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Laughing in the Face of Adversity

In celebration of Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) Heritage Month, we invited UTOPIA Washington, a queer and trans people of color-led, grassroots organization, to share the story of their organization and curate a series of individual stories from their community. Read the full UTOPIA series and be sure to check out all of our AANHPI Heritage Month stories.

by Fania Sipili

A reflection.

The road of a nonprofit worker doing community organizing and outreach presents its own set of unique challenges. Growing alongside the work, the more we learned the more we had to unlearn. My challenge did not present itself at first. However, as my analysis around race, trauma, racism, disparity, and gender began to grow, so did the challenge.

My challenge manifested itself in the form of unacknowledged feelings and emotions I knew were there but lacked the words to describe. It was during a check-in with Taffy (UTOPIA Executive Director) that I recognized my need to address my mental health. With her advice, I took a step back and began what would now be the most critical step I needed to take in my whole life – seeking out help and overcoming my own fears of bringing to light things that would put me in a vulnerable position.

It sparked my passion to become an advocate for mental health advocacy and awareness, especially in marginalized communities that still view it as taboo. It has been an arduous journey but, other than the people on my team that are always behind me, there is one constant thing that has never failed: laughter.

The work is difficult. Most of the people are difficult. We can be difficult. Situations are difficult. When we enter spaces, we wear a suit made of seriousness because we want people to take who we are and what we do seriously. We all do it. However, when we are back at the headquarters or on the car ride home, nothing beats the first joke that just breaks the tension and pulls us back to the reality that, when we are together, we are regular people. We are someone’s child, someone’s sibling or best friend, someone that likes to karaoke too much for their own good, or someone that enjoys staying in watching hours of K-drama because they believe they are secretly from South Korea and their parents will not fess up to adopting them from there.

When I laugh these days, I laugh with my whole body and soul. I make sure that it echoes across the room so I can hear it myself, so it can register with my body, the walls, and the frames. Despite the heavy emotions we feel, there is a warmness that still exists in myself and in this space.

Some of our team members that have speaking engagements are a little nervous. Speaking for myself, I am always a push or a shove away from a nervous breakdown before every event. My team knows that well. When you see us in spaces, you might notice that our members may seem quiet, intimidating, and even unapproachable. That is far from the truth. We know that when we are at the front of the line at events and at new spaces, we are not there for ourselves, but rather as a representative and a voice of a larger community that often goes unrepresented. If you look closely after we have done our part, there is a 100 percent chance you will hear laughter. I do not have a profound conclusion about how to overcome obstacles and fix everyone’s problems, but I do know what works for me and my team because it reflects what works for me and my community.

As I write this reflection piece, thinking about the expectations of wrapping up this four-part series, my 15-minutes of peace is disrupted by a series of passionate discussions about chocolate bars, a debate on what food menu item was best for our street outreach, followed by a snarky comment about changing up the menu because we’ve already had the same dish last time. “Can you girls not?” I try to say in a stern way. There is a brief silence as we look at each other. However, the silence is short lived as the sound of bellowing laughter cuts through the room like a knife on cake. I join in on the laugh, and while doing so, a thought enters my head.

Laughter has always gotten us through a lot of things. Although, I recognize now that humor is a trauma response, it still does not change the fact that a good laugh goes a long way, and what a long way it has brought us.

Greetings and Talofa everyone, my name is Fania, and I am UTOPIA (United Territories of Pacific Islanders Alliance) Washington’s Mapu Maia Clinic Program Manager. If you see us in spaces, come say hi. I will be a nervous wreck, but at least now you know why we do the things we are not comfortable doing, because it benefits the community, and I was probably voted to be here so I can grow and push myself. Haha.

headshot photograph of Fania Sipili, they are smiling and have short, curly, black hair and are wearing a brown button-up shirt.
Fania Sipili is a native of American Samoa that found their way to the vast Pacific Northwest through their journey of self-discovery. As one of the case managers for UTOPIA Washington, Fania calls on the experience they have navigating the fluctuating temperatures of the social waters as a free roaming social butterfly. Since moving to Washington in 2014 and joining the UTOPIA Washington circle, they have definitely found themselves in a nurturing environment that fostered fellowship, community, and self-love above all else. 

This piece was commissioned by the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods. The opinions expressed and information contained herein do not necessarily reflect the policies, plans, beliefs, conclusions, or ideas of the City of Seattle.