Dressed in sneakers and jeans, with a Giants of Africa T-shirt peeking out from under his jacket, Masai Ujiri grabbed a microphone and hopped up on stage before a room of 500 Toronto teenagers.
This was rare access to the Raptors president – a man these kids had only seen on TV. Here was the same sports executive who wrapped Kyle Lowry in a victorious hug after Toronto won the NBA championship, the same executive who hoisted the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
On this wintry December morning, Ujiri was in a working-class Toronto neighbourhood where the teens – many of them newcomers to Canada – lived. The Nigeria native is well known for the basketball camps and philanthropic work of his Giants of Africa (GOA) foundation. Yet this was an example of the focus he places on Toronto’s youth.
For a second straight year, Ujiri has been host of a Toronto youth summit, one of many types of events the Raptors president has held for the past six years to commemorate the anniversary of the death of Nelson Mandela. The South African anti-apartheid icon, political leader and philanthropist died on Dec. 5, 2013, and Ujiri tries to preserve Mandela’s message to be an agent of positive change in the world.
The young capacity crowd, all wearing the GOA’s white “Be The Change” T-shirts, packed the Eglinton West Gallery, a lofty rental space with brick walls, industrial chandeliers and rustic wood doors. As they fidgeted with their phones and whispered, Ujiri, in a fatherly tone, stressed the importance of listening in today’s world and paying it forward.
The architect of Toronto’s wildly popular NBA team addressed the audience only briefly. Then he invited on stage four young leaders he admires, fascinating young people who would inspire the kids: a basketball scout, a peace activist, a choreographer of major music videos and a photographer.
“Everyone in Toronto has heard me run my mouth enough,” said Ujiri, prompting laughter from the high schoolers. “I guarantee you that someone in this room is going to be big and going to make a big change in the world. So you should all think of it like this – why can’t it be me?”
The first to speak was Sarah Chan, a South Sudanese refugee to Kenya who so impressed Ujiri for her work coaching youth and organizing GOA camps that Ujiri hired her as a Raptors scout in Africa. During her presentation, Ujiri played a GOA video for the teens. It included Chan coaching in basketball clinics in South Sudan and Somalia – countries affected by brutal civil wars. Chan tells the boys to look around the court and consider all their fellow players as brothers: “I don’t care what tribe they’re from and nobody should.” In another clip, Chan is coaching girls, all wearing hijabs and playing basketball, that girls had not traditionally been welcomed to play sports. ‘‘Be proud to be girls," Chan hollers. “We love you. You are so respected and so valued.”
Chan told the Toronto audience how she found basketball in Kenya and landed a scholarship to a U.S. college. She then returned to Africa, where she volunteered at a GOA camp in Kenya. She knows basketball can help African girls stay in school, build confidence and avoid becoming childhood brides – things the sport afforded her.
“As I speak, I’m not married and I don’t have any kids, and I never, ever take that for granted,” Chan told The Globe and Mail later, stressing that basketball gave her a chance at a different life that others didn’t have. “This is how my life turned out because I got an opportunity.”
Another panelist was Ilwad Elman, a woman who not only collaborated with GOA on its girls camp in Mogadishu this summer, but is also on the front lines of many Somali peace-keeping efforts. Ujiri said Elman has become like a sister to him. She was a Nobel Peace Prize nominee this year for her work with the Elman Peace and Human Rights Center in Somalia, which rehabilitates child soldiers and survivors of sexual violence. It incorporates programming such as sports, art, yoga and surfing.
As small children, she and her two sisters immigrated to Canada in 1996 with their mother after their father, respected peacekeeper Elman Ali Ahmed, was killed. He was known for his “drop the gun, pick up the pen” campaign to choose education over war. When the girls were 18, 16 and 14, their mother returned to Somalia to continue peace work, leaving the girls in Ottawa to finish their studies. In 2010, after they had all graduated, the girls went back to Somalia to join the cause.
One sister, fellow peace activist Almas Elman, was killed last month in Mogadishu, after being hit by a bullet while in a car en route to the airport. The family has called for an investigation by Canadian and Somalian authorities. Elman, at a tribute to her sister on Wednesday and again at Thursday’s summit, said she found it comforting to talk about her family’s humanitarian work.
“Being received so warmly by Masai and by the students here, I’m inspired,” Elman said. “Coming through two weeks that were arguably the hardest in my life, this has been therapy for me, looking out and seeing the potential in these kids.”
While many of the panelists identified Ujiri as their heroes, he put the spotlight back on them. He credited Chan and Elman for choosing Mogadishu and South Sudan and spearheading those two GOA camps this summer.
Another panelist was dancer and celebrity choreographer Sherrie Silver, who fled Rwanda with her mother as a child, and made a life in England. As had Elman, Silver was chosen as one of New African magazine’s Top 100 Most Influential Africans.
Silver performed a modern dance, and shared insights from some major music videos she has choreographed, including Childish Gambino’s controversial This is America video. She is an advocate for the UN’s International Fund for Agricultural Development and also advocates for investment in the youth of rural sub-Saharan Africa, to help them learn farming skills to support themselves and help alleviate world hunger.
Ujiri also invited a Toronto-based photographer, Jamal Burger, to speak to the group. Raised by a single mom in the Regent Park neighbourhood, Burger said that, for one brief time, the only way he could afford the expensive basketball sneakers he wanted was for him to steal.
Once Burger became a successful professionaly photographer, with access to NBA players and shoe companies, he decided to start his own charity, collecting gently used shoes and giving them to kids in need. His first sneaker drive filled him with a desire to do more. That sparked his desire to branch into community youth programs, such as workshops on shoe design or career mapping.
Ujiri hoped their stories resonated with the audience.
“People get offended when I say this, but we’re not changing 60-year-olds, or 50-year-olds,” Ujiri said. “But we can help shape the youth in the direction they’re going and maybe some of their thinking.”