SXSW Poker #8: AJ Leon
On a random New York City evening in November 2008, I walked into a small independent movie theatre in the East Village. On this one night only, they were playing “War Child” a documentary on the life and times of London-based Hip Hop artist Emmanuel Jal, an ex-Sudanese war child and one of the so-called “Lost Boys” of Sudan.
The documentary told the story of a child who had lost everything he ever knew at the age of six, who grew up as an orphan in UN refugee camps, who was forced into a militia when he was ten years old to kill people he knew nothing about, and who was finally rescued by a brave woman who smuggled him on a cargo plane headed to Kenya. At the end of the film, Emmanuel stands on a piece of ground saying his life’s mission is to build a school in his hometown of Leer, Sudan because “the education of his people will keep his story from being repeated”.
When the film ended, there was a live Q&A session with the producers. I sat and listened to the questions, but no one seemed to care about the one question that was burning me up inside. Did Emmanuel build that school? Was his redemption complete? I was the last hand raised, and asked my question to which the reply was “no they hadn’t been able to raise the funding”.
I was stunned. A story that compelling should move mountains.
When I walked outside, I saw Emmanuel, and somehow mustered the courage to walk right up to him and tell him that I had no money, but I knew how to start fires. And that I could guarantee we would raise all the money within six months. (side note: I had never raised money nor worked with a non-profit in my life)
The following day, before his flight back to London, we met at in his hotel lobby, and I sketched out on a napkin “Emma Academy Project”. Right then and there, we named the school after the woman who had rescued him. And right then and there, we decided we wouldn’t stop until the last brick was dropped.
Six months, a community of 10,000 strong and hundreds of disparate acts of fundraising later, we raised all the funds needed and broke ground in Leer.
One brief moment of audacity was all it took.
And now over a thousand children a world away have access to an education that will change the trajectory of their entire lives.