Interview by Derek Grosso
Name: Ernest Levert Jr.
Profession: Founding Director of The Royal Oak Initiative
Education: B.S. Biomedical Engineering, The Ohio State University
Community Involvement: Black Men Build (Columbus Organizer)
Quotes: “Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.” – Dr. Seuss
“To whom much is given, even more is required.” – Dean Minnie McGee
“With God in your life and faith in yourself, you can set and achieve your goals, no matter what you’re told.” – Ernest Levert Sr.
Connect: Instagram | Facebook | Twitter
Give us a snapshot of your career path: I moved from Dallas, TX to Columbus in 2009 to attend The Ohio State University to study Biomedical Engineering. I was always fascinated by the brain and the body, but never really found a passion for a career in that field. After graduating from OSU, I pursued a more entrepreneurial path by starting a photography business, a chess-based youth mentoring program (The Royal Oak Initiative), and got licensed as a financial coach. In 2015, I had the opportunity to travel to Ghana, West Afrika for a life-changing, consciousness-raising, eye-opening, identity-shifting culturally immersive experience. After getting married in 2018, I transitioned into a career in Youth Workforce Development, combining my passions for youth development and economic empowerment. 2020 activated my smoldering interest in power building and civic engagement, inspiring me to pursue an opportunity to engage in community organizing with Black Men Build, an organization focused on transforming Black men to build power so that we can elevate the Black community. Throughout these different seasons, I still organized and facilitated chess-based leadership training and experiences throughout Columbus with The Royal Oak Initiative.
What gets you up in the morning? And what gets you through the workweek?
Every day is an opportunity to re-align my actions with my values and to use my gifts to contribute to the creation of a world in which everyone has what they need, some of what they want, operating in abundance, wisdom, and love so that we can all thrive. I enjoy new experiences and adventures. So, I spend a lot of time dreaming and ideating. When I wake up in the morning, ideally I jump in a book, hit the gym, meditate, and then make my way to Upper Cup to connect with the village. Being around people that I align with and care about invigorates me to keep going, to keep dreaming, and to keep being.
What advice or mentors have helped guide you along the way?
The greatest advice that I’ve ever received was to just be the best me that I could be. We are constantly getting forced to compare ourselves to other people, which can take a serious toll on one’s mental health. I decided long ago that I was going to work towards the things that I feel pulled towards and let everything else go. I was also blessed early in life with a strong sense of ambition, compassion, and focus on social challenges, thus allowing me to remove many distractions from my life that could have led me down different paths. My involvement in community organizations like church, Boy Scouts, and Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc. has connected me with hundreds of “friendtors” (friend + mentors), role models, and giants. And of course I have to give a shout out to my parents who laid the foundation for me to launch!
What do you do or where do you go to unwind?
I really enjoy poetry and spoken word. Whenever I want to connect with like-minded people, get some emotional and mental stimulation, and relax, I’ll find my way to Streetlight Guild, Native Tongues, the Maroon Arts Group MPACC Box Park, or a number of other sites for some inspirational poetic performances. I enjoy walks in the park and spent a good portion of 2020 and 2021 exploring over 50 parks in the city! Sometimes it’s nice to grab a drink and meet new friends at Black-Owned establishments like Flavor 91 or Reign Gastro Pub.
What are a few of your favorite local spots in Columbus?
Anyone that knows me will tell you that I basically live at Upper Cup Coffee on Parsons Avenue! Love that place! I also enjoy making my way to Lifestyle Cafe, Willowbeez SoulVeg, Loving Hut, and 4th and State for some delicious vegan/plant-based cuisine. I LOVE Flavor 91 in Whitehall- that’s family right there. I have to give a shout out to the Cooperative Chess Cultural Center on Parsons Ave, one of the coolest places to play chess and meet the dopest thinkers in the city. Some of my safe spaces where I go to recharge include Black Art Plus, the Maroon Arts Group MPACC Box Park, Topiary Park, Glen Echo Park, The Citadel, Parsons Library, MLK Library, and Reign Gastro Pub. Beyond that, I love new experiences and seeing new places!
When you were a kid, what did you say you wanted to be when you grew up?
When I was a kid, I wanted to grow up to be happy and healthy. Career-wise, I’ve always been interested in unlocking the power of the mind. I had a chance to see an MRI image of my brain when I was in elementary school and that planted the seed of a never-ending fascination with psychology and neuroscience. I was inspired by movies like Harry Potter, Minority Report, the Matrix, and Inception and believed that I would become a neuroscientist or psychologist capable of developing technology that would allow us to access our subconscious. I still nerd out on psychology, especially when it comes to sociology, decision-making, interpersonal relationships, and economics.
What books or podcasts are you reading/listening to right now?
Books: “Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination” by Robin D.G. Kelley “Chess Queens: The True Story of a Chess Champion and the Greatest Female Players of All Time” by Jennifer Shahade “A Kierkegaard Anthology” Edited by Robert Bretall “The Communist Manifesto” by Karl Marx “Finding Confidence in Conflict: How to Negotiate Anything and Live Your Best Life” by Kwame Christian “Will” by Will Smith
Podcasts: “Columbus Can’t Wait” by Tareya & EhKees “Inscribing Inclusion” by Jocelyn Armstrong “O for the Soul” by Tifani K “Black Men Unlearning” by Edwin Lee & Kyle Brooks “Negotiate Anything” by the American Negotiation Institute
What does it mean to you to be chosen for the Next Up Columbus award?
Being recognized by my peers for being me and pursuing my passions is always an honor and humbling experience. I’m grateful for the relationships and resources in my life that allow me to walk my chosen path, striving to create a better community for our future, whether through youth chess leadership training, community organizing, economic education, or civic engagement. Being chosen for the Next Up Columbus award means that there is a place in this community for people like me who may share some of my values, perspectives, and lived experiences. It means that we have an opportunity to uplift our greatest ideals and to challenge ourselves to grow as leaders. It also means that I have the obligation to be mindful of how I live and the influence that I may have on others who may be observing my journey. I feel seen. Sawubona!
If someone were to ask you what the “pulse” of Columbus is, what would you tell them?
Columbus is a city abundant with resources, opportunity, and untapped potential. As one of the largest and fastest growing cities in the country, you can find a little bit of everything here, if you know where to look. With tons of festivals, new restaurants, sports, cultural events, and educational institutions, it’s no surprise that so many people are excited about how Columbus is changing and will continue to change over the next few years. But not everyone feels that way. Our greatest opportunity is to ask the hard questions, hold our leaders accountable, and tap into our own power to ensure that Columbus continues to evolve in a way that eradicates oppression, exploitation, and exclusion so that everyone may participate fully in the dream. The pulse of Columbus is one in which a lot of people are trying to live their best lives, be good people, and do the right thing, but in order to reach our full potential we will have to come together, organize, overcome our social challenges, and lean into the discomfort of healthy and wise progress.
The Next Up Columbus Awards highlight emerging leaders who are connectors and ambassadors in central Ohio and who are making a positive impact on the future of Columbus. The Columbus Young Professionals Club would like to offer special thanks to our 2022 co-presenters, Discover Financial, Ohio Dominican University and Spectrum for their support of this year’s awards program. Meet the entire “Class of 2022” »