Social Impact Heroes: Why & How David Evangelista of Special Olympics International Is Helping To…

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Social Impact Heroes: Why & How David Evangelista of Special Olympics International Is Helping To Change Our World

Leadership is telling the truth when the truth hurts. It is doing the right thing irrespective of political expediency. Leadership is one’s willingness to fully and unabashedly expose their own vulnerabilities and weaknesses while using both as core strengths. It is the myriad of actions that brings and keeps people together and moving toward the same large prize.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing David Evangelista.

David Evangelista is President & Managing Director of Special Olympics Europe Eurasia, responsible for the growth and development of the Special Olympics movement across 58 nations across Western Europe, Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia. David has extensive global experience in the areas of government relations, industry engagement, international development, and global partnership building in support of marginalized populations. He was a founding member of the Sports Integrity Global Alliance (SIGA), and a current member of the Centre for Sports and Human Rights. David was a former member of the High-Level Group on Sports Diplomacy for the European Commission and is a member of the Board of Directors for Access Challenge. A Progressive Melvin Jones Fellow of the Lions Clubs International Foundation, David is Founding President of the Washington, DC Special Olympics Lions Club.

An experienced guest speaker, David has delivered keynote speeches at leading universities, including the University of Chicago, Georgetown University as well as at various business institutes in Europe. He also served as a guest speaker and presenter for the United Nations, European Union, and a range of civil society organizations on issues related to international development, global affairs, disability, and government relations. David has a Bachelor’s degree in International Relations from the School of International Service of American University in Washington, DC and a Master’s degree in International Business from IESIDE in Vigo, Spain.

A native of Rhode Island, David resides in Vigo, Spain with his wife and their two sons.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I remember it like it was yesterday. I was in my last year at American University’s School of International Service and I had met with my professor Albert Mott regarding my senior thesis paper. We had met twice before to discuss areas of interest and potential thematic focus areas. At the time, I was fascinated by developing world politics and the way in which North and South collided. I had studied many of the social and political movements that still today govern much of the global order and Professor Mott continued to reiterate that my interests always led me toward fighting for the underdog, advocating for the oppressed, highlighting and exposing injustices and moving to correct them.

I shared with Professor Mott over a few conversations the fact that my father Steve Evangelista founded Special Olympics in the state of Rhode Island in the mid 1970’s under the leadership of Eunice Kennedy Shriver. We spoke about the population my father helped support and the organization of Special Olympics as a movement, a school of thought. I was young, naïve, and distracted, but it was during those types of conversations that I always found myself fully engaged and completely focused.

It was a late morning coffee on the campus of American University in the winter of 1999 when Professor Mott and I met to finalize my thematic focus and begin my thesis work.

“I would like for you to spend the next five months researching the study of eugenics. You’ll understand why. Good luck and see you next month.”

I began to understand the power of Professor Mott’s choice of thematic focus immediately. Those five months of research, reading, writing, and reflecting marked me significantly. It plunged me into an area of work where the more I uncovered, the more I discovered so much more needed to be uncovered. It was the quintessential peeling back an onion, and the deeper I dove, the stronger it became. By the time I finished my thesis, I knew despite the months of work and focus, I was just scratching the surface.

The study of eugenics further fueled my desire to fight for the underdog, the downtrodden. It provided me with a core understanding of how discrimination, marginalization and exclusion can result in horrific developments of historic proportion. It highlighted how these themes are connected, both locally and internationally, and how certain developments in my own personal life were working to right wrongs. Perhaps more than anything, the thesis highlighted to me the cruelty so many population subsets have faced due to simply being ‘different’.

