ML Dreams: Levi Johnsen, Director of Networks & Campaigns at Many Hopes, hails from Denver now lives in Brooklyn
madeLOKAL loves meeting and supporting people who are willing to ‘take the leap’. We met Levi after we received an email from him saying explaining that he’d be starting a new job, which we later realized we had misunderstood to be in Kenya! Levi was still an amazing guy with an even more inspiring story than we could have even imagined. It was such a pleasure to meet Levi and let's just say there is so much more to His story than what we recount below...
madeLOKAL: How’d you end up in NYC?
Levi: I was studying abroad in Barcelona and I met my fiancee, Jess, on a bus from London to Paris. We first hung out under the Eiffel Tower! Jess would go to NYC for her degree in Social Work and I went back to Denver where I was from and always figured I’d live out my entire life.
Levi: “If this is going to work out, you’re going to have to move to Denver” I told Jess. I’ve always LOVED Denver. I’ve always been into supporting local. In Denver I rode my bike everywhere, bought everything local, and was running a non-profit there. I considered myself “Mr Denver”. I always loved cities, but there was something different about Denver. I was so connected there.
So when I read an article on a new program that Pratt was creating: Masters in Urban Placemaking, I contacted the Chairman of Pratt during a visit with Jess and realized this program was everything that I was passionate about!
The foundation of Pratt’s program is that public space is THE most critical space in a city. If you develop healthy spaces, you develop healthy cities. After all, Democracy begins in open spaces.
madeLOKAL: We went to Pratt’s website and it explained how open spaces are often an afterthought in design and this program overturned that thinking. (It made sense for someone like Levi, who had taken a year off to work on the Obama campaign, cared deeply about the right to demonstrate and how public space had such a big impact on social justice.)
Levi: Yes, their goal is to make open space the first part of design and then to design architecture around those open spaces. We call this SLOPE (space left over planning)
madeLOKAL: what beautiful, perfect sense
Levi: This involves City Planning, Architecture, Landscape Design, Government, Fundraising and lots of other groups and skills to manifest…...all of the things that I was already interested in.
This is where the leap of faith came for Levi. In Denver, he was deeply integrated in his community, which he loved dearly and anticipated staying for the rest of his life. He had a HUGE network there, which he ended up leaving, something he never imagined doing...but did in hopes of something bigger, to make an impact on social democracy, cities and for l.o.v.e.
Levi: I was very humbled because I had had the next 20 years planned out before moving to NYC. The Urban Placemaking Program was incredibly rewarding. I didn’t realize the scale of ideas that I would have access to. All the people I had been listening to and reading back in Denver….were actually here!
I became more emotionally available. It fed my brain in a different way. I’m not writing off anything anymore. It’s allowed me to take risks. If you’re young and idealistic, it’s incredibly rewarding.
After graduating Pratt, Levi accepted his dream job as Director of Networks + Campaigns for Many Hopes, based in Kenya. He’s working out of NYC, but is responsible for developing support networks and fundraising campaigns for children in Mombasa, Kenya. A large component of Levi's job will be creating a Many Hopes model for fundraising and development that supports the mission of the organization and gives people the opportunity to invest in our work.
Levi: It’s a dream job.
Commitment to justice and youth development is personal….Levi’s close friend was a young Kenyan who he thought would be the country’s next president, but died of cancer at a very young age. He is very passionate about social justice, which is what he’ll be supporting at Many Hopes. They are building a school for 900 children, which will be self-sustaining five years post completion. “I’m changing the model of what charity looks like” Many Hopes puts 100% of donations directly toward the school because they have a separate group of donors that cover administration costs.
Many Hopes has created a holistic program that nurtures the *whole* child (physical, emotional and intellectual). They are building homes, not orphanages that include personal space with bedrooms and consistent mother and father figures. Most importantly, the children will attend a school whose goal is to educate children from poverty and privilege together in a sensitive, understanding way so that they become a network of change making adults with the tools to act on justice in their community.
Levi ended our interview by explaining to me UBUNTU, the belief system in Africa where if you truly see yourself as interconnected, you will feel responsible. He also left me the Many Hopes pamphlet which explains the school he will be working to build. Of course, once you are knowledgeable, it is hard not to feel connected and therefore responsible.
images courtesy of Many Hopes