Even in death, former South African president Nelson Mandela continues to be a beacon of light for crusaders against violent oppression and racial inequality.

The memory of the anti-Apartheid icon, who died in December, looms especially large this February, as communities across North America observe Black History Month.

Hamilton’s ceremonies are no exception. Organizers of the John C. Holland Awards, which commend distinguished members of the city’s black community, have unveiled a new honour to commemorate the late leader.

Guava Tree Choir

Members of Stewart Memorial Church's Guava Tree Choir perform a hymn at a memorial for Nelson Mandela at Hamilton's city hall in December. (Cory Ruf/CBC)

The award celebrates a young person who “rises above challenge and difficulty to make a difference” and “uses the spirit of kindness and helpfulness to build a better and more inclusive community.”

Handed out for the first time on Saturday night, the inaugural Nelson Mandela Award went to first-year McMaster student Michael Abraham. The 20-year-old volunteers with literacy programs, mentors youngsters at the NGEN Youth Centre and teaches teamwork through his involvement with the Steel Express breakdancing team.

(Incidentally, he spent about a decade of his life in South Africa before his family moved to Canada 11 years ago.)

CBC Hamilton spoke with Abraham on Sunday about the award. He opened up about the origins of his drive to help others, his initial surprise over receiving the honour, and his hopes for a bright future for minority youth in the city.   

How does it feel to receive an award that has been named in honour of the late Nelson Mandela?

There are no real words to describe it. Obviously, coming from South Africa, I’ve known about Nelson Mandela since I was a little kid, about his struggles and everything that he accomplished.

During the awards ceremony, after they completed giving out the youth achievement awards, I thought, “OK, I didn’t get anything this year. That’s fine.” But then, as they were reading out my accomplishments, I’m thinking, “Oh man, that doesn’t sound like me. I don’t think I deserve this Nelson Mandela Award thing.” So it was very surprising for me at first, but I’m quite honoured.

What compels you to be so involved in community service?

For me, it’s a mixture of things. Living in South Africa, we were kind of well off. We weren’t living in a war-torn country, because we’d already moved away from that, from Ethiopia. We were lucky enough to be sponsored and make it over here, while there are other families who are refugees or who have tried multiple times and haven’t been successful.

I’ve always felt that I don’t really deserve to be here. I’ve always wondered if there should be something that I should be doing in terms of “paying my own way” or “paying for that plane ticket.” So I feel that, in terms of community work or going into social work, that’s the best way I can do it.

You use breakdancing and music as part of your outreach. How does tapping into youth culture help make a difference in the community?

I find that, in order to relate to youth, you have to understand where they’re coming from. Because of generational gaps, parents and kids sometimes clash because they have different cultural values or understandings of what they value.  We’re trying not to devalue them through [stereotyping]. We just try to provide them with what they need.

You have organized events about black history as part of your work with NGEN. Why is it important to share those stories with a younger generation?

The fact is that these stories are very significant. The people who went through these situations at least deserve to be remembered because they went through a lot to accomplish their goals.

Even though people may not relate directly — for example, to a runner not being valued at a race because “Oh, he’s black. He shouldn’t be there” — it doesn’t has to be that specific. The message is that, although he’s been pushed back and faces so many barriers, he’s still able to overcome them.

There is a lot of people from diverse backgrounds who have made a difference in Hamilton, but they still seem to be underrepresented in positions of power. What’s your hope for the roles minority youth will play in the city in the coming years?

I hope that we take on a stronger role. I understand it as a reoccurring cycle. Youth are internalizing what people or adults think of them. Even I think this. I’m 20, so I’m an adult. But sometimes I still feel that I’m voiceless or that I shouldn’t be speaking out because I’m like, “I don’t know if I have the experience to say anything.” Youth internalize that and feel that they’re not capable of achieving or saying what they need to say.

But all of the youth who won Holland awards, their list of accomplishments is just so amazing. I think these youth now stand as inspirations or figures that other youth can see and say, “Wow, those accomplishments are amazing, but they also aren’t impossible for me to achieve.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.