Sam Johnson (activist)

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Sam Johnson (born 14 February 1989) is a social entrepreneur based in Christchurch, New Zealand[1] who is known as the founder of the Student Volunteer Army[2] and was named 2012 Young New Zealander of the Year.

Johnson was reported in 2012 as having a 98% approval rating in Christchurch by The Press[2] and is ranked number 22 on the New Zealand Reader's Digest top 100 trusted people list.[3] Johnson has presented as a keynote speaker worldwide with highlights being in London at the 2012 World Volunteer Conference,[4] in Saudi Arabia as a guest of Princess Al Alnoon Foundation for Youth Development,[5] and Japan at the Google Big Tent on Technology in Disasters.[6]

Sam Johnson speaking at TedexChch

Johnson is an advocate and ambassador of several causes and actively volunteers his time to work with youth on disaster resilience and community development. In New Zealand he is a Hello Sunday Morning Ambassador, promoting sensible consumption of alcohol,[7] and works closely with the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNIDSR) on building disaster resilience.[8] Recently, Johnson was successful in getting Christchurch City Council to sign up to the UNISDR Making Cities Resilient Campaign.[9]

In Dammam, Saudi Arabia

Early life[edit]

Johnson was born in Ashburton and grew up on a farm in Mayfield. He was educated at Christ's College and the University of Canterbury.[10]

Student Volunteer Army[edit]

A Student Volunteer Army team

September 2010 earthquake[edit]

In the days immediately following the September 4th Christchurch earthquake, while the university's Ilam campus was closed to enable the buildings to be checked for structural safety, 21-year-old Johnson started a Facebook event called the "Student Base for Earthquake Clean Up"[11][better source needed] and invited friends to join with him in assisting local residents with non-lifesaving tasks, in particularly cleaning up soil liquefaction residue on the streets and gardens of the city.

Johnson invited 200 friends to the event which soon grew to have over 3000 attendees and over 2500 volunteers contributing to the clean up.[12]

Johnson met Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when she toured Christchurch in 2010.[13]

In an effort to continue the momentum of the initial cleanup, Johnson and the key organisers of the student initiative, Jade Rutherford, Gina Scandrett, Chris Duncan, Tommy Young and Sam Gifford,[14] decided to work with the University of Canterbury Students Association President Kohan McNab[15] to create a student club focused on student volunteering; named the UC Student Volunteer Army.

February 2011 Earthquake[edit]

The devastating 6.3 magnitude earthquake again struck Christchurch at 12:51 on 22 February 2011, causing widespread devastation and destruction. 185 people were killed, thousands of homes were damaged, and hundreds of buildings were uninhabitable. Johnson and the six original team members of the Student Volunteer Army teamed up with the University of Canterbury Student Association team, led by President Kohan McNab, Louis Brown from the Te Waipounamu Foundation, Nathan Durkin and Anthony Rohan from White Elephant Trust together with student clubs ENSOC, LAWSOC,[16] and MUSOC.[17]

The February operation of the Student Volunteer Army was managed by a core team of 15 people and a wider administration of 70 people who managed the three core operations which the SVA focused on; battalions, squadrons and street teams.[12]

StudentArmy IlamSchool in March 2011

The team worked to increase the efficiency of distributing chemical toilets and pamphlets, as well as manning call centers.[18] The student group become known as the Student Volunteer Army, with the Volunteer Army Foundation being the supporting Charity focused on disaster preparedness, youth engagement and service.[19]

A strong focus was also placed on the well-being of residents in the harder hit areas. Volunteers were encouraged to be a cheerful presence on the streets, offering food, drinks, and assistance in finding professional help.[18] Johnson and the other members of the Student Volunteer Army were highly visible and featured in much of the news reporting of the earthquake. Organised using Facebook, and social media, the concept enabled thousands of students and residents of Christchurch to make a contribution to those most affected by the devastating earthquakes. At its peak, there were 13,000 students volunteering per week.[20] The team of organisers received high praise from officials in New Zealand and this resulted in them speaking with Prince William about the potential programmes of volunteering involving young people.[21]

Japanese earthquake and tsunami[edit]

Johnson in a Tsunami stricken home in Japan

In late April and early May 2011, Johnson spent two weeks in Japan following the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami to set up a Student Volunteer Army at Waseda University.[22]

UNESCO Youth Beyond Disaster Forums[edit]

Johnson chaired the planning committee for the inaugural "Looking Beyond Disaster's" (LBD). LBD is an initiative of the NZ National Commission for UNESCO in partnership with the Bangkok UNESCO Office and the UNESCO Office of the Pacific in Apia. The focus of the program is to bring together young people who have experienced natural disasters in the Asia Pacific region to share disaster experiences and develop realistic action plans to rebuild communities that meet the needs and aspirations of young people.[citation needed]

The LBD network has grown with forums being held in Auckland (Pacific)[23][better source needed] and Sendai, Japan.[24][better source needed] In 2013 there will be forums in Indonesia[25] and Kobe, Japan.

