Professor Ravulo, last year you became the first Pasifika professor in Australia. Was it a surprise to you that you were the first?
Very much so! I had no idea that this was the case until a Pasifika colleague, Pefi Kingi based in Victoria, posted about it on her social media platforms. I was genuinely surprised!
For me, it is a true honour and privilege to be noted as this. It is a shared achievement with and for our Pacific communities. However, many questions which prod and provoke my passions were raised. One question I had in particular was: ‘Why? Why has it taken so long for universities in Australia to appoint a person from a Pasifika heritage as a professor?’
Traditionally, universities have been characterised as being very white and Westernised spaces that Pacific people may not be able to picture themselves in. We need to disrupt these perspectives and create opportunities to reshape the culture within to create environments and settings that are intentionally inclusive.
Everyone is involved in this conversation in which we can learn to embrace diverse perspectives and practices that support inclusive learning and teaching, and research and leadership.
Your research spans a broad range of social work issues, including the mental health of Pacific communities and NRL players of Pacific heritage. Was there a gap in the literature that led you to research Pasifika topics?
Yes, yes, and yes! The reason why I went into my doctorate was to help create empirical data on why there is an overrepresentation of Pasifika young people in the youth justice system. My social work career, before becoming an academic unintentionally, involved supporting young people who offend and their families, which included a large proportion of Pasifika in western Sydney. We didn’t have any research on the reason why this may be occurring.
From this initial foray into research, I fell in love with the idea of being involved in supporting other Pacific-focussed research projects that would further assist our communities, whilst holding social systems and structures accountable for their interactions with us.
In essence, it’s a shared solution where individuals, families, and communities help shape such service models of delivery and provision, rather than becoming vilified and victims to it. This includes health, education, legal, and welfare systems that can be designed to help diverse communities thrive.
At Western Sydney University, you have worked on programs to encourage students from a Pacific Island background to pursue tertiary study. Are they currently underrepresented in Australian universities, and if so why?
I started my first academic role as a Lecturer at Western Sydney University in July 2011 and was perplexed about why we didn’t see may people from a Pacific heritage involved in this space. It led to the creation of Pasifika Achievement To Higher Education (PATHE), which celebrates its 10th anniversary in 2022.
In essence, the answer to our underrepresentation lies in the systems and structures that we implement within educational settings in Western societies. This includes the way we create and curate diverse learning styles and approaches that lead to meaningful educational engagement across all levels: early childhood, primary and high school, vocational and tertiary.
If we don’t promote critical pedagogies and practices that enable diversity to be inclusive in teaching and learning, then we won’t effectively support retention and progression towards further education and training. And this can mean ensuring Pacific epistemologies and ontologies are included in the scope of curricula, and that these harness our own narratives and lived experiences to support our educational involvement.
Through this approach, we can capture and enhance positive attitudes towards lifelong learning, which can further produce educational attainment towards social mobility and inclusion.
A news article noted that your father is Indigenous Fijian and moved to Australia in the 1970s where he met your mother.¹ How did being bicultural and the tensions of trying to negotiate two cultures shape your identity?
I was constantly challenged by the way in which other people were putting certain labels and binary perspectives on my identity.
This is captured (cheeky plug ahead) in a recent talk I did for TEDxSydney in August 2022 called ‘Living beyond the binary’.² It is through my own lived experience of being biracial, bisexual, a person of colour and growing up in public housing in western Sydney that my ability to see the world beyond the binary was developed. In white, Western societies, we are obsessed with these binaries which create an us-and-them mentality and limit the opportunity to create safe spaces for everyone.
We need to move together towards a shared goal where our cultural diversity and its differences are seen as a source of celebration and help shape the communities in which we live.
Before becoming a professor, you trained as a singer and actor, and you still weave performance into your classes and participate in comedy gigs in your spare time. Who were your artistic and intellectual influences growing up?
The performing arts continue to be of keen interest to me, and I’ve been fortunate enough to have had opportunities to be involved in various activities over the years. It’s through these skills and attributes that I have been able to implement social work projects that support young people experiencing vulnerabilities to engage socially and therapeutically.
My artistic influences have been Pasifika people who have pioneered artistic spaces across the region. This includes Jay Laga’aia, who I first saw on the Australian TV show Water Rats back in the 1990s. He represented the possibility for people like us to be involved in these spaces.
Intellectually, Dr Epeli Hauʻofa has been a big influence through his insights, humour, and wit across poetry and stories that reflect our presence across Oceania. I’m also enthralled by the works of bell hooks, James Baldwin, and Paulo Freire.
