Civicus sits for the interview at HT, unknowingly displaying his modesty with a simple can of Pringles and a bottled water. Civicus rather give people much and accept little or nothing in return.
AUSTIN — Siokin Civicus Barsi-Giah touched down in his native land of Liberia within the last 24 hours of writing this story. Despite Liberia not being described as a “Land of Promise” like America, Civicus takes the promise gained from an African-American university, Huston-Tillotson, back to Africa over and over again to inspire young people to pursue higher education as an alternative to soccer. He elevates little-known intellects, wealthy individuals, and soccer stars as himself to positions of local and national leadership. Civicus is the Liberian Dream inspired by American education.
The son of who Civicus described as Liberia’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Civicus learned the ropes of politics and civil rights activism from his father. Alongside his legislator father, he would meet the powers-that-be. Eventually, Civicus and his twin brother, Rixck Barsi-Giah, would take the political and activism reins of their father after he passed away in 2009. (Civicus is one of five boys on his father’s side, with all having earned college degrees.)
But before his father passed, Civicus propelled Edwin Melvin Snowe, Jr. to the House of Representatives in 2005; in the same year, Snowe became Speaker, also with Civicus’ help. At the time of being approached about going into politics, Civicus was playing soccer. In 2003, he decided to campaign for Snowe.
“After we produced him at 32 years old (Civicus was 22), I served as a consultant and strategist. There was a team working with him, but I was just this guy who built the team, and I instructed them how to win as a strategist.”
Civicus formed two organizations that positioned Snowe for the wins, Edwin Snowe for House Standing Committee and Friends for Edwin Snowe. Those two organizations were meant to recruit people and communicate with people and encourage them to vote for this 32-year-old who already had money. After assembling the right people to lead these organizations, Snowe’s path to victory was just about a straight shot.
Later, in 2009, Civicus managed a campaign for an MIT and Penn State graduate who became the finance minister in Liberia.
In 2011, Civicus was called to manage the presidential campaign for Dew Tuan-Wleh Mayson, a former ambassador for Liberia; this was Civicus’ first major presidential campaign.
Mayson managed an oil company in Nigeria and was an author. Out of 22 candidates, Civicus helped lift Mayson to eighth place. But just as he told Mayson early in his campaign, he tells all candidates who call for his help.
“The political work I do is to give my honest opinion,” Civicus explained. “I hate to give you the false light of politics. ‘You can win this. You are powerful. You are brilliant. You are clever. You got money.’ That is pure false hope.” For Mayson, he shared that Liberia was set up in a way that voters had too many choices to make despite good plans; “you just cannot win.” There was no surefire way to win. Mayson was up against the then-sitting president and a soccer star. Despite, he said, “Let’s give it a shot.” But he cautioned, “I can put together a political campaign on a consulting basis, but I will not join your political party.”
Civicus added that as a political strategist, you want to engage tough times, “so I took on the fight.”
Civicus elevated his fight for education after earning his bachelor’s in business administration from Huston-Tillotson in December 2014, graduating in May 2015 with the distinction of magna cum laude. Then, he went on to St. Edwards University, also in Austin, to earn a master’s in leadership and change. Now, he is on track to begin a Ph.D. program in September. And the biggest news? He has announced his campaign for Senate in Liberia 2020.
That was the biggest news, and this was his biggest move, coming to the United States for the first time to enroll at Huston-Tillotson in 2011. His Huston-Tillotson journey began with a Facebook message from a Huston-Tillotson alumnus, Bill Rogers. Civicus had no desire to come to the United States because of the States’ disparities among blacks that he often heard about in his country. He knew that his country was struggling to have a quality life, but he could not understand why a more developed country would have such a life of inequality. And Civicus was black, too, so he did not see the benefit of coming to America and enduring such inequality.
“But when I came, I saw a different picture,” Civicus said. “Things have changed. The blacks have been integrated. Blacks own cars. Blacks can say what they want to say.” Huston-Tillotson helped create this picture for Civicus, but he soon learned that America still had a lot of work to do with race relations.
Since graduating from Huston-Tillotson, Civicus often returns to campus because of what Huston-Tillotson did for his life, his perspectives on blacks in America.
It was, at first, hard for Civicus to adjust to the American culture in Austin and at Huston-Tillotson. He had no friends, no family, and nobody spoke like him.
“It was a high road, and on this high road, you figure out how to survive,” Civicus said.
In addition to Bill Rogers, Dr. Steven Edmond, dean of HT’s School of Business and Technology, was an instrumental person to help Civicus adjust.
“Dr. Edmond is the guy who I would stop by to see, and he would encourage me. ‘Keep pushing, keep pressing on. This is America. We too as blacks have a tough time, and you are from a different background with no family here. But see if you can get some academic awards. Apply here and there.’ He said that all I have to do is put my mind to it. These awards helped me have self-dependency. Then, I could pay rent and have a little profit.”
Civicus won five academic awards on top of his athletic scholarship to play soccer. Soccer was Civicus’ passion outside of politics. His soccer performance, coupled with his father’s influence, made him a political standout for campaign management in Liberia. To date, Civicus has over 20 years in politics and campaign management.
With the profit from his academic awards and scholarships, Civicus would think about his people back home. Every time that he bought some shoes, he would buy an extra pair or two for friends and family in Liberia.