Professor Mott passed away in 2008. His legacy lives on in so many students at American University’s School of International Service. My hope is that through my efforts, I can serve as a small contribution to this massive legacy of learning and discovery.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

It was November 2012 in Lilongwe, Malawi. The movement of Special Olympics was organizing its first-ever Global Development Forum in Pyeongchang, Korea as part of the forthcoming 2013 Special Olympics World Winter Games. As part of the effort, many of us in the organization looked to encourage Heads of State, Heads of Government and political leaders to further invest in the mission of Special Olympics in their home countries. One of those political leaders was Joyce Banda, who at the time was the President of the Republic of Malawi, and only the second female Head of State ever to lead a nation in the continent of Africa. She was a new type of leader. She spoke to the need of empowering women, of alleviating poverty, of creating sustained food security. Most importantly for us, she was also committed to forging stronger social inclusion throughout the country and saw great value in the Special Olympics movement to take that vision to reality.

I traveled to “The Warm Heart of Africa” — as Malawi is called — that November to meet with President Banda and her cabinet, both as part of her engagement in the Global Development Forum that coming year in Korea, as well as to create a national partnership to support the further growth and development of Special Olympics Malawi. I was struck by how excited the cabinet was to be working on the project and how the President herself was fully engaged, asking questions, directing her cabinet to take up certain parts of the development project, and more. It was a time in the world, and in Special Olympics, when the theme of social inclusion was gaining significant traction internationally, and the rights and talents of individuals with intellectual disabilities were being highlighted more and more. The plight facing this group was also becoming more and more visible, and part of our work was to impress upon political leaders the unspeakable forms of exploitation, subjugation, marginalization and abuse taking place so that greater social protection measures could be put in place, as well as initiatives designed to sensitize communities to engage, empower, and protect.

As I emerged from the briefing with President Banda, I was asked by the officials at Special Olympics Malawi if I wished to visit an athlete and his family in a rural community outside of Lilongwe. The athlete, whose name is Aaron Banda, was recently found by Special Olympics Malawi volunteers tied to a tree in his local community. At a time in human history when mobile technology was redefining the way humans interacted and stayed connected, here was Aaron Banda, restrained, altogether not mobile. We took the opportunity to visit Aaron and his family in the Mjinchi District of Malawi and it was there that I was able to once again understand the depth of the marginalization the athletes of Special Olympics face, and their families, as well as the almost magical impact the movement of Special Olympics can have on everyone involved irrespective of ability level. I also was able to begin to understand the very harsh reality facing families of children with intellectual disabilities across the Global South. Aaron Banda was not tied out of malice. He was tied due to a sheer lack of options for his family. Aaron Banda was tied to a tree because that was the best and most effective social protection measure his family could take to ensure his safety. It rattled me. Witnessing Aaron’s reality and the lack of options his family faced created a mix of emotions that until today I sift through, analyze, and reflect upon.

As we approached the local community, I was introduced to Aaron, his mother, and his cousins. I could see the very rope that restrained him from the images I had seen weeks and months back. It was a moment in time that will stay with me forever.

That day in November 2012 will forever be titled “The Tale of Two Bandas”. A President intent on making her nation an example of social inclusion, and a little boy yearning to see that vision brought to reality. They lived but 60km from one another but worlds apart. I remember the drive back to Lilongwe after meeting Aaron. I was silent. It was a tough ride. I thought of classes I had taken at American University, where professors challenged us to dig deeper, analyze further, consider all the facts, and blend them with cultural context to ensure a proper viewing. As I looked at Aaron’s reality, I understood not only the ‘what’ of Special Olympics, I discovered my ‘why’. It is a day I will never forget- seeing two individuals with the same last name sharing such drastically different realities, yet both of them fully connected through a movement born in the backyard of a concerned sister some 12,760km away.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

It was May of 2002. Special Olympics was just developing its global Healthy Athletes program across Asia Pacific and East Asia, and I was fortunate enough to help start that expansion effort in bringing higher quality health services to individuals with intellectual disabilities while encouraging medical communities and political leaders to invest in the programming. I was both inexperienced and nervous as I embarked on a five-city trip that would see Special Olympics create new health initiatives across East Asia. We touched down in Taipei to begin the development project on a Saturday evening. We had government meetings on Monday, and much of Sunday was dedicated to managing jet lag and reviewing our plans to engage the national government and local governments. On Sunday morning I realized I had forgotten to pack business cards, a rookie mistake for a student of international relations who knew the presentation of business cards in East Asia is a formal moment.

