After a good talanoa session? A conversation, an exchange, an opportunity to tell your story and hear that of another?
The Australian-born Pacific Islander Arieta Tora is the founder of Talanoa, a storytelling venture which captures the tales and yarns of young people in the Pacific as a way of educating, empowering and inspiring through examples of lived experience. That means shedding light on the peak moments (the successes, dreams and triumphs) but also the failures and shattering disappointments.
Passionately devoted to creating community and connecting through our stories (the shared and also the dissimilar), Arieta and her growing team are capturing stories that challenge ingrained cultural stereotypes, put the spotlight on young people’s strengths and contribution, and have carved out a platform for youth to finally be heard.
Because to be heard, is to be understood.
In the name of discussion – a chat over a cup of tea – meet Arieta and her community, Talanoa.
Leah: Arieta, tell me what Talanoa means and why this concept is significant to you?
Arieta:The word Talanoa is quite meaningful to me. Not only does it mean to talk, discuss and tell a story in various Pacific languages, it’s also my name. I’m partly named after my maternal Grandmother, Talanoa Rokoseni Motea Prescott. She was a beautiful woman who touched so many people through her work within her community in Raiwaqa, Fiji, and through her love and kindness to all who knew her. She passed away when my mother was 18, so I guess having her name made me feel close to her and made me want to be more like her in some way. So naturally when I launched Talanoa, I thought the name was quite clever and very fitting for the purpose I was trying to achieve.
Leah: How did Talanoa come to be? What was the initial inspiration/motivation?
Arieta: In the months leading up to the launch of Talanoa, I felt restless and my mind would often race with different ideas of how I could follow my dream of working for myself and for a cause that I believe in. It got to the point where I felt like I would burst if I didn’t change my course and start doing something about it.
Being the new kid on the block, I knew I needed something to rock the boat enough to cause a few waves in the big and crazy sea of business. I came up with the idea of incorporating my love of writing and storytelling to attract attention and engagement. I knew that if I reached out to people in my target market and asked them to share their story, I’d gain a network of people in the Pacific, I’d understand their formula to success, and I’d raise awareness of my brand and my purpose.
Six months later, the results spoke for themselves. I got exactly what I wanted – attention and engagement, but it wasn’t for my business. The only thing people cared about were the stories and the writing I was sharing.
Wow! I learnt a valuable lesson: People care about people. Not business. It was then that I decided to change my focus towards storytelling and writing and less about digital marketing.
Leah: What is the intention behind Talanoa? What do you hope to achieve?
Arieta: The real intention and hope behind Talanoa is to show people that Pacific Islanders are full of diversity and are out there working hard and doing well in whatever they choose to do. It’s my dream that Talanoa can shatter negative stereotypes and build up positive role models within the Pacific community. If one person reads a story on Talanoa and thinks, “if they can do it, I can do it too,” I will have achieved my purpose!
Leah: Working with young people in the Pacific is at the heart of what you do. Why do you think it is important to invest in our youth? And why specifically in the Pacific?
Arieta: They are our future. Investing in our young people is to invest in a better future and a better world not only for us and for them, but also for our children and those who are yet to come.
The Pacific is special to me, as it’s my cultural heritage. I’m a (proud) Australian-born Pacific Islander – my parents are Fijian and Tongan. I’m so thankful they sent me to school in Fiji and Tonga, because without that critical time in my development as a young person, I wouldn’t have such passion and appreciation for my people.
Leah:You have mentioned that storytelling is central to Talanoa and its approach. Can you tell me some more of your stories and why they are important to share with your audience?
Arieta: For centuries, Pacific people have used storytelling to share their version of how we came to be who and where we are today. I believe that’s part of why storytelling comes so naturally to me and to Pacific people in general. For so long, storytelling was shared verbally and only over the past 100 years have we been able to record them through writing.
Today, I still believe storytelling is a big part of how we Pacific people socialise and learn from one another. My audience is made up of Pacific people who live abroad and home in the Islands, and Talanoa gives them a place to do just that. Through our ancient form of storytelling, and new way of communicating through the online world, I can give people Talanoa – a place where they can connect, and learn from others and what they’re doing to pursue their dreams.
I love that through the internet and social media, I can connect with young Pacific people who are pursing different dreams in life. Before Talanoa, I probably wouldn’t have had the opportunity to meet young people who are doing a variety of amazing things like elite ballet, tackling climate change, designing ethical fashion, creating work for disadvantaged communities, running entertainment companies, personal training, event management, travel blogging and so much more!
Leah: What are some of the challenges you have faced since starting Talanoa? What did you learn?
Arieta: One of the biggest challenges has been finding ways to get in touch with people who live in the Islands to ask them if they’d like to share their stories. There’s always an abundance of people who we can interview in Australia, New Zealand, America and the United Kingdom, but it’s always a challenge to find people who are living and pursing their dreams in remote islands and villages.
I’m based in Sydney and would love to travel full time for Talanoa, but for now, I’m unable to do that. I’ve learnt that to reach these people, I really have to meet them where they’re at. A few months ago we sent a call out for interns and thankfully we were able to take on an amazing group of young people all over the world and in the Pacific where we could begin reaching people in more remote areas.
Also, now that our readership is growing, people have begun emailing me to ask if I’ll write on certain topics that aren’t talked about enough. I’d love to jump on and begin typing up a storm, but unfortunately I just don’t feel that I know enough to be putting out controversial blog posts and articles without doing my research. So I’ve learnt to stick to what I know, while taking into account what people would like to read and see on our website. I’ve begun doing my research to be able to at least write things that will spark meaningful conversations based on what our readers have suggested.
Leah: What have been the highlights?
Arieta: The follow-up after sharing a story or an article on our website. It’s so incredibly rewarding! Every week I receive messages from people saying how thankful, encouraged and happy they feel after sharing their story and seeing the amazing response through Talanoa. It’s amazing to see our community endlessly give encouragement and support to the people who share their stories, but what I love the most are the messages we receive from young people who have been moved, inspired and encouraged through reading the stories we share.
Another huge highlight has been managing the amazing team of interns we have! They are a group of creatively gifted young women and it’s been an absolute honour. I’m so excited for what’s in store for them as individuals as they continue with Talanoa and beyond.
Leah: What are the plans going forward? What is the BIG vision for Talonoa?
Arieta: Wow! I have such big dreams for Talanoa. I would love to continue to grow and expand to be able to do it full time with a tight knit group of people who are just as passionate and driven for the cause. I would love to travel the world interviewing Pacific people, and writing, writing, writing along the way. It’s really just a matter of time, and a lot of hard work. This is something that I believe in and will continue to do, in some shape or form, for the rest of my life.
Question: How does telling stories – sharing our lessons, hopes and dreams – empower young people in your community?