Agnes TuiSamoa spent a lifetime supporting and campaigning for the rights of her fellow Pacific Islanders in Auckland, both new migrants and their New Zealand-born children. She was a leading figure in many community organisations and campaigns, at a time when very few Pacific people were active in the fields of social work or political advocacy. Her work was marked by innovation and a willingness to take a contrary path to others in her community. Her initiatives also supported struggling Auckland families from a variety of other backgrounds.
Of Samoan and Chinese descent, Agnes Rosa Sue was born in Suva, Fiji on 7 December 1932, the daughter of Apaula Theresa Perera and her husband, Harry Sue. Her parents separated when she was young and both remarried. Agnes was brought up by her godmother and foster father until the age of 10, when she returned to live with her mother. Her childhood contained many aspects of difference: growing up Samoan in Fiji, with significant links to her Chinese heritage; being Catholic in a largely Protestant country; and being better-dressed than many of her schoolmates. These things made her aware that there were many less fortunate than herself. After a Catholic education, she attended a business college and worked for the Catholic bishop as a teenager. In 1951 she moved for a time to Western Samoa, where she consolidated her Samoan language skills. Her facility with languages – she also spoke English, Fijian and some Hindi – would be very important in later years. She soon became known as someone who could help others, a reputation which followed her to New Zealand.
Agnes emigrated to New Zealand in 1953 as a young single woman who wanted to become a nurse. She was given a training position at the private Catholic Mater Misericordiae Hospital in Auckland, but faced racism and did not receive the training she had been promised. She resigned and found work in the accounts department at Auckland Hospital’s laundry, which employed many Pacific Islanders. Since the Second World War, the Pacific Island community in Auckland had grown rapidly, its members having travelled to New Zealand looking for increased opportunities for education and employment.
In 1954 Agnes had her first child; she was engaged to the boy’s father, but he returned to Western Samoa and she did not wish to follow him. There was minimal social support for unmarried mothers at the time, so others cared for her son on weekdays while she worked. After six months Agnes’ mother took the baby to Fiji. Agnes married Keresipi Tuisamoa in Auckland on 21 October 1955. Born in Western Samoa, Keresipi was a car painter and later a labourer who had emigrated to New Zealand in the early 1950s. Agnes’s second child was born in 1956, and eight more followed over the next 16 years. Her eldest son returned to the family in the early 1960s. The family spelled their surname ‘TuiSamoa’ after Keresipi received a Samoan title in 1998.
Although Agnes married into the Presbyterian church, her Catholic upbringing remained an important influence throughout her life. She joined the congregation of the Pacific Island Presbyterian Church in Newton, the first Pacific Island church in New Zealand. This church provided social support services to its congregation, and, unlike many other churches at the time, had Pacific Islanders in roles of responsibility. It was also one of the few organisations of the era to work across the quite disparate Pacific migrant communities. Agnes worked voluntarily with the clergy to support those newly-arrived from the islands who were struggling to adjust to life in a large city away from their social and kin networks. Unlike many in her community, Agnes felt that attending services on Sunday should be a matter of choice. She viewed her social work and counselling as her contribution to church life.
Families increasingly came to Agnes for help – her language skills and ability as an advocate created an expectation that she would help people in trouble. She worked as a part-time nurse aide in the mid-1960s, but in 1975 she moved into professional community and social work. That year she joined the Auckland Methodist Central Mission; she remained a lynchpin of its Pacific Centre, a unique inner-city social-service agency run by and for Pacific Islanders, for nearly 30 years. Her work involved assisting families with immigration and legal issues, finance and budgeting, domestic violence, and drug and alcohol problems. She worked with all age groups and ethnicities, often taking on difficult cases, sometimes for years, until they found their feet. She worked with patience and skill, lobbying social welfare officials on behalf of struggling families and working with lawyers on immigration issues.
Social work fa’asamoa (in the Samoan way) placed particular demands on Agnes and her family. People would come to her home to seek help, or she would visit theirs, in the middle of the night if necessary. Her young family was also involved, helping provide food to struggling people who came to their door. Agnes received a Certificate for Community Studies from the University of Auckland in 1977. She was later involved in the Pacific Advisory Committee for the new School of Social Work at the Auckland College of Education, working to ensure it met the needs of Pacific Island students.
