While most teenagers surfed the web, watched Friends and learned to drive, Leo Johnson spent eight years in refugee camps, after fleeing war-torn Liberia in 1998. He arrived in Canada in 2006. A government-sponsored refugee, he was on his own in an unfamiliar (and very cold) place. “I decided I could either carry on with a victim mentality – or be a champion of possibilities.”
He applied to McMaster University and was accepted. “They gave me a shot,” says Leo, who had completed his high school education in the refugee camps.
A second year student in 2007, more than 100 people packed into a small room to hear Leo Johnson tell his story at McMaster University’s Global Citizenship Conference. Leo recounted the challenges and successes he faced growing up as a child on refugee camps in West Africa. He shared his vision for an organization that would transform communities through education, youth engagement, leadership development and genuine community partnerships.
Inspired by his message and story, several people approached Leo after his presentation. They told him they wanted to help, and Empowerment Squared was established shortly after.
He graduated with a degree in political science in 2011, but not before receiving the Albert Lager Prize for Student Initiative and earning a spot as a semi-finalist in CBC’s Next Great Prime Minister Competition. He’s also received the YMCA Peace Medal and the World Citizenship Award from the City of Hamilton – and he’s been named one of Hamilton Spectator’s Top 40 under 40.
Leo now spends his time between Canada and Liberia. His current project is the Liberian Learning Center, a state-of-the-art multipurpose facility which will house the country’s first public library since 1989 when the war started, a community innovation center and the development of a young professional network for collective impact. “It’s been quite a journey.”
Who We Are
Based in Hamilton, Empowerment Squared is a Canadian charity that works with youth and communities to effect sustainable change through education, social development, and lifelong learning opportunities. We aim to empower less privileged communities through academic mentoring for youth and young adults, information literacy, leadership development, and supervised access to sports and recreation opportunities.
Led by dedicated staff, volunteers, and a committed Board of Directors, Empowerment Squared has supported over a thousand diverse youth and families including newcomers and marginalized communities. We are proud to work with community partners like the Hamilton Community Foundation, Immigrant Working Centre, McMaster University, Industry Education Council, and others.
We believe that lasting community change must come from within, and that real help means giving people the knowledge and tools to help themselves.