The Concert[edit]

In 2012 the Volunteer Army Foundation, led by Johnson and Jason Pemberton, created an initiative designed to lure youth into experiencing volunteer activity, based on RockCorps.[26] On 3 November 2012, they hosted a 10-hour music event at the New AMI Stadium in Addington, Christchurch. The way to get a ticket was to volunteer at least four hours of time on any one of over 900 volunteer projects and events advertised through the custom built website. 8,000 tickets were sent out to individuals who contributed to over 50,000 hours of volunteering.

24 New Zealand bands all volunteered their time for the event organised by Skinny Mobile and Jonnie Halstead of Picnic Events.[27]

The 50,000 hours of volunteering were contributed her Majesty the Queens's Diamond Jubilee project called the 'jubilee hour'.[28] Johnson spoke in 2012 at the House of Commons in London at the Official Celebration of the Jubilee Hour being one of the major contributing organisations.[29]


Johnson successfully stood for the Riccarton-Wigram Community Board of the Christchurch City Council in the October 2010 local body elections.[30] At the time, he was a member of the National Party and was endorsed by Prime Minister John Key for his election campaign. Key said of Johnson that he "might be Prime Minister one day."[20][31] Johnson declared in July 2011 that he had no intention to run for higher public office in the near future.[32] In January 2013, it was reported that he may consider running for Christchurch City Council in the October 2013 local body elections.[33] The Press reported on 20 April 2013 that Lianne Dalziel would challenge Bob Parker for the Christchurch mayoralty, and that she had asked Johnson to be her running mate, with a view of Johnson becoming deputy mayor. The newspaper expressed surprise by this pairing, given that Dalziel is a Labour Party member, and Johnson has conservative views.[citation needed] Johnson eventually decided against running, saying it wasn't the "right thing for me right now".[34]

Other initiatives[edit]

Ministry of Awesome[edit]

Johnson is a founding Trustee of the Ministry of Awesome, a Christchurch-based idea incubator.[35] The Ministry of Awesome runs weekly and monthly events that achieve the organisations purposes.[36]


Johnson worked to assist mobilising young Nepalese volunteers following the Nepal earthquakes in 2015.[37]


In 2011, Johnson won a leadership award from the Sir Peter Blake Trust[38] before travelling to Delhi, India as a Global Changemaker to attend the British Council Asia Youth Summit.[39] In 2012 Johnson was named Coca-Cola Amatil Young New Zealander of the Year for 2012[40] and Public Relations Institute of New Zealand (PRINZ) Communicator of the Year.[41] Johnson has hosted a string of international icons and celebrities in Christchurch, most notable being the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall[42] and His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibett.[43]