But months prior, I created and joined a local Lions Club in Washington, DC dedicated to providing community service to those in need. I was drawn to Lions Clubs International due to their strong and long-standing global network of service leaders who came from all walks of life. They were, and remain, one of the movement’s strongest supporters and I humbly asked one of the Lions Club members in Taipei if he thought of a potential solution. As luck would have it, he owned a print shop and within five hours I had 500 business cards in perfectly wrapped packages. Monday’s meetings with the government went well and we achieved more than what we had planned — Special Olympics Health programming took off in East Asia and continues to impact the lives of athletes, families, and medical professionals throughout the region.

There were several lessons I learned:

  1. Most times in life, the little things make a big difference.
  2. At some point everyone needs a helping hand.
  3. There are loving people in the world who are happy to help others; find them, and keep them close.
  4. Don’t be too proud to ask for help.
  5. Pack business cards first!

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

The Special Olympics movement impacts the lives of everyone in contact with its people and programming. It is a movement of self-discovery, a movement that challenges all of us to reconsider, uncover, and redefine ourselves and the world we live in. All of this is done through simple and consistent acts of inclusion, brought to the forefront through the universal language of sport and play. Special Olympics uses the power of sport to create a new narrative on words and themes so many of us often take for granted: ability, acceptance, inclusion.

Special Olympics has used the mobilizing and convening power of sport to create a platform upon which abilities can be showcased, new ways of thinking expressed, and new ways of communicating sharpened. Over 6,000,000 individuals with intellectual disabilities engage in the movement of Special Olympics annually in over 190 nations, demonstrating that it is a movement which effectively transcends cultures, religions, language, economies, political and social ideologies — spanning over 50 years of social impact for people with and without intellectual disabilities.

Through a strong development-through-sport platform, Special Olympics uses the power of sport and play to empower individuals long on the margins and offer them consistent opportunities to develop their skills both on and off the field of play. Through sport, Special Olympics provides key health services, screenings, and interventions as well as clinical training for medical professionals. It uses this platform to build inclusive sports and inclusive programming in countless schools around the world, enriching and enhancing academic and social development for all. It uses the first human language- that of play- to engage children with intellectual disabilities and their families through inclusive early childhood development programming and family health seminars.

Equally powerful is the way Special Olympics impacts the lives of individuals without intellectual disabilities. Teachers, doctors, business leaders, politicians, scientists, fashion leaders, professional athletes, and musicians have all become better professionals through engaging with Special Olympics athletes. All of them have embarked on their own journey of self-discovery through the example set by Special Olympics athletes.

Through the Special Olympics Unified with Refugees program, Special Olympics athletes invite refugee youth of all abilities to play, to share, and to reap the benefits that come with sustained social inclusion. No one knows better the traumatic effect of marginalization, social isolation, discrimination, and abuse more than individuals with intellectual disabilities. The athletes of Special Olympics take this understanding and convert it into an invitation for the world to dare to see things differently, to challenge long-held beliefs, and to realize our best selves through their example.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

Through the movement of Special Olympics, I have had the distinct privilege to meet so many amazing and inspiring individuals who are working hard to make the world a welcoming place for everyone. One of the biggest gifts Special Olympics provides is the gift of self-discovery. In listening to so many stories of transformation, you begin to look inside yourself and reflect.

In many ways, the myth of Special Olympics is somehow we, as individuals in the mainstream, are helping ‘those’ individuals with intellectual disabilities. Once someone experiences the movement, it becomes clear there is a powerful energy that comes with accepting the invitation from Special Olympics athletes. One individual helped me understand a deeper truth: individuals with intellectual disabilities are the true peacemakers, the true nation builders, and the true guides. That individual is Gerald Mballe.

Gerald Mballe is a refugee from Cameroon, who fled his native country to escape the horrific violence and conflict inflicted in the region by Boko Haram. His story is one the world knows well: a young African male, traveling through the Sahara in some of the most dangerous conditions known to the planet, traveling with some of the most dangerous groups known to the planet, surviving long nights on a dingy in the middle of the Mediterranean, landing in Lampedusa, Italy, settling in the north of Italy, looking to create a new life for himself.

Like most refugee youth, especially those unaccompanied, Gerald was in a strange land that was not always accepting of his presence there. Like most refugee youth, he was scared, bewildered, and apprehensive. New languages, new culture, new rules (or the presence of them!).

Gerald was provided with a guide in Turin where he was settled who was charged with showing him around the city, learning the public transport systems, etc. The guide knew Gerald’s love of football and invited him to a local practice with the team which he immediately accepted. Gerald accepted an invitation to train with a football team of the local Special Olympics organization in Turin.

The first thing he thought when arriving at the practice session was that in his life experience in Cameroon, ‘we didn’t see these people. They were hidden away. There was no place for them. Here, they invite me!”

Gerald speaks internationally on the transformation he was afforded by the athletes of Special Olympics Italia. He shares with vigor the way in which the athletes of Special Olympics didn’t see color, they didn’t hear accents, and they didn’t judge. He shares today, as he felt years back, that he owes so much to individuals with intellectual disabilities for welcoming him and providing a sense of belonging when others would not. He continues to support the engagement of refugee youth and Special Olympics athletes through inclusive sports as part of his official role as Advisor for the Special Olympics Unified with Refugees programming. He is committed to ensuring all refugee youth have the same opportunity he had to learn from individuals with intellectual disabilities, and ensure Special Olympics athletes can inspire others just as they inspired him. Gerald is a full-time student at a university in Turin, and continuously shares how he would never have had the confidence to enroll in a university degree if it were not for the confidence those footballers gave him at a time when he was ‘at his lowest level.’

Gerald does not have an intellectual disability.

He serves as one of my biggest role models. He serves as one of my greatest sources of admiration and inspiration in the way that propels us all to keep fighting for a more inclusive world. I look at Gerald’s story, of Gerald’s transformation, and I know deep down that the work of Special Olympics is urgent, and effective. One only needs to meet Gerald and the athletes of Special Olympics to understand social inclusion is our future.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

The issues facing individuals with intellectual disabilities are deeply rooted in the way the world views ability, and how that perspective influences our understanding of themes like ‘value’, ‘utility’, and ‘unity’.

While there is a myriad of things community and political leaders can do to address the root of the problem of the marginalization of individuals with intellectual disabilities, the top three things that come to mind are actions political and social leaders take on every day but must be refocused toward a population in dire need of these actions:

  1. Invest
  2. Engage
  3. Incentivize

National governments make investment decisions every day as to where to place resources and effort, and what represents ‘best practices’, ‘new trends’ and ‘new consumer groups’.

Through targeted human development investments at a national level, individuals with intellectual disabilities are well positioned to not only bring considerable pride to their nations but can also offer significant social and economic contributions too. This investment-centric approach would help move away from an often charity-centric perspective most hold toward individuals with intellectual disabilities and give this population subset a chance to offer returns on the investment. To do this, national governments and industry leaders must engage this population, learn from them, and consider their life experience as a strong contribution to building a more equitable and inclusive world for everyone. This engagement must be substantive and must be sustained so national populations and various sectors can learn and harness their contributions.

Through sustained engagement with this population, national governments and industry leaders are well positioned to offer incentives to companies, organizations, federations and others that excel in creating inclusive environments for business development, nation-building, academic and social learning, and more. The United Nations has a considerable role to play in forging stronger human development investments for individuals with intellectual disabilities, and over the past decade and a half, United Nations agencies have supported Special Olympics in important ways which have helped the movement position itself as a key international development actor supporting perhaps the most marginalized and invisible group across developing nations. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UN-CRPD) was a landmark international treaty that put into motion so many investments, incentives, and engagements for individuals with disabilities, and the UN Sustainable Development Goals learned from these advancements and integrated these contributions into what is now the focus of all nations toward 2030. The United Nations serves as a partner to nations around the world, and individuals with intellectual disabilities need this partnership to strengthen further if they are to reap the benefits of the full achievement of the UN-SDGs.

