AANHPI Heritage Month Community Spotlight

In celebration of Asian American National Hawaiian Pacific Islander Heritage Month (AANHPI), Promise Partnership Utah is highlighting the Utah Pacific Islander Civic Engagement Coalition (UPICEC)—a local nonprofit organization doing important work for the NHPI community. UPICEC is one of five organizations that are part of the Promise Incubator Program. The Promise Incubator Program facilitates community-led change by supporting and expanding organizations in our region that are committed to racial equity in education, health, and financial stability. 

According to their mission statement, UPICEC is a “nonpartisan, nonprofit organization with dedicated community volunteers who seek to empower Utah’s Pacific Islander community through education, leadership development, and advocacy.” 

Veanna Pau’u, Executive Director of UPICEC

Amplifying Community Voices 

Executive Director Veanna Pau’u first became involved with UPICEC in 2016. Pau’u grew up in West Valley City, but her parents immigrated from Tonga to Utah in the mid1970s where they raised Veanna and her five brothers. Her family’s story parallels that of many others who were part of the rapidly growing NHPI community in Utah—a community that continues to grow today. 

“We’ve seen a huge influx of Pacific Islanders coming to Utah,” Pau’u said. Data from the 2020 Census reveals that “While the national NHPI population increased by 29.5%, the population increase in Utah was 61% (double the national rate).” The total population of NHPIs living in Utah was over 59,000 at the time of the 2020 Census. 





Pau’u attributed this strong NHPI community presence as one of the primary reasons she decided to step into a leadership role as UPICEC’s Executive Director in May 2022. So much of the legislation that goes into placeespecially recently-disproportionately impacts the side of the community where a majority of Pacific Islanders live,” Pau’u said. Especially because a lot of the community lives on the west side of Salt Lake County and in West Valley City.” 


Creating Space for Engagement

Jeneanne Lock has been the Outreach Coordinator for UPICEC for a little over a year. “My role entails creating events and experiences that will gather our community together and bring them into spaces such as the State Capitol, City Hall, City Council Chambers, and school board rooms where meetings are held and where decisions are made that are directly impacting members of our community,she said. Lock’s role also involves doing outreach at events hosted by other community-based partner organizations.

Jeneanne Lock, Outreach Coordinator of UPICEC

Before becoming involved with UPICEC, Lock didn’t consider herself to be very civically engaged. “When Veanna asked me to join her to do this work, I had gotten to a point in my life where I started to notice that every really every major and important aspect of my life and my children’s lives were being affected, for better or for worse, by public policy,said Lock.  

Like Lock, Pau’u wants to help NHPI community members understand how civic engagement can directly impact their daily lives. “I think sometimes there’s a lot of focus on what’s happening on the federal level,” Pau’u said. “But getting involved could be very local, even specific to your neighborhood. Pau’u advocates for the belief that “even though it may feel like this is a process for people who don’t speak the same language as me or who look differently than me, I still have a stake in this because I live here, and I can participate in this.” 

Many of UPICEC’s efforts focus on helping NHPI community members register to vote and making civic engagement less intimidating. The organization hosts quarterly town hall meetings and monthly community conversations throughout the summer. “Town halls have been a great way to provide information and provide a safe place for discussing things with our community and really meeting the community where they’re at,” said Pau’u. 

In the most recent state legislative session, many UPICEC members participated in the first Legislative Session Kick-Off on January 17 at the State Capitol, and the 9th annual API Day on the Hill (recently renamed AANHPI Day on the Hill) on February 9. The event was led by the Utah Asian and Pacific Islander Democratic Caucus, and participants were able to meet legislators, sit in on committee hearings, and learn more about what goes on during the legislative process. 


Promise Incubator Program Supports Growth 

Organizations such as UPICEC that participate in the Promise Incubator program receive funding for two years to support growth, development, and continued success. In addition to financial support, incubator cohorts develop useful skills through training workshops and other resources. 

For Pau’u, much of the value of participating in the Promise Incubator Program comes from “working alongside other folks who are serving historically marginalized communities and just the camaraderie and feeling like I’m not alone in thisI have peers that I can lean on or ask for support who are going through the same hard things that I am. 

Both Lock and Pau’u express excitement and optimism for the future of UPICEC and the organization’s continued work in the community. “UPICEC is moving in a new and exciting direction in order to engage more of our students at the college, high school, and junior high levels,” said Lock. 

Pau’u is also passionate about increasing civic engagement in the community’s youth population. “One of my biggest hopes is just to see more of our young Pacific Islanders step up into positions of power,she said. According to Pau’u, one of her biggest aspirations is for young people in the NHPI community to “believe in themselves and they see themselves as leaders that they see themselves as like changemakers.” 


Celebrating AANHPI Heritage 

Not only during AANHPI Heritage Month, but all year long, Pau’u encourages fellow NHPIs to share with others who you are, share your culture, share your community, and be proud of it.” 

For Lock, learning about her heritage has been an important part of understanding her identity.When I understand better the history of my family and of my Native Hawaiian culture, I feel inspired, and I gain a greater sense of kuleana. Kuleana is a Hawaiian word for both rights and responsibilities. In Hawaiian, Mana is the word for spiritual power and strength, so I feel empowered by knowing who I am as a native Hawaiian woman. I feel empowered by learning the histories of the people who came before me,Lock said. 

AANHPI Day on the Hill during the 2024 Utah State Legislative Session

While UPICEC doesn’t endorse specific candidates as a nonpartisan organization, Lock describes this year’s state elections as “a historic moment for Pacific Islanders in Utah.  

There’s only ever been one other Pacific Islander in the Utah State legislature, and that was Phil Uipi in the 90s,” Lock said. “There are four Pacific Islanders that filed candidacy to run for a seat on the House of Representatives this year, which is exciting.” According to Lock, if the two Samoan American candidates are elected, “they will be the first Samoan Americans, not just in Utah, but in the entire United States of America to ever serve as representatives, so it’s a really exciting thing. 

No matter the election results, Pau’u and Lock remain committed champions of civic engagement as a way to advocate for and empower the NHPI community. “I just deeply care about our community,” Pau’u said. “And civic engagement is one of the ways we can make sure that we are seen and heard.” 

To learn more about UPICEC or how you can get involved, visit their Facebook and Instagram pages.



Written By Jenna Fischer, Content Strategist