LEO JOHNSON - ROLE MODEL & AMBASSADOR
YOUTH & RIGHTS ADVOCATE
Officially Inducted into the “National Wall of Role Models” on June 7, 2014 ( See full list www.BlackCanadianAwards.com )
Tell us a little bit about yourself?
Liberia, a nation of nearly four million on Africa’s west coast between Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast, is the continent’s oldest republic. Founded by freed American slaves in 1847, its name and history are conduits of hope and transformation, but in the last decades of the Twentieth Century, fierce civil conflict and inter-ethnic war eviscerated a proud nation. More than 750,000 Liberians fled their homeland as refugees. I was one of those refugees at fifteen-years of age at the time.
While most Canadian teenagers unlocked the Internet, watched friends and learned to drive, I spent eight years in refugee camps in Ivory Coast and Ghana. In 2006, I was resettled in Canada as a Government Sponsored Refugee with a vision to help youth in Canada and Liberia become champions in their communities. In 2007, as a student at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, I founded CURE (Care for Underprivileged and Refugee Empowerment) Canada, a not-for-profit organization committed to education, justice and overcoming conflict, particularly within immigrant, refugee and similar underprivileged communities. The organization became Empowerment Squared in 2009 to better reflect the diversity of its work and mission.
My work with Hamilton’s youth through Empowerment Squared has been recognized for its innovation and impact. I am a recipient of the J.C. Holland Award for Youth Leadership and Excellence and the YMCA Peace Medal. I have also been named one of the Hamilton Spectator’s Top 40 Under 40 and one of the top 75 immigrants in Canada, earned a spot as a semi-finalist in the CBC’s Next Great Prime Minister Competition in 2008, and served as a guest lecturer in the University of Toronto’s Global Health course.
Now, I have ambitious bi-continental project to this mission of building communities and opportunities for youth. Liberia is now emerging from its decades of conflict, with the scars and destruction still very much a part of daily life. The 2005 election of Her Excellency the President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf – a Harvard-educated Nobel Peace Prize winner – signaled a potential renaissance for Liberia, but the country lacks many of the fundamental tools required to inspire, educate and equip its youth to build a better future. The desire to provide those critical tools is the motivation behind the Liberian Learning Center project, which will involve the construction of a new community‐learning center and the only public library in Liberia at the cost of two million dollars.
Tell us what many people may not know about you?
I have a long standing passion for gospel music; I have been a music leader and regular singer in my church since I was 10 years old. This is a side of me that often surprises most people who have known me for so many years in my advocacy and youth work.
What's your inspiration and how do you get motivated?
I am always inspired by the resilience of my mother and her ability to continue seeking solutions using the tools available to her. I get motivated because my journey will justify the struggles of those who made sacrifices for me to be here.
How did you get to where you are now and what more should we expect?
I am where I am today because I have used the resources I have very well to get the ones I need. You can expect me to continue the work of ensuring that education is not defined, control and accessed only by the privileged and wealthy, but by the multidisciplinary context of cultures, gender, races and communities.
What would you like to be remembered for?
I would like to be remembered for the measure of my character in times of difficulty and controversy, not my flamboyance in times of comfort and expediency.
How do you balance work, family, friends and leisure?
For me, they are all equally important and provide me with different platforms for connecting with different people. In the end, the combination of all four ensures that I am always connecting with necessity of my humanity. In other words, they do not have to be mutually exclusive and I am always reminded that there is really not a lot of time to play when children around the world have to stay alert everyday to escape the next rocket or bomb.
What are your favorite food, book, music and movie?
My favorite food is a Liberian dish (okra and rice). My favorite book is: “You Don’t Have to Be in Who’s Who to Know what’s What” by Sam Levenson. My favorite movie is “The Lion King.”
What's your experience as a Black person in Canada?
My experience as a black person in Canada has been one of a mixed reality. Canada as a country continues to evolve into the reality of what a true multicultural society should look like. It is at crossroads, one group wants to continue the trend of a racist society that treated people as less than humans and another group wants to uphold and enhance the sacrifices that have been made for racial equality in Canada. Despite all the opportunities I am afforded in Canada as a young black man, I am often struck by the systemic racism and discrimination which ends up usurping the prospects of a young black man like me to succeed and be treated fairly. One solution will be to continue the pressure on our government to lead by example and tackle institutional racism which remains one major reason why minority communities continue languish in poverty.
Are there as many opportunities for Blacks in Canada that can produce role models and institutions like TD Jakes, Beyonce, Tyler Perry, Obama or BET?
It is difficult to make such comparisons in my opinion since the odds were also stacked up against these individuals. But that being said, the United States has taken a major step ahead of Canada by opening up and confronting the difficult discussion of race at the highest levels of their society which is gradually leading to positive engagement. In Canada, the norm is to pretend that it doesn’t exist and therefore, we’ve avoided the conversation while the practice of racism and discrimination continues at the detriment of racial communities. In that regard, I will say the likelihood of a black person failing in Canada due to racism is higher than that of the United States. If the likes of Drake and several young black Canadians blazing the headlines in the United States after leaving Canada is anything to go by, then something must be missing in Canada with regards to the conversation around race.
Mention a few of your favorite Black Canadian Leaders, Artists and Role Models?
Lincoln Alexander (first black Member of Parliament in Canada and former Lieutenant Governor of Ontario)
Dwight Drummond (television journalist)
Michaëlle Jean (former broadcaster and former Governor General of Canada - the first black person in Canadian history appointed to that position)
Anderson Ruffin Abbott (became, in 1861, the first black Canadian physician and among a select few at the death bed of Abraham Lincoln).
Should and do Blacks support or patronize black music, events and businesses?
Strong Communities are not the result of magic; they are built primarily by members of such communities. That is why blacks should do more in supporting black music, events and businesses. That being said, to him who much is given, much is required, black musicians, professionals and business owners should exhibit the responsibility and commitment required of leaders in the community. I know a lot of black people find every excuse to avoid supporting black musicians, events and businesses, even though the other businesses they end up supporting without even realizing are often the ones that undermine the black community.
What is your understanding of Black History in Canada?
For me, black history can be defined as understanding and fostering the resilience of people (black and white) who made it possible for racial equality and peaceful coexistence in Canada. It also means a responsibility to maintain and enhance the sacrifice made for the rights of black people as a way of continuing the struggle to eliminate all other forms inequality and discrimination.
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