I had the honor of traveling to multiple nations on behalf of Special Olympics athletes and have engaged leaders and officials from a variety of sectors. One commonality I have seen across these different cultures and national contexts is: most are fully in agreement on the ‘what’ and ‘why’, but it is the ‘how’ that is a challenge given so many competing priorities, an ever-polarized world with strained resources, etc. This is where the athletes of Special Olympics are uniquely positioned to be the teachers, the drivers, and the architects.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

To me ‘leadership’ is a verb. It encompasses several actions which require strong clarity and consistency.

Leadership is the ability to stimulate action from others. It is the adhesive which connects vision to reality and lays a solid foundation upon which anything can be built.

Leadership is telling the truth when the truth hurts. It is doing the right thing irrespective of political expediency. Leadership is one’s willingness to fully and unabashedly expose their own vulnerabilities and weaknesses while using both as core strengths. It is the myriad of actions that brings and keeps people together and moving toward the same large prize.

Leadership is the consistent and clear actions that develop grit, discipline and a core belief of ‘no excuses’. It is the difference between velocity and sheer movement.

Leadership is an unwavering desire to keep going. It is a way of thinking, a way of being. Leadership is the ability to take the first step on a staircase without having any idea of where it leads.

Leadership is consistency in a very inconsistent world.

Two examples of leaders who I have always marveled at are Nelson Mandela and Bob Marley. In their own ways, both overcame almost all odds to offer their leadership to a world on the brink. They told the truth even when the truth created great risk. Their message was consistent and through this consistency emerged great power. Nelson Mandela used the power of his message to reconcile and forgive to not only build a nation but inspire a continent. Bob Marley used a similarly powerful message of “One Love” and “Let’s Get Together” to not only launch a new genre of music, to not only heal a nation in the throughs of tremendous political warfare but also launched an inspiring platform of mental liberation that gains strength even today.

Both were incredible examples of leadership to me because they never deviated from their message when the going got tough. They never diluted their message to ensure they would be ‘accepted’. They understood at a very visceral level that part of their self-realization was only possible because of the oppression they faced, because of the discrimination they lived with and because of the way in which the world wanted to label them.

In many ways the athletes of Special Olympics offer the same messages of forgiveness, reconciliation, and oneness. They highlight where we as a world have hurt them, and they seek not vengeance but reconciliation and unity. They ask of us a simple yet profound challenge: acceptance. Like Bob Marley and Nelson Mandela, they ask of us nothing more than what they themselves give.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

There are actually four things I wish someone told me when I first started.

  1. People are people: despite such deep diversity around the world, there are countless similarities between people of all cultures and creeds that far outweigh the apparent differences which often make the headlines.
  2. Academic achievement is one determinant of academic achievement, but by far not the only one. I come from a generation that placed incredible importance and emphasis on academic achievement, almost exclusively. Through the work of Special Olympics and working closely with the international development community, I have seen the brilliance, the incredible intelligence and wisdom, and the clairvoyance of individuals who at times were illiterate. I have seen first-hand, time and again, the resourcefulness and resilience of individuals who may have never stepped foot into a classroom, no less a university. They have critical lessons to teach today’s world, including individuals with intellectual disabilities. Intelligence and smarts drives much deeper to the core than a textbook or an exam allows. The athletes of Special Olympics and their movement teach this every day.
  3. Stay focused: the world is moving at warp speed and is becoming more pixelized by the day. The speed with which information moves is faster than ever and the ability to stay focused and not be distracted is one of the greatest skills I think anyone can have. It is easy to fall victim to the myriad of communication mechanisms, tools, and apps. It is easy to get distracted by the onslaught of alarming headlines and it is easy to get confused as to what is real, what is propaganda, and what makes a difference. This is why I believe staying focused on your goal and your commitment is what sets one apart from the rest. This is not to say one should block out current events and new trends, but it is to say one needs to be selective as to what contributes to that focus, what new information is allowed in and why, and how that information is used. The Special Olympics movement is especially talented at using current events to strengthen a five decade-long focused mission and commitment: to improve the lives of individuals with intellectual disabilities through sport and, in doing so, heal all of us.
  4. Faith can be a romantic ideal but it is also a solid physical force, especially faith in oneself. One quote which stands out to me as something I wish I had learned early on is from Arnold Palmer: “If you think you are beaten you are. If you think you dare not, you don’t. If you want to win but think you can’t, it’s almost certain you won’t. Life’s battles don’t always go to the stronger or faster man, but sooner or later, the man who wins is the man who thinks he can.” Words to live by!

