They say we all look alike, that we are all related, and it's true. We do all look alike, and we are all related, and we should all be treated the same. We need to deserve the correct treatment. We can't go out there and act like criminals and expect to be treated like all-star athletes. And so we need to do our part as well.
Q: How does you professional career mesh with your interaction with the Polynesian community? Could you explain your involvement?
A: Well, because of my job being so high profile, I get a lot of calls from the Polynesian community wanting me to come out and speak to their youth, giving them hope, maybe increasing their ambition, and their opportunities. That's the biggest thing. I think a lot of times any minority community, Polynesians included, limit ourselves at what we can do. But if there's somebody out there breaking some barriers, (and I'm not the one who's broken this barrier, but I'm high profile in this community) then they say, "Well, I can do that too."
Now there are people who came before me. Vi Sicahema, who is the number one sportscaster in the NBC affiliate in Philadelphia came out of BYU, he's a Tongan. He's the one who really helped me to get into the business. He helped me, and possibly in return maybe I can help another kid get into the business. For that reason, the Polynesian community can look to him, or myself, as giving them options, things that they can do, without limiting themselves in their own mind by saying "I don't they I can do that. Nobody had done it before." It's been done.
Q: A lot of Polynesian kids, one way or another, end their education at high school. And perhaps they don't go on because their parents are not college educated, and they don't see the value of that. What is your opinion on education?
A: I think that I come from a different background, because my father was not only a college graduate but an educator, and the importance of education was always stressed in my home. The important thing for the Polynesian community right now is to move past just being great athletes. They get stuck there. We all do. And it's not just the Polynesian community; it's a trend that takes place in every minority community. First they become good at something, like athletics, then the other things follow. Athletics are providing a lot of opportunities for our kids to go to college. But they get there, often times without the social skills to succeed in a college atmosphere.
We need to work with our kids to make them more ready to be in that atmosphere, and then they will succeed. But they are a special group of people, and we need to help them in their special ways. Having people like Ron McBride at the University of Utah, who takes incredible time and genuine concern with the Polynesian kids. I go over there and see kids in computer labs and study labs all the time, because he has that much concern with them. He takes the time to do it, and they need that. Just like Steve Kafusi is there. You have Polynesian coaches who understand the needs of the Polynesian kids, and that helps them to succeed in school. It can't just be on the athletic fields. So they need that as well.
Q: If you were to help the viewer of this public television program better understand the Polynesian community, what insight would you lend to them?
A: I think that the Polynesian community is really in a lot of ways no different from any other culture or community that's out there. It's a very strong spiritual community and culture. It's a very strong family community and culture. And when you think about it, it's a lot like Utah's family community and culture. So in that respect, were very similar and much the same as the community that we live in. Maybe that's why a lot of us have been drawn to this place, Utah. Partly because of the religious aspect, the strong family values that are based here.
That's really what the Polynesian people are about. We're misunderstood at times because our culture is different because we come from an island. We are living on an island that is enormous and there are times when you don't see water. But the culture is different because we look different. But if you get past that, the values are very much the same.
I think often times that Polynesians might get caught up or distracted because the trust factor on an island is very tight. Everybody knows everybody. If you go to Samoa, everybody knows everybody that's on that island. Here, you might not know everybody, but you still treat them with the same trust. Now if you don't get the same trust back or your trust is violated, then you have problems. I think that is the source of some of the problems that we face as a Polynesian community here, is that we come from a very strong family tight-knit group, and then your exposed to something that's a little bit different, and then you lose your way a little bit. I don't know if that was a good answer or not.
Q: Have you been back to Samoa?
A: I've been back to Samoa once. American Samoa.
Q: When you go there, do you put on a lava lava and wander around?
Q: What's it like to make that transition? And do you get more relaxed with your time keeping?
A: I went back to Samoa to do a story on the Fatasi races that take place during Flag Day. Flag Day itself is an incredible event in American Samoa. I had the great privilege to have an audience with the King Tupoa from Tonga, because he was being honored in that celebration. To see the things that take place in that community, makes you feel good about your people, because there is so much care and concern about one another. This was my first time back to Samoa. You go around and you don't see any poverty. You don't see any pollution, as far as people leaving their garbage out or something like that. Everybody takes care of everything.
I asked the guide that took us around while I was there, I said, "How come you don't see any bums or anything like that?" And he said, "You know why? Because we care about our people." They have too much pride to let one of their relatives be out there drunk or something. They'll take care of them. They'll take them home and make sure everyone is fed, everyone is taken care of. And everybody has that kind of concern for the other person. That's the beautiful thing about the culture, is the concern. Everyone genuinely cares about the other person.
You find that when you come here too. As soon as I see someone that Is a Polynesian, my heart gets warm. I don't need to be in Samoa to feel that. There's already a connection between the two of us, because I know that person's heart has the same type of care and concern that the people in Samoa have. That comes through. I was at a Jazz game the other night, and there were these four Polynesian kids who were probably between 18 and 25 maybe. They came in on the floor to sit in their seats. I couldn't help to notice them because their the only Polynesians in the whole building, aside from me, that are sitting in the lower bowl area.
But when I looked over there, it made me feel just warm inside that they were there. And I could look over there and see them, and they could see me, and just through us looking at each other there was a connection and a feeling of unity that we shared something. And what we shared was that concern and love that you feel when you go to any Polynesian island.
The Polynesian Gift to Utah is made possible by a generous grant from the R. Harold Burton Foundation.