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Sparking a Generation of Change with Whitney Johnson '02

Whitney Johnson '02 on her ambitious, inspiring organization, Generation Ubuntu, whose mission is to care for children in South Africa living with HIV.

At just 21, Whitney Johnson ’02 started Generation Ubuntu with the goal of providing critical care for and empowering children living with HIV to live long, happy and meaningful lives. Johnson now lives in Cape Town, South Africa and works daily with children in Khayelitsha, one of South Africa’s most impoverished and overpopulated townships, located just outside the city. She took some time out of her demanding schedule to talk about starting the nonprofit organization, what “Generation Ubuntu” means, transitioning from school to South Africa and more.

Can you tell me more about Generation Ubuntu?

Generation Ubuntu is a nonprofit dedicated to improving the health and wellbeing of children and teens living with HIV in South Africa. We provide an innovative care program for children and teens, ages 4 to 18, living with HIV and their families in Khayelitsha, South Africa.



How did this project get started?

I spent my junior year of college studying abroad in Cape Town, South Africa. A friend I met at university took me to an orphanage in Khayelitsha, the largest township outside of Cape Town, and I began volunteering there nearly every single day. There are around one million people living in this township, mostly in shacks, and in addition to high rates of poverty and crime, 30% of the people there live with HIV. I saw so many children and young people my own age pass away from HIV, and the worst part was they were often completely alone and had no support. 

I had heard about the HIV pandemic and seen the images on TV, but it was there that I came face to face with the devastating impact this disease was having on young people. I was heartbroken, but also knew that there was so much that could be done to change the situation. I decided that I could not just walk away. When I graduated from college I moved back to South Africa and started Generation Ubuntu.

What does “Generation Ubuntu” mean and why did you choose it as the organization’s name?
 
Ubuntu is an African philosophy that speaks to the interconnectedness of all human beings, our shared humanity, and human kindness. Ubuntu is the mantra of a generation of change. Generation Ubuntu is about giving a generation of children a chance - a generation that could so easily be lost.  It’s also about keeping your compassion alive and then jumping in and doing what you can to help others. The name speaks to the power of young people in our program and from around the world to make a difference.


“I was heartbroken, but also knew that there was so much that could be done to change the situation. I decided that I could not just walk away.”

What does your typical workday look like?

A typical workday does not really exist for me! Every day is different and full of surprises. A day in Khayelitsha can range from sitting in a case management meeting with our staff to doing jumping jacks in the office to stay warm when the electricity goes out. I am also focused on raising funds to support the program, so I am frequently traveling, working on fundraising initiatives and doing public speaking.
 
What was the transition like from Westminster to college, and then from college to your current position?
 
After graduating from Westminster in 2002 I attended Colorado College. The transition from Westminster to college was fairly easy. The standards and expectations held at Westminster prepared me well for the high standards that were upheld at my college, and I felt ahead of the curve at college in terms of proper time management and how to handle a large workload. Through engaging in extracurricular activities and sports at Westminster I learned the importance of maintaining balance, which I carried with me throughout college.

The transition from college to my current work was also easy. Colorado College is on the block plan, meaning you take one course for 3.5 weeks and are intensely engaged in your coursework during that timeframe, which I think prepared me for the realities of working under pressure with deadlines.



“Living these values during my time at Westminster built my endurance to get the grunt work done (‘Grit’) and helped develop my attitude towards life and others ('Grace’).“

Did your experiences at Westminster prepare you in any way for running Generation Ubuntu?

The values of “Grit and Grace,” which underpin daily life at Westminster, certainly prepared me to start Generation Ubuntu. At Westminster you might go to classes, compete in a sports contest, help out a friend with a project, serve in the “the pit” washing dishes, and then stay up late to study for an exam - all in one day! Living these values during my time at Westminster built my endurance to get the grunt work (“Grit”) done and helped develop my attitude towards life and others (“Grace”).
 
Have you kept in touch with faculty/friends from Westminster?

Yes! In fact Philipa Kerckerink ’01 spent time setting up a yoga program at our center in South Africa through her organization Roots Tribe Yoga.
 
What advice would you give to Westminster students who are interested in getting involved in nonprofit work or starting their own organization?

Get your hands dirty and stick with it! Planning is incredibly important, but DOING is absolutely essential. Mistakes are going to happen, things won’t always turn out as expected, and even the best-laid plans will foil; dive in anyways and stick with it through the intense and challenging times.  

Generation Ubuntu’s website is currently being updated, but you can learn more on their Facebook page here.

To donate to Generation Ubuntu, visit the donation page here:

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