News & Updates

Her Excellency, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, visits Empowerment Squared

Aug 3, 2023 | News & Updates

On Tuesday, June 13, 2023, Empowerment Squared, in partnership with McMaster University and the Mastercard Foundation hosted Her Excellency Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, former President of Liberia. Madam Sirleaf is a Nobel Laureate and a global inspiration who was Africa’s first elected female head of state and served as Chair of the Economic Community of West African States. As President of Liberia in 2006, she faced the seemingly impossible task of rebuilding a country that had been ravaged by civil war. Madam Sirleaf made a call to supporters and development partners to see Liberia as a “laboratory for innovation,” with an emphasis on bringing projects to life through public and private partnerships.

Madam Sirleaf’s time in Hamilton included being hosted on McMaster University campus, receiving an honourary doctorate at McMaster’s Faculty of Humanities convocation on Monday, June 12, 2023, a visit to Empowerment Squared (East), and a public event at LIUNA Station.

This article covers the visit of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to Empowerment Squared and special event In Conversation with Her Excellency: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

Visit to Empowerment Squared (East)

On the morning of June 13, 2023, Madam Sirleaf met with Empowerment Squared staff and board members at Empowerment Squared (East) located at 26 Arrowsmith Road, where she had a chance to learn more about the organization and its alignment to her work. As a token of gratitude, Empowerment Squared, in partnership with vusawthis and artist Alexander Notarangelo, presented Madam Sirleaf two gifts. The first gift was a pair of custom Vans shoes inspired by the Liberian coat of arms featuring the plow and shovel which represents the dignity and labor of hard work, the rising sun which signifies the birth of a new era, a palm tree representing prosperity, the dove which represents peace, and a maple leaf as a homage to the friendship between Canadians and Liberians. The second gift was a self portrait painting which will be hung at the Liberian Learning Center as a reminder to all who enter the building of her commitment to peace, progress, and the empowerment of people in Liberia.

In Conversation with Her Excellency: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

Amid the backdrop of a beautiful evening at historic LIUNA Station in Hamilton, the event opened with Leo Nupolu Johnson, Executive Director of Empowerment Squared, along with Mike Rajczak and Franklin Joseph, bringing hundreds of attendees together for a rendition of Canada’s national anthem through the powerful beat of the djembe drum, a symbol of “gathering everyone in peace.”

Francis Hinnah, a member of Empowerment Squared’s Board of Directors, provided welcome remarks acknowledging the historical significance of the Liberian Learning Center (LLC), and the power of community in Canada and Liberia in establishing the foundation for transformational change.

Mark John Stewart, Executive Advisor to Empowerment Squared served as MC for the event. Since 2017, Mark has been working in Liberia on the development of the Liberian Learning Center as well as helping to share and execute programs delivered in Liberia such as the HOPE (Harnessing Opportunities to Promote Entrepreneurship) program delivered to Liberian entrepreneurs with the support of the Mastercard Foundation.

Joana Fejzaj, Manager, Community Development and Partnerships at Empowerment Squared, offered a land acknowledgement highlighting the steps that Empowerment Squared is taking to incorporate Indigenous knowledge and wisdom into our educational programming and settlement journey of newcomers, and the organization’s commitment to better understanding our roles as residents, neighbours, allies, and caretakers with First Nations, Métis, and Inuit Nations.

Her Worship, Andrea Horwath (Mayor, City of Hamilton) welcomed Madam Sirleaf to Hamilton, acknowledging the significance of the visit to our city as a global leader whose contributions are inspiring the world. Hamiltonians supported the mobilization of resources during the Ebola crisis and are now continuing the relationship through the Hamilton Public Library, who are advising the project and country on the development of a library system.

Eugene Blawah, Vice President, Liberian Association of Canada, brought greetings on behalf of the Liberian community groups established across Canada including in Edmonton, Vancouver, Winnipeg, London, Hamilton-Niagara, Windsor, Kitchener-Waterloo, Toronto, Montreal. These groups are strengthening the fabric of the Liberian community in Canada and also empowering those involved to give back, both in Canada and Liberia.

Liberian-Canadian singer Maya Water performed a stunning rendition of “Hero” by Mariah Carey.

Willems Ransom, Principal at mcCallumSather provided an overview of Phase 1 – the first building – of the Liberian Learning Center. He shared that the architecture of the building complements the surrounding urban environment, creating moments of visual interest while being respectful of neighbouring architecture. Phase 1’s exterior form and design strikes a careful balance between modern elegance and traditional design. Wood accents and large glass windows complement the building’s exterior masonry walls and allow visibility into the building’s courtyard, conveying a sense of warmth and accessibility.

The climate of Liberia plays a critical role in the design of the Center. The sloped roof forms a large, striking south-facing architectural feature that will harvest solar energy and rainwater. A separate structure sits beside the main structure with a shared roof – this area holds the water storage tanks and the washroom facilities. Open public areas are protected by large wooden overhangs and are located to the east to allow for diffused daylight with limited solar heat gain. Materials for the construction are being sourced locally whenever possible, stimulating the local economy and ensuring a long-term abundance of materials for future maintenance and replacement needs.

Lemuel Nupolu Johnson, Empowered Leader in Training at Empowerment Squared (ELITE) program participant, introduced his dad, Leo Nupolu Johnson.

Leo Nupolu Johnson thanked and recognized McMaster University and Mastercard Foundation for their support and mentorship over the years. Leo shared that the vision for the Liberian Learning Center arose when he was living on the Buduburam refugee camp in Ghana and he attended bible studies at the camp. Kids attended because after bible studies, they would give attendees a dollar bill. One day, they began distributing books instead of money. One of the books was entitled “Samuel Morris: The African Boy God Sent to Prepare an American University for Its Mission to the World.” Samuel Morris was brought to the US to be trained as a pastor in the 1800s. He enrolled at Taylor University in Michigan while holding onto a dream to go back to Liberia and share his knowledge with fellow Liberians. Leo took inspiration from Morris’ vision.

