Alumni Spotlight: James Davis ’76

Alumni Spotlight: James Davis ’76

Balancing ‘heart, mind’, Davis inspires educational, leadership change

Cal State L.A. alumnus James Davis ’76 MA.
Cal State L.A. alumnus James Davis ’76 MA.

Learning is rarely restricted to the confines of the classroom, and it certainly swept beyond campus walls, and into city blocks and homes in the case of Cal State L.A. alumnus James Davis ’76 MA.

An educator for more than 20 years in Los Angeles, with the most formative years of his professional journey spent in inner-city schools, Davis imparted—and has learned—innumerable lessons from students, parents, community members and colleagues. Together, Davis said, they challenged, inspired, and presented him with essential lessons for leadership.

“Change does not come from working in a process of problem-solving, but in a process of possibility-making,” he said.

Working as a teacher, counselor and administrator throughout the Los Angeles Unified School District, and an administrator and superintendent in the La Cañada Unified School District, Davis confronted many obstacles, turning them into opportunities.

In Los Angeles, he saw several of the district’s schools through integration and busing as well as gang prevention and abatement. He opened new schools, invigorated students’ enthusiasm for learning, and built communities’ confidence in the future, “owning” at least three of the blocks around his campuses to protect them from graffiti.

“It’s incredible to see the changes you can make in peoples’ lives,” he added. “As a science teacher, I took kids out of the city for the first time in their lives, I watched [and guided] a school from chaos to some sort of normalcy, and I watched La Cañada go from saying we are the best, to actually being among the best, ranking in the top 20 of districts in the nation.”

Davis notes that his accomplishments are the result of many lessons early on in his career. By watching “brilliant, passionate principals,” focused on a mission of change, reform schools, he learned to lead with “heart and mind.” And from the former School of Education Dean and Professor Raymond Terrell (at CSULA from 1973-1992), he discovered how to empathize and put himself in the shoes of those he hoped to lead.

“He really changed my life,” Davis said of Terrell. “He was able to build an understanding for me of what it was like to be poor and living in a large city. Being poor in Xenia, Ohio, where I grew up, is different than being poor in central Los Angeles. …That itself was worth the cost of a master’s degree.”

Continuing to build upon his accomplishments, Davis has for the last 13 years run the Davis Group Ltd., a leadership development and coaching firm in which he coaches leaders and executives from the nonprofit, private and public sectors. He founded the company after waking up one morning to realize that he was unhappy with the work he did 60 percent of the day, and wanted a fulfilling career once again, he said.

“My dad worked hard every day of his life and always said, ‘When I retire, I am going to do this.’ But he never got the chance,” Davis explained, adding that he refused to live in the same reality.

“I want kids to explore their passions,” he continued. “And I think if adults would begin to explore their passions a bit more, we would be in a very different place.”