As a Huston-Tillotson student, Civicus was vice president of the business fraternity, Phi Beta Lambda, later rising to president. He also was president of the International Student Association, helping organize this Association’s first magazine.
As a Huston-Tillotson athlete, “I lived up to the minute of the soccer team. I was the typical African guy who came in and played my heart out.” Civicus was not a lightweight in soccer. Between campaign work in 2006 and 2008, he received calls to play national soccer in Liberia; he answered and accepted. “It’s a country full of players, and they always select 25 soccer players from around the country to play. If you get called on it, that means you are among the 25 best players in the country.”
In Civicus’ first Huston-Tillotson game, he scored twice. By the last game, he had stacked honors such as Most Offensive Player and National Character Award. His experience showed.
“I left a lot of things positive at HT. I didn’t use foul language. I didn’t misbehave. I didn’t talk bad to people. I practiced no negativity. I left the school with honor. I graduated with high honors. Then, I went out there and built the image of the school. That’s why when I come back, the coaches of basketball teams give me (retired) jerseys, and I didn’t play basketball. But I take these to my country. I go back and organize tournaments. The soccer team gives me (aged) balls, and I use them. I then take these balls and jerseys and say, ‘This is the school I played for; this is the school I went to.”
Civicus gets a lively reaction to the gifts and his story of Huston-Tillotson. He lectures the students about HT while giving out HT materials. Effectively, Civicus serves as an ambassador for HT.
Some of the reactions include, “This school is so nice. This school looks beautiful. The people look so good. ‘When they see the photographs, they are like,’ Wow…who these people? How can I see them? Are they real?” Civicus chuckles. “How is life over there? How do you find opportunity?” Civicus tells them that opportunities are “several, but you need to find them.
Trust me, a lot of them get encouraged from this and get stronger. They think about how they can make it because ‘this guy (Civicus) and I grew up together.’”
Once Huston-Tillotson elevated his passion, thus advocacy, for higher education in his country, Civicus started a project called, “Let’s Go to College After High School.”
Civicus’ desire was and continues to be to inspire countless young people to go to college.
“Because I went to college, I think differently. And HT gave me a different view of dreams and life and how college students should be. So with the mindset that I picked up from the US and Huston-Tillotson, an African American school, coupled with the advice from Dr. Edmond, that strengthened my courage and built my image and gave me the tenacity to help people and encourage them to get stronger because I knew the fight I had to break through the system.”
Through the project, in addition to inspiring people in conversation, he inspires in writing. He even distributes backpacks and clothes. A couple of years ago, Huston-Tillotson gave away some old books, and Civicus was one of the firsts to claim the books, as he wanted to take the books back home; (his vision is to build a mini library.) Civicus also has sent four or five kids to college, four or five to high school, and he credits Huston-Tillotson for donating those resources and giving him the knowledge to help make the giving campaign happen back home.
“It’s because I came to HT,” Civicus resolved. “I’m a new person. My college mentality helped me build a different mindset. I go back home every year. I don’t do extra work here; I only network and go to school. I’ve been home six times. The work I do is to think about people back home.”
In 2014, Civicus’ work led to him receiving two humanitarian awards in America, one in Pennsylvania and another one in Minnesota. He even served on a panel for Google at Austin’s big event, South by Southwest (SXSW).
In Austin, Civicus never purchased a car because he saw it as a luxury in light of public transportation. While at Huston-Tillotson, he earned an Amtrak award for taking the Amtrak often. But back home, he purchased a car to help others. When he goes back home, he takes kids to school and picks them up. When he returns to the States, he leaves his car with a friend to do the same.
Because of his strong passion for education and years of political influence, it is no surprise that every political candidate whom he helped secure an office wants him to join his team.
Just this past December, he flew home to campaign for the current president, George Weah, also a soccer star. Weah ran for president in 2005 and 2011, finishing second each time. Weah then called Civicus to help take him over the “hump” in the 2017 election. That’s just what Civicus did, helped lead Weah to the presidency out of more than 20 candidates.
Civicus knew that he and Weah shared a love for soccer. As a matter of fact, for Civicus, soccer has been the most thing on which he has survived.
“There is nothing else that has funded my schooling except for soccer, and my academics are not bad.”
Using his writing experience, Civicus authored about 50 pieces on Facebook, defending Weah as to why he was capable of becoming president, despite Weah not having the political background.
“Because I did organizational and predictive analytics from my leadership background, I was writing excerpts on what leaders were and what leaders needed and giving opinions and predicting elections, giving the advantages and disadvantages of him. Then, a lot of people got drawn to what I was writing and was like, ‘This guy bringing a different thing to politics.’”
Civicus’ Facebook following rose to 5,000 on his personal page and over 29,000 on his foundation page.
Now that Civicus has arrived in his homeland as of this article, his eyes are set on sitting down with the man he helped make president to finally discuss ways that he can play a role in his administration. To date, Civicus has not wanted to commit to any candidate beyond the campaign so that he can maintain his independence (not affiliate with a particular party). But Civicus has had a slight change of heart and will consider a role in Weah’s administration if Weah allows him to help in the educational sector.
“I have views on what kinds of contributions I want to make, and my contributions come from an educational, leadership, public administration background. I want to build a student exchange program with HT. I want to create a story of a bridge between HT and my country.”
Read more about Civicus’ story in the upcoming edition of the Ram Magazine and in the articles below: