For more than two decades, Levi Reese has been quietly serving the people of American Samoa through her work with the Office of Treasury, a principal operating department for the local government. She goes beyond her duties and responsibilities, assisting workers, business owners, and private citizens daily. “I always try to do my best to serve,” she shared during our interview. “It can be overwhelming at times when people approach me, thinking I’m a lawyer. Many times, people are referred to me even if it’s not directly related to treasury. They sit there, and I hope I’m doing right by them as best as I can.”
As a fa’afafine and trans woman, Levi is among the few executives in the government. When she was appointed Deputy Treasurer by the Governor in 2020, she became the highest-ranking transgender woman of the time in American Samoa. This position thrust her into the spotlight, trailblazing for the fa’afafine community, but also polarizing in political affairs. Despite her public role, Levi has kept a low profile throughout her career as a civil servant. In her first-ever interview with Fofola le Fala ma Talanoa, she opens up about her life, success, trials, and tribulations.
Levi was born to a Samoan mother and a white father, who was an Airforce officer from Virginia. Her mother worked as a ground attendant at Pago Pago International Airport, where they met and fell in love. They tied the knot in 1968, and Levi was born soon after.
Levi’s father passed away when she was 11 years old, but she remembers him with fondness. Every Saturday, her dad would assign her the task of picking up fallen leaves or debris outside of their house before they would relax in the living room and watch cartoons together. He also gave her a dollar allowance every Friday, but Levi would save the money and offer it to her cousins so they could clean the pigsty while she rode their bikes.
Levi’s mother was a strict disciplinarian who wanted nothing but the best for her child. She maintained high standards, limiting Levi’s playtime by keeping her in her room to study for Samoan school or elementary education. If Levi was the top student that year, she was promised a vacation to Hawaii for the summer. Levi holds the record for placing first in her Samoan classes for seven straight years, which earned her annual trips to Hawaii. She always looked forward to them.
Levi’s upbringing was unique, with both Samoan and American influences. She grew up with a strong sense of discipline and a deep appreciation for the importance of education.
Growing up, Levi’s only sibling was her sister Angela, who was already on her way to college when Levi was born. By the time Levi reached high school, her sister and her family had already established themselves and became like second parents to her. Although Levi had a close relationship with her mother, she struggled with acceptance earlier on and learned to keep her feminine side a secret. “My relationship with my mom was something else,” she said. “But I loved her very much, and everyone knew she spoiled me.”
Levi received her master’s degree from college and returned to American Samoa in 2001, where she found work with the Department of Treasury. While working there, she slowly began transitioning and living her truth as a woman. At the time, there were very few fa’afafine transwomen working in the executive offices of the American Samoa Government. One day, a gay fa’afafine from another department pulled Levi aside and warned her that she shouldn’t transition, as they would never promote a trans woman. “I saw it as a challenge,” said Levi. “My work spoke for itself.”
Despite her master’s degree, Levi was hired at a low salary. For two years she watched as the department hired people who were less qualified but offered a larger pay scale. Levi’s boss never gave her a promotion, but a palagi supervisor who worked there spoke highly of her to the treasurer at the time.
Levi, who identifies as transgender, was asked whether gender identity had a role in her professional advancement. “I can’t speak for them” she said “I use to work long hours to impress my boss. I was very loyal to him. When he needed things done I was his go to. But it’s sad to say that my first three promotions were given to me because of a recommendation of a person who was not Samoan.” Fortunately for Levi, the treasurer at the time recognized her potential and entrusted her with responsibilities outside of her role.
In January 2019, Levi left her job to take care of her ill mother. Sadly, her mother passed away three weeks later. Levi reminisces on her relationship with her mother, who lived in an extension of her sister’s house. They had an unbreakable bond and shared many special moments together, including funny inside jokes and agreements. Levi worked hard to support her mother, even giving her entire paycheck to her. She wishes her mother could have seen where she is now and enjoyed the fruits of her labor.
When Levi’s mom passed away, she decided to forgo employment and instead focus on her own home-based business. “Those were the best two years of my life,” Levi said, “with no strict schedules, no government pressures, and nobody constantly breathing down my neck.”
