Harvard University recognizes innovation at Le Fetuao Samoan Language Center in Hawaii

Photo: Le Fetuao Students and Teachers


Le Fetuao Samoan Language Center (Le Fetuao) was recognized this month by Harvard University’s Bright Ideas program for its innovative approach to perpetuate the Samoan language and culture among Samoan children and families in Honolulu, Hawaii. This year’s cohort of Bright Ideas includes 124 programs from all levels of government. Le Fetuao is one of just two programs in Hawaii highlighted as a program at the forefront of innovative government action.

Le Fetuao is a non-profit community based program, that was started in 2008 by its founder and executive director Elisapeta Tuʻupo-Alaimaleata as a way to teach Samoan children living in Hawaii their heritage language and culture. In her own four children who are born and raised in Hawaii, she saw the need to learn the Samoan language and thought others could similarly benefit from the community-based program. She relied on her professional background as a classroom teacher in American Samoa and research assistant at the University of Hawaii at Manoa (UH) to create the extracurricular program. The free classes were tremendously popular, with over 78 children attending the inaugural class. Soon after it was identified that a class was also needed for parents, because students were taking Samoan language assignments home, but their parents weren’t able to help them.

Tuʻupo-Alaimaleata asked Dr. Fepuleaʻi Lasei John Mayer who teaches Samoan language at UH for support. Mayer stepped in and offered the same lessons he provided at the university for free to parents of Le Fetuao students. This problem instigated an innovative collaboration that has become a major strength of the program.

“Providing language instruction to the entire family helps to make learning the language a priority for the entire family,” said Mayer.

“Like the Samoan proverb, ‘Ia sosoʻo le fau ma le fau.’ In English, ‘Like the braiding of bark fiber, we come together.’ Our partnership helps to strengthen the Samoan community and develops students with a strong sense of self, groomed to be contributing members of society,” said Tuʻupo-Alaimaleata.

In the eight years since Le Fetuao first opened its doors, numerous community members have stepped up to contribute their time and talents to assist with Le Fetuaoʻs goal to preserve and maintain the Samoan language and culture. People like, Sauileoge Ueligitone, a retired artist
and educator from American Samoa added a fine art component to the program teaching traditional tattoo and siapo designs. Aitulagi Peto and Vaegaʻau Falaniko volunteered their time to create a separate class dedicated to preschoolers. Alice Malepeai Silbanuz, whose 9-year old daughter is a student at Le Fetuao, contributed her background in public relations to build awareness, document and share the work being done at Le Fetuao with audiences that tune in from around the world to the Le Fetuao Facebook account and lefetuao.com website.

“The Bright Ideas program demonstrates that often seemingly intractable problems can be creatively and capably tackled by small groups of dedicated, civic-minded individuals,” said Stephen Goldsmith, director of the Innovations in Government Program at the Ash Center. “As exemplified by this year’s Bright Ideas, making government work better doesn’t always require massive reforms and huge budgets. Indeed, we are seeing that, in many ways, an emphasis on efficiency and adaptability can have further-reaching effects than large-scale reforms.” This is the fourth cohort recognized through the Bright Ideas program, an initiative of the broader Innovations in American Government Awards program. For consideration as a Bright Idea, programs must currently be in operation or in the process of launching and have sufficient operational resources and must be administered by one or more governmental entities; nonprofit, private sector, and union initiatives are eligible if operating in partnership with a governmental organization. Bright Ideas are showcased on the Ash Center’s Government Innovators Network, an online platform for practitioners and policymakers to share innovative public policy solutions.

In 2013, Le Fetuao was awarded a three-year grant by the Administration for Native Americans (ANA), making it the first ANA-funded program in the nation dedicated to Samoan language preservation and maintenance. This has provided the opportunity to expand the program and develop a Samoan language curriculum that can be used by other community-based projects throughout the world.

A challenge Le Fetuao has not been able to overcome is finding a permanent location for their Saturday classes. Le Fetuao has an extensive wait list of students who are eager to learn, but it lacks a facility that can safely accommodate all of its students. Le Fetuao is currently looking for government or private partners to help find a permanent location for its program to help meet the growing community need for language and culture lessons. Le Fetuao does not charge its participants for its classes.

Bright Ideas

For more than 20 years, the Innovations in American Government Awards Program has recognized the very best innovations in American government, and has brought national attention to these practices and promoted their widespread dissemination. Learn more about Bright Ideas

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