A general Sam

By Melinda Collins

The success of some of the world’s greatest people is often about more than just what they have done; it’s about how they have broken down stereotypes which, in turn, has evolved people’s thinking and developed stronger societies and communities.

Following the September 2010 and February 2011 events, Sam Johnson physically aided the Canterbury community, but what is perhaps more pertinent was that he broke down a stereotype. He took thousands of the city’s “good-for-nothing” students and built an army.

The central task of this army was to shovel liquefaction from properties; but as good ideas sometimes tend to do, it took on a life of its own. Two years on and the amazing work of the Volunteer Army Foundation continues, but that’s because the strength of any army is determined by its general.

Sam was always into community work and a wide range of extra-curricular activities, something he likes to call “positively procrastinating” his university work. “A lot of the things I do really just involve assisting people with the use of skills they already possess to make things better or different,” he explains.

It’s not really surprising then that he accepts little of the credit for the UC Student Volunteer Army (SVA) network, preferring instead to see himself in more of a facilitative role to the innate desire of people to help others.

“For me it wasn’t anything revolutionary and it wasn’t something that hadn’t happened before. People go out and help people in times of crisis all the time and they’ve even used social media to do it.

“The thing about the earthquake was that there was the unique mix of motivation to help – everyone needing something very simple to be done and a lot of people in the city with nothing to do. The Facebook page we ran was just about pulling together all those things at the one time and it took off. “The challenge now is how to keep that going.”

The SVA is effectively just a communication platform, linking needs and resource. It’s the same premise behind Sam’s latest project, The Concert. Organised by the Volunteer Army Foundation, the parent body of the SVA, the November 4 event was designed to thank current volunteers and encourage further volunteering. Attendees paid with time, not money, donating four hours of volunteering for a ticket to the show which boasted eight hours of music by 25 New Zealand acts. In total 48,134 volunteer hours were committed to for more than 900 projects.

It’s a phenomenal effort from the guy who admits to a distinct lack of plans. “Before the earthquake I applied for a number of jobs and didn’t get any,” he laughs.

He’s now back at university after two years of focussing predominantly on projects and opportunities which have arisen through the foundation, such as the Ministry of Awesome.

He is highly sought after as a public speaker and has a position as a member of the Riccarton/ Wigram Community Board. “I normally get up at six and go to bed at 12.”

Sam credits his status with allowing him the opportunity to travel and he was recently accepted into the British Council of the Global Changemakers programme, a youth initiative to instigate position social change.

The programme is involved in awareness campaigns such as the recently established Rugby League against Domestic Violence programme in Papua New Guinea.

He says that while Christchurch may be a difficult place to live in right now, this position allows him a special insight into the lives of people who are even worse off.

The last two years have seen him touch down in Japan, India, South America and most recently London, where he attended volunteering conferences to speak about Christchurch. “Sometimes people might criticise you for making the most of these things,” Sam says of the opportunities which have been afforded him.

“But if I can go over there and tell 500 people how awesome Christchurch is, that benefits Christchurch. There’s a really solid purpose behind why I’m doing this.”

He’s been widely tipped as a potential political player of the future, but for now politics is simply a means to an end. “At the moment politics is an instrument to make certain changes. At the moment I’m quite happy not to engage in it; maybe in 15, 20 years – who knows?

“But right now the value of our work, it’s almost above politics, sort of apolitical. At the end of the day everyone wants stronger communities, everyone wants young people involved in those communities and everyone sees the value in service, so that’s the space I’m really interested in.”

Skill of the unskilled

There have been significant changes in the city, but not just in the physical sense. “We’ve learnt how to support each other, that’s been pretty massive. My favourite change after the earthquake is that all that rubbish we have in Christchurch about what school you went to and what part of town you’re in – all that didn’t matter.

“It was like everyone was on a level playing field and that’s what we’ve got to maintain, that actually it doesn’t matter where you’re from and what you do – it’s about the fact that you’re from Christchurch and you’re contributing to the city.

“It’s not so much your time your skill or your money that’s important, it’s the overall contribution you give to a city, so the overall contribution you give to your family, or your community that makes the difference.”

