Empowering Pasifika youth


Professor Blakely Brown, University of Montana, United States, research assistants from Massey’s Centre for Public Health Research Ms Gertrude Tevita and Mr Jeremy Henderson, and Dr Riz Firestone.


Young Pasifika people living in the United States experience similar social and health inequities to Pasifika people living in New Zealand, says a Massey University researcher.

Dr Ridvan “Riz” Firestone of the Centre for Public Health Research in Wellington gained many insights into Pasifika health issues after speaking at the inaugural Pacific Health Gathering in the United States.

She says while the biggest concerns in America are obesity and related health issues as well as access to culturally acceptable healthcare, Pasifika people in New Zealand struggle because they cannot afford the same quality education and resources. And as a result, they experience poorer health outcomes compared to other New Zealanders.

She currently leads a research programme focusing on life-course epidemiology, which focuses on health trajectories and influences as they unfold among individual lives and across different contexts. Dr Firestone’s work covers a range of non-communicable diseases such as obesity and breast cancer, including maternal and child health, and investigating what social and cultural factors contribute to obesity.

She also heads the Pasifika Youth Empowerment Programme (YEP), which aims to raise young Pasifika leaders who can lead public health community-based programmes among their own communities.

Dr Firestone and research assistants Gertrude Tevita and Jeremy Henderson were the only group from outside the United States invited to present at the conference on Pacific health in Arkansas last month. They were joined by Professor Blakely Brown from the University of Montana, who recently completed a month-long sabbatical at Massey’s Centre for Public Health Research.

“The conference was vital in building knowledge and understanding around Pasifika health and wellbeing, obesity-related issues, and development of leadership skills. We presented outcomes from the YEP programme, showcasing the ‘ai ia e ola’ [#EatToLive] social media campaign that was launched by our youth. We wore T-shirts that were designed by the young people in the programme,” says Dr Firestone.

The group’s presentation struck a chord with participants. “Many of the researchers asked to purchase or incorporate use of our YEP programme. We have developed three strong collaborations from this meeting, including work with researchers from Hawaii, Arkansas and American Samoa.”

Dr Firestone, who was awarded the Sir Thomas Davis Te Patu Kite Rangi Ariki Health Research Fellowship in 2015 by the Health Research Council of New Zealand, is focusing on advancing her skillset, knowledge and expertise in the area of obesity research and interventions, Pasifika youth and participation research. Her dream is to develop a comprehensive international programme of research.

Click here for the YEP Facebook page.

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