Toronto

'Life changing': Youth leaders revel in the chance to hear Barack Obama speak

U.S. president Barack Obama spoke about climate change, mental health and leadership to a sold-out crowd, half of which was young leaders.

For every ticket purchased for Obama's Toronto appearance, a ticket was donated to a young leader

Trevaun Douglas, 22, got a chance to meet former U.S. president Barack Obama Thursday and chat with him about his community work in Lawrence Heights. (Sannah Choi/CBC)

Trevaun Douglas never imagined he would ever be in the same room as Barack Obama, let alone meet the former U.S. president.

So it's taking some time for the reality of their encounter to sink in — a moment Douglas is calling a "life-changing, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

"It was so crazy. I felt like my whole body was just like, 'I'm really at this moment speaking to Obama," he told CBC News.

Douglas was one of 500 young people chosen through a campaign called #CreateFate to see Obama speak Thursday at the Metro Convention Centre. 

The 22-year-old was in the VIP line and hoping to get a photo, when Obama smiled at him and said, "Whoa, you're a strong guy." 

Douglas, who is a personal trainer, started to laugh. Then he told the former president about his efforts to positively impact kids and youth in his Lawrence Heights neighbourhood. 

"He told me to just keep going and don't stop," said Douglas."I'm going to go with his advice."

According to organizers, there were 6,000 people in the audience and for every ticket purchased, one was given to a young leader.

Greta Thunberg 'speaks for a generation'

The sold-out forum about the future of work was hosted by the Economic Club of Canada and the Global Institute for Conscious Economics. In a conversation with Economic Club President and CEO Rhiannon Rosalind, Obama touched on leadership, mental health, and his favourite thing about Canada.

"You're just so reasonable," he said. "Canadians are super reasonable." 

Obama spoke at a sold-out forum about the future of work in Toronto Thursday. (Sannah Choi/CBC)

Obama also said it's clear not everyone shares his mindset when it comes to the enormous global challenge of climate change.

"I instituted higher fuel-efficiency standards on cars, and the subsequent administration has now tried to actively reverse them," Obama said of President Donald Trump. "If we can't even do that, where we're going to say, 'We're not going to drive gas guzzlers' when other countries don't even have cars, then it's going to be almost impossible to solve the problem."

It will require a "surge of energy" from citizens to put pressure on large institutions to tackle greenhouse gas emissions that exacerbate global warming, Obama said. It's a cause, he said, that younger people increasingly understand and are willing to take on.

"Which is why you have somebody like a Greta Thunberg who gets so much traction," he said. "Because she speaks for a generation that is going to have to deal with this mess in a way that somebody like me, who's 58, is not going to have to deal with it." 

Young leaders invited through #CreateFate

The event opened with remarks from Kiana 'Rookz' Eastmond, 31, who is a music entrepreneur and the founder of Sandbox Studios, an urban music recording studio in Toronto.

She shared her story of dropping out of high school and breaking down barriers, thanks to people who invested in her. 

"It's amazing what happens when people believe in you. Take a moment every single day to think about that," Eastmond said. "Don't leave here without opening the door for someone else."

Eastmond launched the #CreateFate campaign in advance of the event, in which she invited young leaders to share their own stories of building their path toward success. 

Douglas and Dymika Harte were two of the people who answered that call on social media.

Dymika Hart, 23, is an entrepreneur from Weston who says Obama's talk affirmed her vision as a young business owner. (Sannah Choi/CBC)

Harte is a graphic designer who runs a six-person, all-woman team called UNSGND, which creates branding for small businesses and recording artists. 

"Obama actually defines 'Create Fate,'" she said. "He was an unlikely candidate, the very first black president. He proves to me that I can be in rooms that I'd never dream of being in.

"The conversation affirmed to me a lot of the things that I know to be true as a young business leader. He touched on having diverse teams, not limited to race but also skill set, age, mindset," Harte said. "I think everything that he said just showed me I'm on the right path."

About the Author

Sannah Choi is a multi-platform journalist with CBC Toronto. She started as a TV reporter in her hometown at CBC Ottawa and has since worked on shows like Power and Politics, Ottawa Morning, Here and Now, and Metro Morning. She enjoys exploring her neighbourhood in Toronto's west end with her husband and son.

With files from The Canadian Press

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