Pacific Islanders gain advocate
By Mary Stamp
As community organizer and now director of policy and civic engagement with the Pacific Islander Community Association of Washington (PICA) since May 2020, Kiana McKenna has been serving Spokane area Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders who were hit hard by COVID.
Early on, the Pacific Islander population accounted for 67 percent of the COVID positive tests, so she and PICA-WA director Joseph Seia sought to reach out to community leaders and organizations to remove barriers and later to set up vaccination clinics.
"The Marshallese are the largest Pacific Islander population in Spokane, and the second largest Marshallese community in the U.S.," she said. "Many are essential workers, limited in English speaking and live in multi-generational housing, making them more vulnerable to COVID.
In Washington state, Pacific Islanders experienced 11 times the hospitalization rate and six times the death rate of the white population.
PICA established a Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander (NHPI) COVID-19 Response Task Force to work with the Spokane Regional Health District and partners like CHAS, the Marshallese Community Advisory Board and the Asian Pacific Islander Coalition (APIC).
"We continue to grow our capacity to serve and respond to community needs," she said.
Beyond COVID education through the Wellness Navigation program, the needs include rental assistance, food insecurity, and COVID-19 testing and vaccination clinics.
PICA continues to provide those services and is expanding its capacity to serve more families.
"After just a few months of education and outreach within the community, positive tests dropped from 67 percent of those in the county to 3 percent. Vaccination clinics have helped keep the numbers low in the NHPI community,." Kiana added.
Now on the state level 89.5 percent of the NHPI community are fully vaccinated and in Spokane 85.5 percent of the NHPI community are, said Kiana. In the general population in Spokane County, 64 percent of the total population have had one dose.
"For an underserved community, that's a good rate," she said.
More than that has changed.
"The community as a whole has gained visibility," she said. "We continue our advocacy and seek to be invited to tables where decisions are made that have impact on the health of our communities."
For example, NHPIs participate in designing how rental assistance funds are distributed and the process for families to receive the funds, said Kiana, who grew up in Spokane.
She studied public relations and psychology at Gonzaga University. Since graduating in 2017, she worked with Empire Health Foundation and Group Health Foundation to create relationships that helped her know the Spokane community better.
Volunteering has also given her connections and resources.
She has volunteered with the YWCA Spokane and served on its board nearly five years. She is on the APIC Advisory Board and the Providence Community Mission Board for Spokane and Stevens Counties. Recently she joined the Tenants Union of Washington Board of Directors.
Working with PICA, Kiana's role is to advocate alongside the community for better policy and improved civic engagement to strengthen the Pacific Islander community.
Through APIC, she learned of PICA and met Joseph Seia in Seattle. He was looking for a community anchor to help organize in Spokane.
PICA seeks to establish a cultural home and center for the community to build power and wellness physically, culturally, socially and economically.
"We seek to live out our indigenous values," she said, "through community organizing and speaking truth to systems of power, to provide social supports and cultural spaces for the community."
Kiana's area is Eastern Washington, but her focus now is on Spokane.
PICA, which formed as a nonprofit in 2019, also has organizers in Southwest Washington and Western Washington.
"It's growing quickly statewide and in Spokane," she said.
PICA is led by Pacific Islanders from different island nations.
"We have a diverse population in Spokane. In addition to Marshallese, Native Hawaiians and Samoans, there are Chuukese, Tongans, Papua New Guineans and many more NHPI communities present," she said.
Kiana seeks to involve more Pacific Islanders in events and as volunteers.
For example, PICA helped the Samoan community organize a recent rally calling for the City of Spokane to remove the statue of John Monaghan, who massacred thousands of Samoan villagers.
"We are finalizing a letter asking the city to remove the statue," she said.
According to the PICA website, addressing racism is one of its roles to heal Melanesians, Micronesians and Polynesians from the historical and generational trauma of colonialism, to address disempowerment and disenfranchisement and to network with those who share anti-racist values.
"We are one big Pasifika family, and will continue striving to improve the health, wellness and cultural connection of our many NHPI communities," she said.
For information, call 800-7289 or visit picawa.org.