- Author: Julienne Cancio
Saoimanu "Saoi" Sope, UC Agriculture and Natural Resources digital communications specialist, was born on Aunu'u, an island in American Samoa, but raised in Southern California. She attended UC Santa Cruz for her undergraduate degree in film and digital media. While in the program, she felt lost compared to her peers.
“I didn't know what type of stories I wanted to tell through film, especially compared to my other classmates,” Sope said. “For a lot of them, it seemed like they had been planning on being filmmakers their entire life. This major was my backup plan.”
To gain more perspective, she took on a second major in community studies, a unique and interdisciplinary field that prepares students to apply the lessons they learn in the classroom to the real world, through a six-month field study.
Sope completed her field study at the RYSE Youth Center in Richmond, teaching Black and Brown youth how film can be used as a tool to navigate their trauma. Through this experience, Sope learned about public health, which she pursued in her master's program at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health.
In 2018, Sope learned about UC ANR as an employee of Driscoll's. Her boss at the time coordinated a field trip to the UC ANR office in Davis to learn more about successful agriculture communications. Four years later, in June 2022, Sope joined the Strategic Communications team.
“It was a full-circle moment,” she said. “When UC ANR posted the job description for the role I have now, I saw it and applied like anyone else. Luckily, I got an interview and now I'm here.”
When talking about her interactions with Southern California researchers and staff as a digital communications specialist, Sope attributes much of her success to her culture and upbringing. “I think one of my superpowers is that I can work with people in a way that makes them feel valued and seen and heard,” she explained.
She talked about her Samoan background, one that emphasizes the importance of hospitality. Known as the “happy people of the Pacific,” Samoans are very big on caring for and hosting others, Sope said. “How we treat others reflects our value of community,” she explained.
Sope brings this into the room with the people she is interviewing and to the impactful stories she is writing. She makes it known to her interviewees that their time is valuable and their story is worth reading.
As she grows older, Sope said, she realizes how much of her culture has influenced her work ethic. She appreciates that May is Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, an opportunity to celebrate and bring recognition to the beautiful and diverse cultures of marginalized communities in the U.S.
Although AAPI communities are clumped into one phrase, it is important to remember that there are many diverse groups of people within this term that are often overlooked, such as Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders.
When speaking about her Polynesian culture, the saying “it takes a village to raise a child” really speaks to Sope. In Samoan culture, it is common for parents to give legal guardianship of their child to other family members. In the U.S., this is formally known as adoption. This is the case for Sope; she was “gifted” to her adoptive mom by her birth mom.
“But one thing that's really beautiful about the Samoan culture is that we always know where we come from,” she said. “We know who our birth parents are…it's not a secret, and it's not shameful.”
Overall, Sope is most proud of coming from a culture that places such a high value on community. This can be seen through her influential writing, bringing awareness and attention to UC ANR staff and researchers who make great contributions to the academic world and the greater SoCal communities.
In conveying their stories, Sope said she hopes they realize and reflect on their potential and the importance of their own work.
- Author: Saoimanu Sope
Max Fairbee spent his high school years moving around Southern California to cities like Covina, La Verne, Pomona and Apple Valley, hoping that his mother would find stability in the next place they'd call “home.” After attending five different high schools, Fairbee decided to take the California High School Proficiency Exam and earned his diploma that way.
Eventually, he accepted a job at Tower Records in West Covina, working there for six years. “Until my current job, Tower Records was the longest position at a single company I ever held,” said Fairbee. “That's where I began to discover myself and understand diversity and acceptance.”
Fairbee loved the arts and wanted to find a career where he could utilize creativity and share his appreciation of the arts. Attending Orange Coast College and Platt College, he spent time learning typography, photography, fine art and graphic art.
Unsure of what he wanted to do next and struggling to secure employment as a graphic artist, Fairbee took a job at the North Coast Co-Op, a natural foods grocery store in Eureka, after moving to Humboldt County in 2009. Fairbee worked at the co-op for over three years and while he worked in various positions, his most valuable role was conducting food demonstrations.
“My inclination for community service started in that food co-op,” said Fairbee. “I learned about where food comes from, what goes into your food, food sustainability, and all of the lights in my head went off.”
Fairbee began working as a mental health technician, teaching life skills to adults with different levels of learning abilities. “I was teaching them how to do things, like, managing medication and doing laundry,” Fairbee said. “At the same time, I was developing their appreciation for art and music by hosting workshops.”
Teaching becomes a path forward
Channeling his appreciation for healthy living and love for teaching, Fairbee now works in Alameda County, developing and delivering nutrition education classes for older adults, almost half from the Chinese and Vietnamese communities in Oakland and the surrounding area. He teaches them ways to achieve and sustain healthy lifestyles through the Eat Healthy Be Active Community Workshops.
The lessons are centered on understanding what is healthy and why. One of the skills Fairbee teaches his students is how to read a nutrition facts label. At some sites, he also incorporates gardening education using edible plants.
“I told myself that I would never take a job where I didn't go home and like to talk about my work,” Fairbee said.
Naturally, Fairbee went on to describe how proud he feels about his work with older adults in the Bay Area. In mid-April, Fairbee celebrated his recent class of graduates who are all over the age of 60. Students were highly engaged in the lessons about healthy living and Fairbee had 23 students complete the course.
“There's a lot of language barriers, so, I rely on interpreters a lot,” Fairbee explained. “You would think that after six weeks, and with a language barrier you'd have fewer students complete a course like this. But no, not my students.”
Remaining physically active is a recurring topic and activity throughout the six-week course, according to Fairbee, who noticed an association between physical activity and happiness.
“I had a 98-year-old student who invited me to her birthday party at the Oakland Zoo one time,” Fairbee recalled. “Apparently she did that every year and she invited all her friends.”
Community service is ‘paying it forward'
Fairbee said that the friendships he has cultivated over the years have played a significant role in his desire to give back. Born in Indiana, Fairbee said that growing up, he always knew he needed to come to California.
“I watched a lot of Brady Brunch growing up. For some reason, they had this perfect life and I wanted that,” he said. Eventually, Fairbee's parents divorced, and his mother moved to Southern California and took him with her when he was 13.
“When my mom brought me to California, she saved my life,” said Fairbee.
He didn't know why, but he knew that he couldn't stay in that Indiana community. Perhaps it was the blatant racism or xenophobia that he observed within his own family or others. Either way, Fairbee was adamant about moving westward.
“I'm very different from my family,” said Fairbee. “For one, I'm gay. But also, we just have different beliefs in how to treat people,” he explained.
Fairbee said that the people who made his life in California full of “magical moments” were friends and their families. He remembered celebrating Thanksgiving with a friend, and how much more fun and special it was compared to the holiday spent with his own family.
“Over the years, I noticed that since I moved to California in the '80s, important holidays and celebrations were made special because of my friends,” he said.
The opportunity to spread love and kindness is what keeps Fairbee motivated. “Community service comes from the kindness of others. That's what my friends did for me and the work I do now is my way of paying it forward,” he said.
Fairbee says that he cannot describe the feeling of community service, but that when you have done it once or twice, there's no greater reward.
“There's like a million thank you's and at the end of the day, you feel full. And not from food, but of love,” he said. “Honestly, I'll be doing this work until I retire. I can't see myself going anywhere else now.”