Ambassador of Awesome
A social activist known for wearing inspiring signs, Kemy Joseph is a passionate young man striving to change the world one hug at a time.
If you see an eight-foot smiley-face sign on the Edward T. Foote II University Green or a gaggle of giddy students along Ponce de Leon Drive urging you to “honk for happiness,” thank the student club Random Acts of Kindness and its 2009-10 president Kemy Joseph.
A motion picture and theatre arts major set to graduate with honors this summer, Joseph doesn’t simply act the part of goodwill ambassador. Nicknamed Mr. Awesome, he’s known campus-wide for promoting positivity by wearing signs on his chest such as “Love Who You Are” and “Spreading Love Brings Peace.” His signs—plus unlimited hugs, high-fives, and smiles bestowed on friends and strangers alike— come from a place of pure gratitude.
“A lot of people supported me, so when I got [to UM], I was determined to make a name for myself—and pay it forward,” says Joseph, who could be found during finals week in the Richter Library, doling out chocolates at 2 a.m. “Finally one guy said, ‘I get it! You just want people to be happy.’”
It wasn’t always that way. One of ten children raised by Haitian immigrant parents in Homestead, Florida, Joseph says he was a “troubled youth,” placed in the Emotionally Handicapped (EH) track in elementary school. Only 14 when his father was killed by a drunk driver, Joseph was arrested twice that same year. But with encouragement from his family and a school counselor, he mainstreamed out of EH in tenth grade and within two years had earned a Bill Gates Millennium Scholarship, a Miami Herald Silver Knight Award, and a full ride to the University of Miami through the George W. Jenkins Scholarship.
As a senior at UM, Joseph launched U R Awesome, Inc., a nonprofit organization named for the first of hundreds of affirming messages he’s worn daily since September 9, 2008. Using his own money, Joseph printed up T-shirts sporting his favorite slogans, donating one to charity for each shirt sold. “Wearing signs stemmed from reading quote books,” Joseph explains. “Applying them to my life, I started seeing a drastic change in my attitude and perspective, so I started sharing them.”
In November Joseph led a massive U R Awesome clothing drive that collected 11,000 items for Miami’s homeless population. Just two months later, an unthinkable tragedy again catapulted him into action. This time he collected clothes and money for earthquake victims in Haiti.
“Kemy said, ‘I’m going to Haiti. I feel called to go,’” notes Tod Landess, B.S.C. ’89. A School of Communication employee whose wife has family in Port-au-Prince, he helped Joseph secure a backpack for his camera equipment, relief supplies, and local contacts.
Interviewing earthquake survivors helped Haitian-American Kemy Joseph connect with his family roots. He returned to campus with a mission.
By spring break Joseph was on his first-ever voyage out of the United States—to a homeland he’d seen only on the news. Home base for the week was the middle-class Port-au-Prince residence of his brother-in-law’s family. Joseph took day trips throughout Port-au-Prince and the surrounding provinces, met family members for the first time, assisted Haitian nonprofit agencies, and toured orphanages. He even visited a nightclub. But most of his time was consumed interviewing earthquake survivors struggling to get by in the vast makeshift sea of tent villages. Joseph says many of the displaced Haitians he spoke with had grown resentful of constantly being filmed and photographed, then abandoned to their desperate plight. “Once I explained that I was coming home for the first time, a lot of people opened up to me.”
The trip resulted in more than 1,000 still photos and ten hours of videotaped interviews. Back at UM, Joseph pitched a large domed tent on the grass by the path to Richter Library—a plan approved prior to his departure. He strung Haitian flags between a pair of majestic palms and, under a sign that read “Camp Out for Haiti,” arrayed his personal belongings for sale. At night he projected his images onto a tarp: ruined buildings and makeshift hovels, smiling children, blue skies, crumbled concrete, fluttering bougainvillea—sadness and beauty intertwined like mangled rebar.
Joseph believes his ten-day public action caused passersby “to think about Haiti for a few seconds. Some people may act on that thought and some people may not, but the whole point is, you’ve got to spread awareness and people will do something.”
The tent event served another purpose: It helped finance Joseph’s return to Haiti in April and enabled him to deliver three mini-camcorders to a film school in Jacmel and eight to a production company in Port-au-Prince. Joseph, Landess, and others in the UM and Haitian community are arming citizens on the ground in Haiti with the equipment needed to “document the process from recovery to reconstruction,” Joseph explains. “It’s basically setting up a network to keep telling the story of Haiti and the individuals who are going through this.”
“I fell in love with this place,” adds Joseph, who plans to establish a birthright program to send other diasporic youth to see Haiti for themselves. “I got to see so much beauty—even in this destructive time.” The experience also inspired Joseph to apply to a new UM School of Education master’s program called Community and Social Change.
“I’m definitely going back to work in Haiti and live there eventually,” he says. “I want to help create jobs. There’s a lot of money to be made in Haiti, and you can make it without further exploiting the people.”
To see more of Kemy Joseph’s photos from his trip to Haiti, visit www.miami.edu/miami-magazine/kemyjoseph.