Eric Agyeman has some excuses at his disposal. As a six year-old his family moved to New Zealand from Ghana, where he had to go to school that was teaching in a language he did not speak or even understand. His self-esteem suffered.
As an eleven year-old his family moved again, this time to the Melbourne suburb of Ringwood. This was 1997, and at the time Eric was the only kid with dark skin at his school, and frequently suffered racial abuse. His sense of personal identity took a battering.
As a fifteen year-old Eric’s dad sent him on a three-week holiday back to his homeland of Ghana. With only a one-way ticket in hand, his three-week holiday turned into a seven-year ordeal where he was once again thrust into an unfamiliar environment and language, and forced to find his own way through. His sense of belonging and family was deeply challenged.
As we recorded our conversation, sitting at the cafe at Farm Vigano in Melbourne’s outer northern suburb of South Morang, this now 29 year-old man whom I talked with had not a hint of bitterness or shoulder chip. Joy and warmth exude from within him, even as he talks about how much he suffered each time he moved country, how his identity and self-esteem were rocked, and how in 2002 he attempted suicide twice.
Coming back to Melbourne in 2010 Eric could view those seven years in Ghana as the most illuminating of his life. It was a time where he experienced and understood what poverty was; where he witness kids spending all day every day on the street as they had no schools to go to; where he wrestled with his internal demons about his own identity and worth; and where he came through the other side stronger and more aware of himself and the world around him.
And in coming back he knew he wanted to do something to help. He wanted to share with others what he had learned about identity and overcoming fears. He also wanted to find a way to support kids like those he saw in Ghana, so they could have opportunities to learn and receive an education.
It is around the central idea of helping young people overcome their daily obstacles – both in the developed and developing world – that everything Eric does hangs upon. It has given birth to three books he has written and countless speaking engagements, through which Eric conveys his story in order to help others in their quest to live out their true identity with courage, to understand and work towards their dreams, and to overcome their fears.
And it also gave birth to a social enterprise called PVBS, supporting three partner organisations in their work overseas: YGAP; Classroom of Hope; and Akaa Project. PVBS is a clothing business that originally started as an on-line retailer and has now expanded to make school leaver jackets and clothing for start-ups. Three years in and already 37 schools are using PVBS’s leaver jackets, and $25,000 has been donated back through their partner organisations, helping more than 2,000 kids receive an education in Cambodia and Ghana.
As he contemplates other disruptions he would like to one day be part of, Eric thinks about issues of housing affordability and quality in the developing world, and how he could help to improve this situation. And In regard to his own life Eric attributes his focus on books and reading as having had a profound positive impact on his life, with books like Jim C Maxwell’s Failing Forward helping him confront his own fears and starting new ventures like PVBS and book writing.
The manner in which Eric has turned his adversity into joy, and is now positively impacting kids local and abroad, is nothing less than inspiring. I hope you enjoy our conversation.
In our conversation we talk about suicide, Eric’s attempts, and his suggestions for those who are struggling in this area. Eric recommends getting in contact with the following organisations if you or somebody you know is struggling with something similar: Beyond Blue and Life Line.