Sam Johnson was named Young New Zealander of the Year 2012
By Craig Hoyle
It has been an amazing year-and-a-half for Cantabrian Sam Johnson.
The 22-year-old started the Student Volunteer Army in the wake of the Canterbury quakes, has collected a stack of awards including the Sir Peter Blake leadership award, and was recently named Young New Zealander of the Year.
Sam now makes regular appearances at public speaking events around the country, and has a 98 percent leadership approval rating among Cantabrians – beating the likes of Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker (63 percent) and Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee (52 percent) in a recent Press poll.
John Key even says he could be a future Prime Minister of New Zealand.
So how did it all begin for this inspirational Kiwi?
According to Sam, it began with a song and a dance at high school.
“I did a lot of musical theatre before I got involved in this whole volunteer thing,” he says. “We couldn’t get a whole lot of community people involved, and that’s how I sort of fell into a community board.”
Sam entered local politics as a result, successfully running for the Riccarton-Wigram Community Board in 2010.
However, it was not until after the September 2010 earthquake that he shot to international fame.
“I guess after the earthquake I just wanted to do something, I felt pretty helpless,” he says.
That feeling of helplessness led to a call on Facebook for students to help clean up the city of Christchurch: “Bring a spade and a wheelbarrow if you’ve got one,” the post said, “otherwise be prepared to door knock and ask for one.”
More than 100 young people answered this initial call for help. Students took to the streets to do their bit, and at its peak around 13,000 students were volunteering a week. The Army now has 27,500 members on Facebook.
A year-and-a-half later, Sam says the Student Volunteer Army has moved on from that cleanup phase and is now concentrating on getting young people involved in the community.
“When I talk about the Volunteer Army, when I think about it, it’s not a mass of people. It’s a pattern of communication in which some of us are dedicated to finding students volunteer jobs with people through already existing networks,” he says.
One of the latest initiatives is The Concert, where volunteers sign up to do at least four hours of community work, and in return will receive a ticket for a special quake relief concert at AMI Stadium on November 3.
“It’s not about young people helping the older vulnerable people, it’s about them helping us,” says Sam. “They help us actually work for something, they help us work to get to a concert, or work to get to an event.”
Sam has been hailed as a hero for his efforts, with politicians and media alike holding him up as a tribute to the hard-working Kiwi spirit.
But Sam says the only affirmation he seeks about is from those he is closest to.
“The only endorsement that I really want is from the team of people that I work with,” says Sam. “That’s what matters most, is what people internally think of you, not the public.”
This humility is one of Sam’s most noticeable features. He is quick to acknowledge that he is not perfect, and says he would be just as happy to do what he does out of the limelight.
“Leaders aren’t always the people who are out the front, leaders can also do back behind the scenes work,” he says. “So I’ve got a few projects that I’m working away at that I’m not going to tell anyone about.”
One project he is talking about is the recent creation of the Ministry of Awesome. The Ministry calls for people to submit their ideas for making Christchurch a fabulous place to live.
A button on Sam’s lapel professes his love for the garden city, and his eyes light up when he talks about the Ministry’s plans for reinvigoration.
“It’s a platform to create awesomeness in Christchurch, and to make and create awesome. It’s so exciting, and there’s just such an amazing group of us that are involved in it, it’s awesome,” he says.
Travel may beckon at some point, but Sam says he is committed to Christchurch for the foreseeable future.
“I certainly want to go overseas for a while, but I plan on coming back,” he says.
“We just have a lot of work to do to make sure we attract people back to Christchurch and make it a place that people want to come.”
He does not see that leading into a career in politics though.
“I don’t see politics as something for me at the moment,” he says. “I get people saying to me all the time ‘have you thought about this, have you thought about that?’ and it’s like, thanks for that.”
He laughs when asked about how John Key has said he sees him as a future prime minister of New Zealand.
“That’s the curse, don’t say that!”
Politics may not be on the agenda right now, but when asked who he is inspired by the first person Sam names is a politician – Art Agnos, who was mayor of San Francisco from 1988 to 1992 and led the city through its recovery from the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.
“Art is someone who went into politics for the right reasons. He taught me a lot about myself, and a lot about life, and he’s an absolute hero of mine,” he says.
Sam concedes that he has not ruled out a career in politics, but stresses that with role models such as Agnos motive would be an important factor.
“The only reason I’d go in there is if there’s something I want to change that I can’t do from outside,” he says.
He also pays tribute to the unsung heroes who volunteer behind the scenes, and says they are just as much of an inspiration.
“To my mind the real heroes down in Christchurch are people Betty Chapman who is in the Wainoni Methodist Church,” he says. She gets her little groups of elderly people together and they play bingo and other things.
“They’ve been doing this volunteer work for so many years, and then I come in and get praise for being a volunteer, but they’ve been doing it for years!”
Sam has also been involved with the UpRising Trust, which aims to revitalise the Christchurch gay community in the wake of the quakes. Sam is openly gay, and speaks passionately of the need for young people to have positive gay role models.
“When I was at school I had no gay role models who were accessible, so part of that for me, and that was one of the underlying reasons for me to be involved in UpRising, was to really support the cause,” says Sam.
“In the community where I grew up in Mayfield I didn’t know any gay people, and I think the gay culture shouldn’t be driven so much underground,” he says. “It just needs to be an integrated part of life.”
Integration and acceptance are important points for Sam.
“One of my favourite things to do is to become friends with a really ultra-conservative Christian and then tell them I’m gay after I’ve been friends with them for a couple of months, and they’re too good friends with you to hate you.
“I respect their opinions and they respect mine, and I think if we could be a lot more tolerant with each other it would be a lot better.”
He likens the gay marriage debate to the nuclear-free debate of the 1980s.
“It’s a bit like the nuclear thing, when we did that as a country – let’s be leading and innovative instead of sitting back. We have this amazing opportunity to really lead the world and do things a bit differently.”
And yes, Sam wants to get married.
“I definitely plan on getting married, I can’t wait. Just got to find someone to do it with first!”
In the meantime he has other more pressing matters to attend to, such as going back to school.
“I want to finish my degree, and I get told all the time, ten times a day in conversations, when are you finishing your degree,” he says.
Which with everything else means that Sam will be a very busy person.
“I’ve got an awful lot on my plate right now. It’s more the whole work life balance doesn’t really happen. My friends are like can you just stop all this stuff?”
For now though, this young man is showing no signs of slowing down.