Years later in Canada, when Leo walked into the Hamilton Public Library for the first time, he was speechless in the face of the many offerings of the library and made a pledge to find a way to bring this type of resource to Liberia. Along the way, Leo met with Madam Sirleaf in 2007 in Toronto and in Liberia in 2014.

After sharing this and more context, Leo introduced and welcomed Madam Sirleaf to the podium.

Her Excellency Ellen Johnson Sirleaf welcomed friends of Empowerment Squared, McMaster University, and colleagues from Mastercard Foundation. Her edited transcribed remarks are shared below:

“Never leave women behind!”

One day I was listening to a radio station and heard someone say things that nobody usually says. He was challenging the status quo and the things that have long divided us. He was challenging those who call themselves leaders in Liberia. That person was Leo Nupolu Johnson. I can see how Leo is serving his society that has hosted him in Canada, that has afforded him to follow his dream and brought him the character to help him remember his roots and give back.

My whole life has been one of challenging, taking positions, and standing up for the values and the principles that one believes in. It’s never an easy road to leadership, and mine was certainly a long journey. When you take a position, when you value certain things, when it comes from the genesis of who you are and what you are, you are able to take on any obstacle that you may face as you see through the implementation of your dreams. I was pleased to be elected by the people of Liberia and I owe it to the women whose shoulders I stood on. They are the ones who helped me when I was in prison, or when I faced serious difficulties. In the 12 years of my service, we were able to introduce quality education through the support that was given by the leadership of the country and institutions abroad. I completed my term and I was pleased to lead the first democratic political transition in the country in keeping with the requirements of our constitution. The Presidency empowered me to serve in so many global institutions and to bring to the consciousness of what Africans and Liberians long for.

We live in a different world now. Things have changed, the UN and other affiliated institutions are all facing challenges which are leading to the exclusion and marginalization of people. That is a call to all the leaders of the world to be able to respond. There are so many threats that we must face as a global community. Old threats such as COVID-19 and new threats such as climate change may leave many of the poor nations behind. There is so much positivism in the world, and we have been able to progress. So many individuals like many of you in this audience who have been able to, by your own self empowerment, achieve your goals, or maybe you are on the journey. You have the determination and commitment to overcome any obstacle.

In three months I will be 85 years old, my life has been a long and exciting journey. I have faced formidable odds, but also have been able to motivate others on the journey. When one is lifted, you can reach back. That’s what true leadership is all about. I dedicate the rest of my life to the idea that women will have the opportunity to reach their goals, to see the implementation of their dreams, and we will do it by working with them. More mentoring, providing support – I have established a center for this purpose from 19 different countries across departments, ministers, non-governmental operations, they are the ones and we need to see a bigger wave of. Ready as professionals, not asking for favors, not asking to begin something, but given the right to compete and to win.

Let me applaud the people at McMaster University for the last three days. I almost envisioned I was on a campaign trail! You know, you never stop, you go from one place to another, you talk, you walk, you drink, you eat but it’s all toward a certain goal and in this case it was to give me an opportunity to see the University at work with the people.  To see the recognition of those who came before them, giving them a place and a part in everything that they do. To reach beyond equity and move towards a place where they stand up and they can sing the Canadian anthem because they feel like true citizens because they have been treated that way.

In closing, let me ask you to stand by your dreams. In 1979 I made a critical statement of the government in which I served and was taken out of the country by a Harvard University professor who provided the means for me to go to the Kennedy School. I did not know what Harvard University was all about at that time. I went and I learned, and I studied, and when I left after so many years and returned to the country to serve at all levels. I eventually became President in 2006 and did some of the things that I have been recognized for. I have served so well that when I was asked to give the commencement address at Harvard University in 2011 the statement which Leo repeated came from that address: The size of your dreams must always exceed your current capacity to achieve them.

Last week, Harvard University and the center I have established signed a memorandum of understanding to work together for the promotion of women. What I and what other women have done will forever be the life story of those who serve only because they believe in a betterman of people, peace, security, they believe in equity, and justice – may that be your rising call as you seek your dreams.

After Madam Sirleaf’s remarks, Empowerment Squared donor and Rotarian Tony Anderson came to the stage, and shared the incredible news that along with his wife Susan, he would be donating an additional $300,000 to the project, resulting in Phase 1 of the Liberian Learning Center being fully funded. Tony and Susan lived in Liberia in the late 1970s before the outbreak of war and formed a lifelong affinity for the country. Susan worked as a nurse and Tony was a financial manager with Canadian company West African Explosives and Chemicals.

Emmett Dunn, Board Chair, Empowerment Squared, Liberia brought closing remarks, extending his heartfelt gratitude to the partners, donors, and volunteers who have been instrumental in making this project a success. He invited everyone in the room to join us in early 2024 in Liberia, where we will come together to inaugurate the Liberian Learning Center.

Madam Sirleaf’s historic visit to Hamilton and Empowerment Squared are a notable milestone on the road to the development of the Liberian Learning Center. Madam Sirleaf reiterated the importance of the center to the future of Liberia, and its alignment to the past and ongoing leadership work in developing the country. Phase 1 of the Liberian Learning Center is expected to open in 2024.

Learn more about the Liberian Learning Center:

Make a donation to the Liberian Learning Centre:

Watch the event video recap:

If you would like to learn more supporting the Liberian Learning Center, contact Joana Fejzaj, Manager, Community Development and Partnerships at