Sunday, March 7, 2010

Kwesi Johnson Keeps Going and Going

Kwesi Johnson
Growing up in a tough Toronto neighborhood, Kwesi Johnson's sense of community responsibility was seeded when he was 12 years old. That's when he met a youth worker who would often shoot hoops with the kids on the playground, all the while talking about respect and avoiding the lure of joining a gang.

Before Kwesi knew it, he was volunteering to teach basketball skills to six- and seven-year-olds at the Malvern Family Resource Centre in Scarborough. Soon he was helping to plan community walks, discussion forums, tournaments and trips for the children. Whether he was working as a camp counselor, helping with their homework or just talking to them, Kwesi's own message was constant: Respect yourself, respect others.

Kwesi saw a rewarding career in his work and came to Centennial College to enroll in the child and youth worker program. His teachers were impressed with this energetic young man. Outside of class, Kwesi volunteered for a long list of agencies, including the Alliance of Guyanese Canadian Organization, the Anglican Church of the Nativity, and the Black Communities and Police Consultative Committee.

Kwesi is adamant, his Centennial professors and the opportunities they provided helped shape his path and instill in him a passion for education. He recalls one teacher who led a class discussion about a local tragedy in which a young man had killed his little brother. When the discussion was over, Kwesi still had an agonizing question for his teacher: What could drive someone to stab his brother to death?

"He said, 'You know what? I'm not sure. Why don't you find out and come back?' The way he looked at me, I knew he wanted me to continue learning - and I will," Kwesi recounts.

He worked hard, both, in and outside of classroom to learn how to reach troubled youth. It was hard not to notice his efforts; nobody can forget Kwesi once they've met him. So it came as no surprise to anyone that his work got recognized.

Kwesi was one of three young Ontarians awarded the 2007 Lincoln Alexander Award for Leadership in Eliminating Racial Discrimination. In 2008, he was given the Alumnus of Distinction Award from Centennial's Department of Community Services. Kwesi also earned a national scholarship from the Black Business and Professional Association the same year.

With his Centennial diploma complete, Kwesi felt he needed a degree to cap off his formal education. He applied to Ryerson University, where his college diploma allowed him to enter the third year of the four-year Child and Youth Care program.

It wasn't long before he made his mark on the downtown campus, volunteering for a number of initiatives while never taking his eye off his goal of changing young lives. He invited community groups to come and present to students, and became a co-ordinator of the program's mentors.

"Focus on the task, on your craft," he counsels others who are contemplating a career-oriented education.

His two years at Ryerson passed quickly. Last June, Kwesi was called to the Convocation stage not only to receive his degree, but also to collect the Ryerson Gold Medal for his outstanding grade point average and his demonstrated commitment to community involvement. The graduating class erupted with applause.

"My love for learning solidified when I came to Ryerson. I kept going and going," he grins. And, despite his dyslexia, Kwesi is taking his education to the next level. He started a Master's program in sociology and education at the University of Toronto this fall, with an eye to attaining a PhD.

All the while, Kwesi continues to work at East Metro Youth Services, close to the people and the neighborhoods he has long had a vested interest in helping.

"It's what I'm all about: connecting with child and youth worker and allowing them to have experiences they would like to have. They're the next generation. They're so impressionable, but they will teach you too - a lot about yourself and a lot about them."

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