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

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.”