The SVA team called it the skill of the unskilled. “It didn’t matter if you didn’t have any skills in the traditional sense, it was about people who wanted to get out and contribute.”

He recalls his favourite earthquake story; a group of kids from a decile one North Island school who raised money from the tooth fairy and pocket money to make a coin trail. “They raised $84 and sent that down to Christchurch with muesli bars they had written messages on.”

While the Christchurch mentality has changed, Sam is also looking forward to physical changes we will see over the ensuing years. “It needs to be dynamic and quirky,” he says of the Christchurch of the future.

“I think we’re quickly moving away from just wanting a big fancy convention centre or standard things. It’s got to be different; we’ve got to create Christchurch as somewhere completely different to anywhere else in the world.

“At the moment it is different because it is a city that is still standing after going through a disaster. We’ve got to keep that mentality going and embrace our transitional city work like Gap Filler, Greening the Rubble and the Light in Vacant Spaces Trust. They all are about embracing the holes we’ve got in this city and repairing them with creative energy.”

Creative and crazy

Sam is passionate about Ken Robinson’s TED Talk on schools killing creativity.

“His point is that we need to be a bit more creative and a bit more crazy. An ideal Christchurch for me is somewhere people want to visit because it’s a bit different, where you don’t need to get a normal run of the mill job and where the uni doesn’t just teach you, but engages you in a community and the job you go to doesn’t just expect you to do a job, but expects you to use your creative energy and look at new opportunities as they come along.”

While the city is changing, Sam likes to think he’s not. “I like to think I haven’t changed much. I think the amount of learning and personal growth that I’ve been through, just from dealing with people of all different types and natures, has been the most significant change.

“This year has been really hard; it’s been the hardest time since the earthquake for me, just because of the work that we’re trying to do – it’s really big. It’s the learning; none of us know everything and working as part of a team in a professional working environment has been terrific, but it hasn’t been easy.

“There’s this perception that everything in my life is rosy and wonderful and while I’m exceptionally privileged with what I get to do, sometimes I can’t help but wonder how do I get myself out of this little mess I’ve got myself into,” he laughs, reflecting on the seemingly insurmountable nature of everything he wants to do.

It’s been very much a case of in-at-the-deep end in terms of his on the job learning. One thing he has had to learn is the importance of delegation. “I think my biggest learning has been to realise you should focus on what you’re good at and let others focus on what you’re not good at.”

At 23 he says he has no management experience and has never worked in a business. “It was tough I had to realise I’m not good at managing a team of people while doing all this other stuff. What I’ve been taught is that you’ve got to admit where you don’t do well and actually follow up on that.”

Today the Volunteer Army Trust has people managing staff and other areas of the organisation. “Leadership comes in so many different forms. I get really nervous now when people hail me up as this great leader; we all have the capacity to lead.

“You need to set a clear vision and a clear goal, to know what you want to do and what you want to achieve.”

Different generations speak different languages, he says. It’s important to understand the generations in order to understand those languages. “What maybe works for some generations may not work for others; our generation is impatient, we like things done easily, if it can be done online in a quicker more efficient way, that’s what we want.

“A key thing we need to do is help young people like myself understand why a process is the way it is. If you see something written and think it doesn’t make sense, we want to know why, why that rule is there. There’s not that respect driven in there; we challenge everything.”

So what is the worst thing someone can do in terms of leadership? “Trying to do it all yourself, or ever thinking you’re bigger than the cause. No-one is expendable; if I get hit by a bus tomorrow, people will carry on, the world will carry on. It’s not reliable on one person and that can be a big trap.”

One thing’s for sure though, this one particular person has played a significant role in shaping both the Christchurch of the present and of the future.

While Christchurch may not be reliant on him to carry on, it is certainly better off for his presence in it. There’s something just a little bit special about the 23 year old general of a 26,000 strong army and there’s also something pretty special about the 26,000 volunteers themselves because, as the saying goes, volunteers don’t get paid because they’re worthless, but because they’re priceless.

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