Skip to Content

Terisa Siagatonu

Emerson Collective Fellowship

Using poetry to explore the impact of climate change on the Pacific Islands.

Headshot of Terisa Siagatonu

Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, Terisa Siagatonu watched her grandfather—High Chief Leuluso’o Fualautualasi Leatutufu—write about Samoa and their “big, beautiful, complex family.” Years later, when the 2009 tsunami hit American Samoa and she didn’t know whether he had survived, she began to accept that she, like he, would need to become an activist. An avid poet, she found that words and stories are rich avenues for healing, allowing her to explore racism, gender and sexuality, power, and colonialism. 

In 2015, Siagatonu was asked to perform at the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Paris. “What began as me doubting why I was even invited, quickly became a revelation,” she says. She discovered that poetry is a powerful tool for advancing the public conversation on the climate crisis. Today, she aims to tell new stories that center Pacific Islander experiences of climate change.

As an Emerson Collective Fellow, Siagatonu will write her debut, young adult, novel in verse that explores the hidden costs of climate change. As told by a Samoan American teen from the Bay Area, the novel will connect the dots among environmental racism, gentrification, colonization, and American militarization’s impact on both the climate crisis and the Pacific Islands.

Siagatonu’s novel will center Pacific Islanders as keepers of wisdom from which innovative solutions to the climate crisis can arise. As the late Hawaiian activist and poet Haunani-Kay Trask said, "The First World nations must still learn what Pacific Islanders have known for millennia: Upon the survival of the Pacific depends the survival of the world." Through a powerful story—and an accompanying curriculum for educators and students—Siagatonu’s novel won’t merely spell out climate solutions, it will invite readers to explore the many shapes solutions can take.