Sam Johnson, community organiser

Where: Christchurch, NZ, at the Vorstead Bar

When: We met on 18th February, 2015

Who: Sam Johnson is a well-known face in New Zealand; he set up the Student Volunteer Army ( ) in response to the Christchurch earthquake in 2010 and 2011. He has since gone on to institute it as a permanent student-run organisation, co-found the Ministry of Awesome where he is now a trustee ( ) and lead other start ups such as Youth Beyond Disasters with the UNISDR (UN Agency for Disaster Risk Reduction). Hereturned this year to finish the final 2 papers of his study at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, in politics and sociology.

What: There are a couple of sections to this because Sam has done so much!

Student Volunteer Army:

The Student Volunteer Army started as ‘a social media movement that mobilised over 11,000 students to assist in the cleanup of Christchurch’ after the earthquakes in 2010 and 2011. It has since become a permanent student organisation based at the University of Canterbury, Christchurch, which aims to ‘make service a part of the student lifestyle by inspiring and activating students to be the change in their community’.

Right now, there is a leadership team of 15 students, and about 500 volunteers, varying from one-off involvements to significant project management. Sam meets with the president and vice-president every couple of weeks. The types of activities students are doing include help for the elderly through to establishing ‘gap filler’ projects (, turning empty areas into positive spaces – anything from a community garden to a bar.

Ministry of Awesome:

The Ministry of Awesome is a Christchurch-based incubator aiming to create ‘a vibrant, activated, and connected world, filled with people who are inspired to follow their passion and are supported to do so’. They act as the starting point to help people live the life they want to lead. They run weekly and monthly events to inspire and connect people together e.g. Coffee and Jam every Tuesday lunchtime, regularly attracting 120 attendees.

Their recipe for success is:
1. Bring people together
2. Provide social proof of people just like them doing amazing things
3. Offer structured support, access to connections and enthusiastic encouragement

Why: When the earthquake happened Sam said it was simply about wanting to help, and knowing he had a strong network of friends who could also help. Then they would basically identify a need and go and meet it. His continuing motivation is about making his life count. Sam said that he has had huge opportunities come from essentially 16 days of clean-up (with others here and there – he said it so nonchalantly!) and he wants to make the most of it for making the biggest positive difference he can.

Personal reflections: I feel like I only touched the tip of the iceberg in our chat over a cider last night! Here are some of the main take-aways from our conversation:
– Sam emphasised how he felt that his leadership role in the Student Volunteer Army wasn’t because of some rare qualities he has, or his particular personality. It is just about wanting to help, getting involved and looking after the people who join you in whatever it is you are undertaking.
– Power is accessible – it is just about knowing what you want to talk to the person about who you seek to talk with and actually putting yourself out there to contact them.
– There have been failures as well as successes in the activities Sam has undertaken – but mistakes happen, you learn from them, and you understand more about yourself in the process.
– The lasting legacy of the creation of the Student Volunteer Army is not only about the continuation of a platform for bringing students together with opportunities for volunteering or community involvement. It has also been the way the University of Cantrrbury, one of eight universities in New Zealand, has reframed what the student experience is about and what they want their students to walk away with – a sense of service and community.


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