Inside Change with Asa Matelau
What’s your role at Change and how did you end up at the company?
I am a Staff Backend Engineer – a recent addition to the Change.org team – on the Starters Pack, Pacific Squad. We work on the pieces that allow for petition creation on our site.
My road to Change.org has been a long time coming. Over the course of the events of this past year, I started to question the impact I wanted the labor I put into this world to have. It wasn’t until a man yelled racial slurs at me and attempted to stab me while I was out walking my dog that I decided I needed that change now! This man’s actions were likely enabled by the racist rhetoric that was in overabundance during the Trump administration. Add his actions on-top of the continued violence against Black, Indigenous and People of Color we all have been witness to and I couldn’t handle it. I wanted to work in a space where I could enable the type of change we so desperately need.
It felt like fate had intervened when I noticed a post by Yanny (Change.org recruiter) in an Elixir Slack group I frequent. After reaching out to Yanny, I got to hear about the anti-racism work taking place at the organization and the solutions built with the Elixir programming language. I was dumbfounded at the possibility that so many things I am passionate about could be found within one organization. I had to learn more.
What’s a cause or social issue that you’re passionate about?
I am passionate about immigration reform, police abolition, anti-racism, data justice, artificial intelligence ethics, climate justice and worker rights. Really, any issue where equity is needed or where a community of people are being targeted, hurt or exploited. I don’t subscribe to a scarcity mindset in a society where we allow some to go without while we have billionaires raking it in. I am generally passionate about social justice issues. I have organized in the past as a member of the Salt Lake City, Brown Berets and I have mentored youth as a Face Movement mentor. I am also passionate about getting Black, Indigenous and People of Color into tech fields.
How does your identity inform your work?
I am Tongan-American. I am hafakasi, 1/2 Caucasian 1/2 Tongan. I attended the National Pacific American Leadership Institute (NAPALI) and it was there that I learned that despite western framing of modern problems that our indigenous ways of knowing, our culture, our interaction with this world and one another are just as valuable in this modern world.
These ways of knowing come out in my interactions with my colleagues. They come out in the way I collaborate across teams. They come out in the way that I approach solving tough technical problems. They come out in what I decide to value in my connections and work with my colleagues.
What does Asian & Pacific Islander Heritage Month mean to you? How do you typically observe or celebrate?
To be honest, I am not a fan of Asian & Pacific Islander Heritage Month. That isn’t to say that I don’t think that people in this group should be recognized and celebrated, but that if you even took one of these two high level categorizations – Asian for example – there is so much diversity in that single group, difference in lived experience, difference in culture, difference in food, difference in languages, difference in geography, that there is no way you could do that single group justice.
Now just go in and include Pacific Islanders to that group. Then think about the additional differences between all of the Polynesians, Melanesians, Micronesians and their separate individual groups. There is simply too much going on for it to make any sense…
However, I do think it is important for these two groups (and many subgroups) to find solidarity in our lived experiences and struggles. We have coalitions to build for sure, but I believe we could honor the history and contributions of Asians and Pacific Islanders better.
Have you noticed anything different or interesting about this year’s AAPI month?
This year of course there is a lot of discussion around the increased violence against Asian communities. #StopAsianHate is a call to action to stop the violence, to challenge the anti-Asian rhetoric and failure by the media to capture issues these communities face.
There also is continued efforts by Pacific Islanders to disaggregate data from the Asian umbrella to get better information on how Pacific Islanders have been impacted by the pandemic. This is part of a larger ongoing data justice issue that is a form of erasure where the details are lost in the data when capturing graduation rates, health issues, crime, opportunity etc. wherever Pacific Islanders are included within the Asian umbrella.
In addition, there is a lot of discussion around Pacific Islander representation during Asian & Pacific Islander Heritage Month. For instance, if you take a look at Netflix’s hub dedicated to AAPI content titled ‘Celebrate Asian American & Pacific Islander Stories’ you will notice ~99% of that content is strictly Asian (Are they not aware of Taika Waititi?). If you audit other content hubs or speaker panels you will likely find that they are overwhelmingly Asian or completely Asian. There is nothing wrong with that, but it is also fine if you just call it what it is and drop the PI from the acronym used.
Finally, I recently learned that 8 out of 10 Pacific Islanders in the US are native to the United States (colonized territories). So, there are plenty of Pacific Islanders that are contending with American imperialism and the impact that is having on their homes.
With all of that said, I have been moved this past month by the solidarity shown by my colleagues at Change.org to address these tough issues and others. What renews me daily is working alongside my passionate colleagues and watching petition starters on our site demand change then bear witness to the impact they achieve. That is why I joined Change.org!