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Human beings move. Migration is stimulated by a variety of factors and in recent modern history it is clear that negative social and political elements are often the cause: conflict, poverty and danger. Despite the world being so ‘connected’, never has the world been so disconnected from the realities of those living in some of the toughest neighborhoods in the world. If I could inspire a movement, I would look to create for refugees and migrants communities of welcome, opportunities and care.

I look at the ways Special Olympics athletes extend their hand of friendship and concern to refugee youth around the world. I have seen the way simple inclusive sports programming can change minds, perceptions and realities for the better. I hope to be able to contribute to these communities in the future as a legacy of what I have learned from individuals with intellectual disabilities.

With climate change, a strained global economy, and growing armed conflicts around the world, coupled with sustained abject poverty in too many corners of the globe, people will continue to move in greater numbers and with greater frequency. While it is easy to have one’s thinking and analysis end at the national border, it is important to note that in globalization, all nations have a responsibility in making the world as it is today, and all nations have an even greater responsibility to help make it better for everyone.

In the end, none of us know if we may need to leave our home nations by force of man or force of nature, and through the creation of this type of movement, future generations will see human movement — and the urgent need to provide social integration for such movement — as a standard element of the world. This is yet another lesson taught by the athletes of Special Olympics!

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“The stone that the builders refuse shall always be the head cornerstone.” It is a biblical teaching but one that has tremendous relevance in today’s world. It is a belief I have held close for most of my life to keep me focused on supporting those most at-risk. History has shown the world that some of its most prolific and most impactful leaders have been individuals at a point in their lives relegated to the sidelines, rendered voiceless, oppressed, abused, and castigated. It is through these life experiences that leaders emerge through resilience, perseverance, grit and discipline.

I draw inspiration from several individuals who overcame some of most difficult challenges to show the world a new path and a better way. Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Ghandi, Bob Marley, Martin Luther King, Jr., John Lennon, Eunice Kennedy Shriver and countless more. My grandfathers Stephen and Dominic — both World War II veterans — served as powerful examples for me at a very young age to understand what it meant to turn lemons into lemonade — to take trauma and tribulation and convert it into positivity, growth and togetherness.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I would like to have a private breakfast with Pope Francis. I am inspired by his leadership, his example, and the way in which he is unafraid to step out of tradition and do what is right, irrespective if it is ‘accepted’ by the establishment. I am also intrigued by the deep faith he holds in the goodness of mankind, in God’s mercy, and how he is challenging people around the world to dig deeper in their faith, explore further, and dare to rethink what they thought they knew.

I will forever remember Pope Francis stepping off of his vehicle in the favelas of Brazil, unaccompanied, as that is what the faith calls for: truth in God’s love and protection and trust in one’s neighbor. For someone with such massive security details, I found that simple act to speak volumes of Pope Francis’ vision of the Catholic Church and further still, the world we live in. I also will never forget watching Pope Francis welcome a little girl with Down Syndrome to join him in his chair during an event at the Vatican when his advisors all rushed to have the little girl go back to her seat. His recognition of Godliness in the Special Olympics Young Athlete during that moment showed me this is faith, this is leadership and this is love. There are countless examples of the reasons why I would cherish a private breakfast with Pope Francis and what a lifetime dream it would be to be able to share some of those reasons with him over eggs and bacon!

How can our readers follow you on social media?

I can be reached through LinkedIn and you can follow my work and the work of my colleagues on social media @SpecialOlympics

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

Social Impact Heroes: Why & How David Evangelista of Special Olympics International Is Helping To… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.