You co-authored a 2022 article on the Sydney-based drill rap group ONEFOUR.³ The Australian drill scene is notable for its many Polynesian rappers. What role does Pacific culture play in drillers like ONEFOUR?
The lyrics and sounds produced by groups like ONEFOUR are a reflection of our collectivist ideals and values as Pasifika people. Our identities are connected with community and reflect the spaces and places we traverse.
Certain themes may come across as being abrupt and challenging—but so they should. As a Pacific diaspora in Australia, we continue to be located in socioeconomic, socio-geographic, and socio-political contexts that reflect our marginality.
We should reflect on these narratives and see them as a source of knowledge that can be utilised to further support a shared understanding of our struggles, achievements, and all that is in between.
Additionally, ONEFOUR provides visibility to our existence within the Australian landscape, and moreso to our unique capabilities and strengths.
The article concludes that criminalising Pacific drillers counter-productively undermines important role models for their communities, who you note are over-represented in Australian prisons. Can music reverse that trend?
Music is part of the solution. In my own work with young offenders, we ran music projects to assist in their ability to share their lived experiences through song.
As Pasifika people, music has been used as a form of oratory and the passing down of our stories over generations. By learning from these experiences, we can create solutions that support the meeting of certain social and welfare needs that contribute to criminogenic factors that lead to offending.
At the same time, we need to decolonise the punitive nature of carceral spaces and reinvest in resources that support our communities. Failure to do this will continue to perpetuate our overrepresentation, leading to ongoing deficits and the dehumanisation of our peoples.
Australia’s diplomatic, economic, and social ties to the Pacific have been receiving more mainstream media attention in recent years. While long part of the Pacific region, is Australia’s sensitivity to its cultures improving?
I would like to think so. However, if we continue to operate within a context of paternalism, in which we view our interactions as being in the vested interests of the Pacific nations, then we continue to perpetuate neo-colonial and neo-imperial ways.
As the world is driven by its obsession for neoliberal leanings that enable consumerism and individualism to run rampant, Indigenous Pacific worldviews are further diminished and demoralised.
If Australia wants to play a leading role in the region, then it needs to learn to understand our cultural views and values, and how this can shape collaborative cooperation across Oceania.
This can include consulting with the growing Pasifika diaspora in Australia, who continue to interact with and support families in our Islands of origin. We can help shape foreign policy in the Pacific and support the economic and social development of our countries of origin.
At a time of national soul-searching on the recognition of Indigenous Australians’ identities, do you hear the voices of Pasifika, South Sea Islander and other Pacific communities also getting stronger in Australian society?
I believe our voice continues to evolve. I’m keen to ensure our ability to be involved across different sections of society is part of this picture, and that our perspectives and practices pervade the workplace resulting in culturally nuanced and safe spaces. We are greatly capable of being across all workforce sectors and industries, which will result in our ability to be represented.
However, for this to occur we need to create a shared approach to enshrining First Nations Australians as being key to everyone’s success. We need to ensure that our culture as a country is constructed from a foundation that esteems Indigenous Australian voices, a treaty, and their truths. From this, I believe other ethnically diverse communities can be valued for their differences and help shape a national narrative driven by this context.
The ‘West is best’, ‘white is right’ discourse continues to be of disservice and creates disunity. We can learn so much from each other, if we learn to just get over ourselves individually, and practice collectivist view and values that are embedded within Indigenous paradigms.
As the first, what issue do you hope the fifth Pasifika professor in Australia will find resolved in their day that is still a challenge for you in your own?
At the time of writing, there are now three Pasifika professors in Australia— Professor Katerina Teaiwa, Professor Tu’uhevaha Kaitu’u-Lino, and me—so I’m confident the fourth and fifth are not too far off!
I would love to see a region where Indigenous Pacific people are at the table where conversations are being had about them as a people. Too often, we as Pacific people are being told what to do based on other people’s decisions and determinations for us as population.
I envision an Oceania that promotes Pacific autonomy, determination, and agency that is not negatively impacted by the need to perceivably keep up with the West.
I know this sounds grandiose. However, if we could incorporate our Pacific perspectives within our modern social structures, systems, and settings, we would have much better health, educational, legal, and welfare outcomes. It’s achievable, and we need to work together to create policy across all realms that can make this difference.
And having Pasifika professors in Australia is one part of this shared approach and solution.
Jioji Ravulo, ‘Listening to Pasifika voices’, in Synkrētic №3 (Dec. 2022): 52-58.