Through her work, Agnes became involved in networks of like-minded people in Auckland who were trying to help those in need. She worked particularly closely with urban Pacific Island and Māori groups, and political pressure groups campaigning for the rights of the downtrodden. Agnes was one of the few of the older, more cautious, generation of Pacific Island leaders to support the Polynesian Panther movement, a youth-led organisation concerned with the treatment of Pacific Islanders in New Zealand during the 1970s era of ‘dawn raids’ and the deportation of ‘overstayers’. She was regarded as a ‘stirrer’ and likened by some to the Māori women activists of her day, such as Whina Cooper and Eva Rickard. In the early 1970s she also worked with anti-racism groups that were exploring the implications of the Treaty of Waitangi. She participated in direct action, particularly supporting tenants at risk of eviction and occupying homes while legal issues were resolved. She was also involved in a successful legal challenge to New Zealand’s immigration policies in 1982, which reclassified many Western Samoans as New Zealand citizens.
As well as assisting families directly, Agnes helped pioneer and support many social organisations, as the needs of Auckland’s Pacific Island community changed over the decades. Much of this work was focused on Auckland’s inner suburbs such as Grey Lynn, Ponsonby and Herne Bay, where the Tuisamoa family and most of the city’s Pacific Islanders lived at the time. In 1978 she helped establish the Grey Lynn Neighbourhood Law Office, which provided free legal advice. This was the first community law centre in the country; such centres soon became an important part of New Zealand’s legal culture.
Recognising that there was a lack of culturally-appropriate services for vulnerable members of Pacific Island and Māori communities, Agnes helped set up or support three women’s refuges, an organisation to assist alcoholics, the Grey Lynn Community Housing Society, a residential housing programme for homeless young people, and Pillars, an organisation supporting children whose parents were in prison.
Agnes believed that the education system was letting down Pacific Island children by undermining their culture. She considered language central to defining a person’s identity, so was concerned for the New Zealand-born generations of Pacific Islanders living without their language: ‘They will think of themselves as Kiwi, but will Kiwis accept them? I don’t think so. They will be in limbo.’1 In the 1980s she helped establish the first full-immersion Pacific Island language early childhood centre in Auckland, A’oga Fa’a Samoa, a model since replicated around the country. Disappointed that her own children had not grown up bilingual, she took much pleasure in interacting with her Samoan-speaking grandchildren. She was also involved with the governance of her children’s schools, and took part in initiatives to promote non-formal and community education initiatives for adults.
Agnes sat on many committees which advised local and central government. She was a member of the Samoan Council of Women and the Pacific Island Advisory Council, established to create lines of communication between her community, the Minister of Pacific Island Affairs and government. She also worked in the Labour Party’s Auckland Central electorate office. She represented New Zealand at the 1975 Pacific Women’s Conference in Suva, the first time women in the region came together to assess the position of women in their societies. From this grew a new women’s organisation, PACIFICA, which aimed to empower Pacific women living in New Zealand. In 1988 she was one of the first trustees appointed to the ASB Community Trust, an organisation which provided grants to groups in Auckland and Northland. She held this position until 1994.
Agnes stood out for taking on non-traditional roles, particularly as a woman in Auckland’s largely conservative Samoan community. She was the first Pacific Island woman in many community organisations. She believed strongly in the equality of men and women, and stood up to those who sought to play down social issues within their community. Likewise, she took a contrary view to many in her generation with regard to the cultural obligations on families to donate money to the church and extended family members in the islands. Her belief that her children should have freedom sometimes brought her into conflict with her more traditional husband.
Made a Justice of the Peace in 1985, Agnes enjoyed the opportunity this role gave her to meet a range of people. She did not wish to receive public recognition for her work, but was awarded a Queen’s Service Medal for community service in 1985. She retired from social work in the early 2000s, at a time when professional social work was changing radically.
Although she was dedicated to Samoan culture, Agnes lived in New Zealand for 51 years. Interviewed in 1988, she said that she defined herself as a New Zealander and regarded New Zealand as her home. She also denied that she was a ‘leader’ of her community, or even a ‘helper’: ‘I don’t claim to lead people, I want to walk along with them, I don’t want to get in front’.2 She died in Auckland on 17 November 2004, aged 71, and was survived by her husband and children.