The Summit on Colonialism held Oct. 26 in New York City this year was an incredible experience as it brought territorial natives and community leaders from all five U.S. territories together in one space to have a fluid discussion.
As a Chamorro native, I walked into this experience with an open mind. I was rewarded greatly and was not disappointed. I found that the participants were very knowledgeable. Participants included educators, chiefs, glorious activists, lawyers, environmentalists, politicians, social workers, media moguls and myself, a lowly fisher. The summit was hosted by the non-profit group Right to Democracy and co-sponsored by the Ford Foundation for Social Justice.
The baseline rules were to build common ground, respect differences, provoke change, stay focused and avoid toxicity. It provided a very safe and comfortable space for us to share and challenge each other but also provided a platform to express frustration and pain and offer solutions for healing and growth.
I became uninhibited to share problems and triumphs as a local girl from Guam. I found that there were so many common problems among the territories whose people were exhausted from waiting for this promise of equality. I also concluded that as islanders do, we all compromised many rights to stay in our territorial island nations because of cultural pride and wanting to be a part of the change that would someday make good with what we perceived to be owed.
It was not anything extraordinary that each island nation wanted. Protection of resources, culture, national security, benefits, stable health care, and the right to exercise democratic rights enjoyed across the United States but not in the territorial possessions. This is nothing new but we were able to discuss these issues with sensitivity and find viable solutions to help provide for relief.
I found that this formula used to extract thoughts and solutions worked. The Right to Democracy is fueled by lawyers who are fighting for territorial rights. For me, it legitimized the non-profit portion, bringing real people to the table and winning my trust and commitment to their goals.
We now have open communication with the entire team that attended, through social media, archival drives for shared documents, and links for territorial events, the dialogue continues and we are actively adding people into our newly founded community. I am now more optimistic about Guam after the attendance of this conference. I think I feel that way because the commonality of struggles was too great to ignore. I believe I found my community, as we all want to see each other succeed. It was like finding distant relatives who shared the same abuses, strife, and obstacles.
I know that with a coalition of territorial peoples, our numbers are too great to ignore. I also know that my allies in the four territories will stand by me in my fight for freedom and will be standing right next to me when I stake a claim for the Right to Democracy and they know a hundred percent I will be there for them as well, taking their struggles as my own and chanting the battle cry in their names.
How do I see the Right to Democracy contributing to change in your territory?
I have been very blessed to have local leaders who take up the battle for the Right to Democracy and sacrifice their lives to fight for the Chamorro People and our island nation.
My everyday heroes show up for our community and take arms to protect what we have and always ensure that every single point is counted and heard. I have learned so many valuable lessons from how they live their lives to show up for our community through deeds and actions.
I watch Speaker Therese Terlaje fight every day for our rights and the protection of our island. I see the life work of Dr. Judith Won Pat in our everyday island life not only with education but community development from her work as a lawmaker. I observe Uncle Johnny “Atulai” Taitano encourage and protect veterans' rights through his veteran talk show and learn cultural fishing practices from him every single day.
I appreciate Manny Duenas’ passion when he challenges legislation to protect fishing rights as well as the right to manage our own waters. I recognize the community campaigns created by Sarah Nededog and Cynthia Cabot to help the weak and less fortunate. I want to honor my parents who were both war survivors, who gave me the best life. I am not afraid to fight for what is right.
These are my real-time heroes that I admire. I’ve committed to showing up for my community and if I may contribute just one opportunity to emulate my heroes, maybe I will inspire someone in my community to take up arms as well.
The Right to Democracy is the catalyst for me to act. If we can just educate ourselves without malice or negativity, this movement will help many territorial people find their voices and create change locally.
Mary Jo Justine Taitano Quenga is a resident of Piti.