Prior to 2015, I had no idea that the title, Torontonian of the Year, even existed. This may have been a well-kept secret until the honour was bestowed upon Randell Adjei.

It’s amazing to think that such a title would be given to a young man, but it reminds us that we can all make a difference, regardless of our age. With passion, all things are possible, and Randell has passion in unlimited supply. When one looks at his work today, you see the impact, and the title makes perfect sense, but when you dig a bit deeper, the story has much more meaning.

While born in Toronto, Randell spent much of the first few years of his life in Ghana, West Africa.  Back in Toronto, grade one was a success, but in grade two, he was singled out for his accent and put in to ESL classes. This singling-out, as different, was the beginning of a rocky slope, filled with anger.

Randell grew up in Flemingdon Park, a melting pot of immigrants and low-income residents, with a reputation for not being one of the best neighbourhoods in the city. His parents, like most, came to Canada, wanting better for themselves and their children, but it was here where the anger boiled below the surface; more fights, stealing, suspensions, arrests, and weekly visits to court. “My mom would come to every one of my court procedures, even after working a graveyard shift. One day I looked at her and asked myself, why am I doing this to a woman who has always loved and supported me”.

By grade 8, the family had moved to a new neighbourhood, and Randell came in to contact with a teacher who saw something positive in him. This was a departure from past schools and teachers, where he had been labeled by one principal as the worst kid he had ever seen in thirty-one years! Randell was given a pen and a piece of paper and encouraged to write his story. Through writing, he found a freedom that he had never known before. Every year after this, it seemed like there was always one teacher who recognized his potential. Potential; a problematic word for Randell, as he often questioned what it meant, when it could be seen by others, but was invisible to him. Regardless, he found himself getting more involved in school, first with basketball, then student council and social initiatives. Being involved in school allowed him great opportunities to see and experience things that would have otherwise not come in to his life path.

A school trip to India changed the course of Randell’s life. It was on this trip, that a young man who had been filled with anger, found contentment, happiness, and a sense of purpose; a seed had been planted. Now focused on his potential, the worst kid in thirty-one years was selected school Valedictorian. Things were finally looking up, but then he was stabbed twice at a night club and this put it all in to perspective. Life is short. Whatever needs to be done needs to happen now.

By this point, Randell had surrounded himself with young people who, like him, were open to discussing their thoughts and feelings, about life and their experiences, but there really wasn’t anywhere that encouraged this sort of dialogue. The seed was now pushing up through the earth, and R.I.S.E. was born.

RISE: Reaching Intelligent Souls Everywhere is now an open mic night that runs every Monday evening at a community centre in Scarborough. Each week, the room is packed with young and old who want to share and listen. The atmosphere is electric, as people take to the stage to sing, dance, recite, offer encouragement, and share information. There is always a love in the room that everyone feeds off of and contributes too. 

On being named the Torontonian of the Year, Randell says “Sometimes I forget the person that I was. We all have the ability to take the darkest parts of our lives and make light. How can you live a good life without knowing what a bad life is? When you do things beyond yourself, to help other people, you never realize what your efforts mean to other people”. 

He continues “A lot of youth are misunderstood, seen as criminal, thugs, gangsters etc. My generation was the last to enjoy playing outside, but today’s are some of the most brilliant, because they have access to so much information. More adults should listen to youth to hear their stories and experiences”. 

To this end, he dedicates every Monday to facilitating a space that allows youth to be heard, and witnesses, as young people often travel for hours across the city, just for the chance to have people listen to them.

Randell understands that it is no longer about him. His passion and vision are much bigger. Through his work, he wants young people across the world to realize that they can go through dark times, and still come out okay. As long as we have the desire to do better, the potential is there, for each of us to RISE.