However, during the 2020 election season, Levi became involved in politics when a cousin invited her to attend a town hall meeting. There, she was asked to become the treasurer for the Lemanu & Taulauega campaign, a team running for Governor and Lieutenant Governor. “It became a full-time job,” she recalled. “I was never interested in politics, but I loved the experience of walking through communal lands and neighborhoods, meeting people in parts of the island that I would not have had the opportunity to otherwise.”
After the campaign’s successful win, Levi was appointed as the Deputy Treasurer of the Government. “Treasury was always my passion; it’s the only thing I know how to do,” she said. “However, this time, I was direct with what I wanted from my schedule. My previous working hours were grueling; I couldn’t even take a lunch break due to workload, and I worked even on weekends. I told them that I could easily be replaced if anything were to happen to me, and I requested my lunch hour, I leave exactly at 4pm and I have my weekends off.”
Is it challenging to serve the public in a position of authority? She replied, “Samoan politics can be brutal; it’s unkind. I’ve witnessed executive leaders who were once friends turn on each other in positions of power. I’m grateful that, for the most part, I’ve never felt belittled when interacting with our leaders. However, there are times during fono hearings when you’re brought in, but not given a chance to speak, instead facing accusations and attacks. Now in the age of Social media you are also being criticized by opinions of people I don’t even know. That however is really none of my concern since they are entitled to them. The reality is that these situations come with the territory, so it’s essential to take criticism with a grain of salt and remain resilient.”
Levi shared that the most challenging part of her work is being talked down to. She believes that no one should be put in a situation that makes them feel small. Unfortunately, some people call the office and talk as if they don’t have families some even refer to her workers as a “maile“ (dog). However, Levi makes it a point to call them back and remind them to treat people with respect and kindness. The one Samoan word she hates the most – onosa’i (patience). Levi never uses it and hates it with a passion.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Levi noticed that her foot was swollen, and walking became a workout. After visiting the hospital, she received the shocking news that she was diabetic, and her swollen foot was a symptom of an enlarged heart. Levi decided to scale back on work to focus on her health. “I’m currently on medication and have made several trips to monitor my heart condition. This was a wake-up call for me. The doctor warned that if I don’t take care of myself, the next time I come in, it will be in a morgue.”
When asked about the biggest misconception others have of her, she chuckled and replied, “that I’m stuck-up or conceited.” Her friends refers to her as “Grouchette” because she can be a bit of a grouch. “I absorb a lot of people’s energy” she says “then when I go home I’m tired and just want to be left alone. But I’m probably the friendliest person that you’ll ever come across. I will pour my heart out to you, If I feel that you’re genuine towards me. Whatever I have, I give.”
When it comes to love and relationships, what are your thoughts? For me, I have learned a lot, particularly with Samoan men. They eventually want to start families, and as someone who is highly emotional, I am afraid that if I gave my all in such a relationship and the person left me, I wouldn’t know how to handle it. That’s why I always keep my guard up. I have a great deal of admiration for those women who are willing to take that risk and commit to a relationship. It’s truly admirable.
After dedicating her career to serving the government and people of American Samoa, Levi shares her perspective on the future of the islands. “I hope for better days” she says, “I wish for good governance. I hope there comes a time when our political leaders consider the generation to come and pass on the torch. Just because you have a title and you hear them say there are no jobs, well that is because you are in these positions. Culture is too strong and prevalent in our society right now and it supersedes everything. People that are in position should not hinder progress and change.”
Levi plans to retire at age 55 but also wants to continue working for the government under contract as a high school educator. She values the future potential of all children of American Samoa, that is her goal. Levi is very involved with her village church and for therapy she enjoys gardening. “I was never into it” she says, “but my mom had a green thumb. It’s total therapy for me to see something beautiful grow from your hands.”
Are you content and happy with life at moment?
“I’m a workaholic. I’m also accepting the fact that I’ve aged. It was hard for me to accept that I was 40. Now I embrace it. I’m glad to even be alive. My whole thing in life was making my mother proud. When she was proud I was OK even when I was broke.”