Earvin “Magic” Johnson has a special talent for the act of redefining.
In 1991, he redefined what a person living with HIV looks like and helped combat the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS.
After he retired from the NBA that same year, he redefined himself as a businessman. With Magic Johnson Enterprises, he built movie theaters and restaurants in inner-city communities where other companies were reluctant to invest.
He found success in consulting companies on how to do business in Urban America. A simple example: Johnson made sure that certain Starbucks stores had picnic tables placed outside for games of chess, and that others played music that resonated with their customers.
But Johnson says his most important accomplishment has been redefining urban communities around the country through philanthropy. “Giving back is my life’s work,” he said. “That’s what I was put on earth to do. For the last 30 years, my entire focus has been on how I can positively affect other peoples’ lives.”
On April 20, Johnson will receive the Promise of America award for the work he’s done for young people across the United States.
Johnson Helps Lead My Brother’s Keeper
“I encourage young people across the country to get their education,” Johnson said. “Knowledge is something that can never be taken away from them.”
The Magic Johnson Foundation has helped more than 800 students from underserved communities get a college degree, internships and jobs through the Taylor Michaels Scholarship.
For students who have dropped out or are at risk of dropping out, The Magic Johnson Bridgescape Academy provides an alternative path to earning a high school diploma.
“If all kids need is a chance, who are we not to afford them that opportunity?” he said. “They don’t have to let their circumstances define what they can achieve.”
In 2014, President Obama asked Johnson to co-head his new, My Brother’s Keeper, initiative to address the opportunity gaps faced by boys and young men of color. And last year, Johnson pledged $10 million to provide summer jobs for Chicago’s at-risk youth, through the One Chicago Summer Plus program.
Seeing ‘Someone Who Looked Like Me’ Succeed
Growing up with nine siblings, Johnson learned to give back at an early age. “My mother was very instrumental in showing me how to give back and the impact it made on others,” he said. “We always volunteered in the community.”
When asked about the mentors in his life, Johnson says that his father, Earvin Sr., taught him the value of hard work. “He worked at the factory for General Motors, owned a trash hauling service and completed other jobs for people to help provide for his wife and 10 children,” he said. “Through all those years of working many jobs, I never once heard him complain.”
But Johnson looked to two businessmen he knew growing up, Greg Eaton and Joel Ferguson, as career role models. “They helped me see that someone who looked like me and came from the same place as I did could own a business.”
The importance of hard work and role models have shaped Johnson’s work with young people today.
“I always encourage young people to follow their dreams, but to also put in the work that it will take to reach those dreams,” he said. “[And] I ask them to go back to their neighborhoods when they reach their dreams to become a mentor and help the next generation.”
“A lot of the kids I speak to are in neighborhoods where going to college is looked at as unachievable,” Johnson continued. “But if they see that the young man or young lady that grew up down the street from them was able to do it, that unachievable fantasy becomes an attainable goal.”
One more lesson Johnson likes to teach young people: Even when success is possible, it’s not what defines you.
“There are a lot of successful people on this planet,” he said. “But it’s not about how successful you can become. It’s about how many people you can help become successful.”
This story is part of a series featuring the 2016 Promise of America Award recipients.