  1. ^ "Dream It Plan It Do It". Sam Johnson. 2013-05-26. Retrieved 2013-11-16. 
  2. ^ a b Jo Mckenzie-Mclean (2012-06-09). "Student Army Leader Sam Johnson Makes International.." Retrieved 2013-11-16. 
  3. ^ "New Zealand's Most Trusted People 2013 - The Full List | Reader's Digest New Zealand". Retrieved 2013-11-16. 
  4. ^ "International Volunteer Day takes leaders across the globe | Volunteering New Zealand". 2012-12-03. Retrieved 2013-11-16. 
  5. ^ "صحيفة عرب نيوز « مركز وارف لتنمية الشباب". Retrieved 2013-11-16. 
  6. ^ "Google Events | Big Tent 2012". 2012-07-02. Retrieved 2013-11-16. 
  7. ^ "Community". Hello Sunday Morning. Retrieved 2013-11-16. 
  8. ^ "Kiwi of the year mobilizes world youth for disaster resilience". UNISDR. 2013-05-01. Retrieved 2013-11-16. 
  9. ^ "Key decisions from today's Council meeting - Media releases - Christchurch City Council". 2013-07-25. Retrieved 2013-11-16. 
  10. ^ Wilson, Janet (18 April 2011). "Sam the man". New Zealand Listener (3702). Retrieved 4 May 2016. 
  11. ^ "Student Volunteer base for Earthquake clean up". Facebook. Retrieved 2013-11-16. 
  12. ^ a b "About – Volunteer Army Foundation". Retrieved 2013-11-16. 
  13. ^ "Hillary Clinton praises quake effort". 2010-11-09. Retrieved 2013-11-16. 
  14. ^ "Parliamentary Debates (Hansard) : 14 September 2010". Retrieved 2013-11-16. 
  15. ^ Tina Law (2011-12-31). "Kohan McNab | It's A New World For Students". Retrieved 2013-11-16. 
  16. ^ "LAWSOCindex - School of Law - University of Canterbury - New Zealand". Retrieved 2013-11-16. 
  17. ^ "". Retrieved 2013-11-16. 
  18. ^ a b "History". Student Volunteer Army Incorporated. Retrieved 13 April 2012. 
  19. ^ "Volunteer Army Foundation - Youth Engagement, Disaster Preparedness, Service Learning". 2013-09-15. Retrieved 2013-11-16. 
  20. ^ a b "Sam the man". New Zealand Listener. 18 April 2011. Retrieved 14 July 2011. 
  21. ^ "Prince William: 'Grief is the price we pay for love'". TVNZ. 18 March 2011. Retrieved 8 August 2011. 
  22. ^ McKenzie-McLean, Jo (11 May 2011). "Japan to use Christchurch volunteer model". Retrieved 14 July 2011. 
  23. ^ "Facebook". Facebook. Retrieved 2013-11-16. 
  24. ^ "Facebook". Facebook. Retrieved 2013-11-16. 
  25. ^ "UNESCO Office in Bangkok: UNESCO Youth Forum Looking Beyond Disaster (LBD) to be held on 7 – 11 October 2013, Mercure Hotel, Padang, Indonesia (no registration fee)". Retrieved 2013-11-16. 
  26. ^ "RockCorps". RockCorps. Retrieved 2013-11-16. 
  27. ^ "The Team – Picnic Events". Retrieved 2013-11-16,  Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  28. ^ "Introduction". The Jubilee Hour. Retrieved 2013-11-16. 
  29. ^ Buchanan, Kirsty. "Jubilee Hour a 'fantastic' boost' | UK | News | Daily Express". Retrieved 2013-11-16. 
  30. ^ "Christchurch City Council - Riccarton-Wigram Community Board". Elections 2010. Retrieved 14 July 2011. 
  31. ^ MacDonald, John. "Prime Minister and Mayor come to UC to say thank you". University of Canterbury. Retrieved 15 July 2011. 
  32. ^ "A special night for a hero". Sunday Star Times. 3 July 2011. Archived from the original on 4 July 2011. Retrieved 8 August 2011. 
  33. ^ Cairns, Lois (28 January 2013). "Johnson ponders running for council". The Press. Retrieved 28 January 2013. 
  34. ^ "Student Army head won't run for mayor". 3 News NZ. April 22, 2013. 
  35. ^ Vicki Anderson. "Sam Johnson Proposes Ministry of Awesome". Retrieved 2013-11-16. 
  36. ^ "Home". Ministry of Awesome. 2013-11-12. Retrieved 2013-11-16. 
  37. ^ "Nepalese boy pulled from rubble 6 days after quake | World". 3 News. Retrieved 2015-09-21. 
  38. ^ "2011 Special Leadership Awardee: Sam Johnson". 2011. Retrieved 12 July 2011. 
  39. ^ "New Zealand Youth Ambassadors selected for youth summit". Scoop. 21 June 2011. Retrieved 8 August 2011. 
  40. ^ Charles Anderson and Fairfax Auckland. "Sam Johnson Named Young New Zealander Of The Year". Retrieved 2013-11-16. 
  41. ^ Sam Sachdeva (2012-10-05). "Sam Johnson Named 2012 Communicator of the Year". Retrieved 2013-11-16. 
  42. ^ Vinter, Phil; Cox, Laura (2012-11-16). "Diamond Jubilee Pacific tour: Prince Charles takes a spin on the dancefloor in New Zealand | Mail Online". London: Retrieved 2013-11-16. 
  43. ^ "News | The Office of His Holiness The Dalai Lama". Retrieved 2013-11-16. 

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