Samoan Community Development Center (SCDC)

Iesha Ena, Director of Community Affairs and Logistics at the Samoan Community Development Center (SCDC) in San Francisco’s Sunnydale neighborhood, has a favorite Samoan saying: “O le ala i le pule, o le tautua…” In English, she says, it means “the pathway to leadership is through service.”

Iesha says she learned leadership by example through SCDC’s Executive Director, Dr. Patsy Tito, the “pillar of light in the Samoan and Pacific Islander community” and person she credits for growing SCDC from seven to 50+ team members over the past 25 years. Throughout her time at the organization, Iesha has also brought this idiom to life and helped weave it into the very fabric of their mission. Over the years, as the programming and cultural needs grew along with the population being served, the SCDC team built programs for Samoan youth, young adults and families; and created vital programming for elders – the north star of Samoan culture.

Since its founding in 1991, the SCDC has thus become a leader in San Francisco’s small but vibrant Samoan community. With the support of Metta Foundation’s commitment to racial equity and historically excluded communities, the SCDC is fully equipped to build on their achievements.

Samoans and Pacific Islanders in San Francisco constitute just 0.5% of the city’s residents, but the unique culture and traditions of this community contribute immeasurably to [the mosaic of] San Francisco’s diversity. And while the Samoan diaspora has faced challenges such as segregation, language barriers, unemployment, and lower socioeconomic status, organizations like the SCDC play a crucial role in fostering a sense of identity, belonging, and well-being in this population.

“A lot of the activities we facilitate engage our seniors to make sure that they feel loved, wanted, and needed. When they feel needed, they feel validated and empowered,” Iesha says. “We’re trying to bring back Samoan cultural practices via the seniors’ guidance.” In this way, SCDC is giving thanks to their elders, and by extension, to their indigenous practices.

The SCDC was originally established to serve as a point of care in the community for recent Samoan and Pacific Island immigrants, a large number of whom felt lost navigating the systems – not to mention food, language, and culture – of their new home. Many of the elders at the center wanted to go back to Samoa upon arrival, Iesha found, feeling overwhelmed with how to navigate their new lives and missing the smaller, and oftentimes more spiritual, life of the islands. For many, she says, the prioritization of individualism over communal living in American culture was a shock. By serving as a central hub for meeting and building community, the SCDC has become a proxy for the church community that was central to life in Samoa for many elders. “Samoan culture is not a culture of me, myself, and I,” Iesha says. “This is a multi-generational community, living together, working together, and helping each other.”

Iesha is often thanked by elders for the support SCDC provides. “Our programs have to do with survival,” Iesha says. “How can we maintain our culture while thriving in America? I pray that the programs we offer here at SCDC equip our community with the ability to navigate both cultures and still remain true to who we are – true to both cultures.”

“This is a multi-generational community, living together, working together, and helping each other.” – Iesha Ena

And while many community organizations include senior programming, the SCDC is unique in that their approach centers the elder experience and lets elders take the lead where offering advice and opinions are concerned. Additionally, the SCDC puts Samoan practices first and hierarchical structures found in traditional American workspaces second. What’s important is that the elders’ lived experience is honored, and everything, from programming, to communication, to discipline, falls in line here as it would in Samoa. In actively engaging elders and honoring indigenous practices and cultural pillars, the SCDC ensures that cultural practices are passed down to younger generations.

The global pandemic brought unprecedented and unforeseen challenges, forcing SCDC to pivot its programs to ensure the well-being of elders. The shift to online services, wellness checks, home visits, and care package deliveries demonstrated the organization’s commitment to maintaining connections and addressing immediate needs. This period of adaptation highlighted the significance of SCDC’s role in providing essential services beyond traditional programming. And while this was a difficult time, it gave Iesha and SCDC time to revamp their programming and come back even stronger.

The elders have expressed particular approval of three new programs: Siva4Wellness, Pese (Singing), and Bingo. These activities are not merely sources of entertainment; they serve as cultural bridges, reconnecting seniors to their indigenous practices. Siva4Wellness, a low-impact exercise rooted in Samoan dancing, not only promotes physical health but also sparks memories of youth and vitality.

Many of our seniors can identify and connect to the music and dancing,” says Iesha, and “many seniors have shared that it takes them back to when they were young, vibrant and loved by their parents with no worries in the world.” – Iesha Ena

Another activity called Pese (Singing), provides “opportunities for our seniors to remember and reminisce,” she says, “remembering fun times with loved ones when they were living in Samoa, singing songs in church, with family, and in the village. Our songs talk about historic events in Samoa, historical Samoan figures, and sites. These songs bring back loving memories of different events and depict folk stories of Samoa, further connecting our seniors to their ancestors.”

And Bingo? Well, who doesn’t love Bingo?

“Twenty years from now I would like to see our organization continuing all of the community work we are currently doing, but in our own building,” she says. “It is a dream of ours to have our own space that our Samoan Community can call our own and be proud we live in a city that recognizes and acknowledges the need to be seen, heard, and validated.”

The greater message of SCDC is cultural awareness and respect. “We want our youth to thrive in the San Francisco community and education system,” says Iesha. “We teach our youth to respect their elders and respect one another, as we would want others to respect our culture; ours is a culture of love.”

“You know a Samoan by the way they stand, walk, and talk: E iloa le Samoa i lona tu, savali ma tautala,” Iesha reflected, quoting another Samoan proverb. To her mind, it expresses SCDC’s goal of engaging both youth and elders in modern activities intertwined with indigenous practices, to create a holistic environment that honors tradition while helping them thrive in their adopted home.

While the Samoan Community Development Center overall demonstrates resilience, community engagement, and cultural preservation, its senior program exemplifies the transformative impact of community-led initiatives. By prioritizing inclusivity, engaging lived experiences, and preserving cultural heritage, the SCDC plays a vital role in fostering a sense of belonging for Samoan and Pacific Islander seniors in the diverse landscape of the San Francisco Bay Area.