Empowerment Squared making a difference for Mountain Black youth:West Mountain resident credits group for helping improve his grades/work ethic

Angela noted her 17-year-old daughter, Dinamen, was having similar issues two years ago and Empowerment Squared helped her improve her school work as well.

The organization’s executive director, Leo Johnson, said the youth they see usually have what it takes within them to succeed.

“It’s not like the students we deal with are not smart,” he said. “Many times, they are dealing with all kinds of different challenges and sometimes they just need role models and an extra push to help them understand they can do way more than they are putting out there.”

Johnson knows all too well what it’s like to face barriers and discrimination.

He arrived in Canada as a government-sponsored refugee in 2006 after spending much of his childhood in refugee camps upon fleeing war-torn Liberia in West Africa in 1998.

Empowerment Squared was created 13 years ago from his desire to help racialized youth through education, engagement and community support.

He obtained a political science degree from McMaster University in 2011.

Last year, Empowerment Squared helped 275 youths and young adults (and more than 1,000 since it began) through their academic and sports and recreation programs.

He agreed recent events in the United States and Canada and protests by groups such as Black Lives Matter has given added importance to the work he and his colleagues and volunteers do.

“It’s unfortunate that we have come down to these kinds of incidents for us to even be serious about what our strategy should be for all of us,” Johnson said. “One thing we’ve always believed in; it’s true that there comes a time where we have to fight, but have to fight with one hand and build with the other hand.”

Despite all their work and the work of other city groups that support the city’s minority communities, Johnson noted Hamilton’s Black youths still face a different reality than their white counterparts.

“When you are walking and you see a police officer coming toward you, you change your route, not because you’ve done anything wrong, just because of the anxiety that has been created in our community,” he said.

Johnson said Black youths are often treated with suspicion when they walk into a store or shopping centre.

“You’ve’ already been prejudged,” he said.

Johnson added he has been pulled over several times while driving by police for “a routine check.”

Empowerment Squared has an annual budget of about $400,000 and depends largely on community support.

Among the supporters are Cadillac Fairview and Liem Vu, general manager of CF Lime Ridge Mall.

“It’s important to me on a personal level because I’m an immigrant myself,” said Vu, who along with a brother and two sisters escaped Vietnam by boat in 1979 that sank off Thailand.

The passengers were picked up by a Thai fishing crew and Vu and his siblings spent the next 18 months in a refugee camp in Thailand before coming to Canada as government-sponsored refugees.

Vu said they were flown to CFB Edmonton, adding the only English words he knew then were hello and goodbye.

He learned English as a youth and attended high school and university in Calgary, where he studied statistics.

Wanting to work with people, he moved into retail sales and eventually into management at large retail stores and shopping malls.

He came to Hamilton 15 years ago and CF Lime Ridge Mall six years ago.

Vu said he has encountered prejudice over the way he looks and his accent.

“It’s always there,” he said.

About four years ago, the mall hooked up with Empowerment Squared, making donations and helping the group hold fundraisers at the Upper Wentworth Street shopping centre.

Two weeks ago, CF Lime Ridge Mall made a $5,000 donation to the group.

Vu said the company is a big supporter of diversity and educating young people.

“For us, youth is our future,” he said. “Youth are the ones who will lead this country to greatness.”

STORY BEHIND THE STORY: Hamilton Community News learned CF Lime Ridge Mall was a booster of Empowerment Squared and wanted to learn more.