I wish someone told me that saying “no” is healthy, smart, and often the best thing to say. I think many of us fear not being liked or losing a client, whatever the case, “no” is important.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing James Evans.
James is a multi-awarding winning creative strategist and leader with 25+ years of experience developing relationships between organizations and their constituents. James and his team have initiated several programs, including the groundbreaking Gulf Spay/Neuter Campaign and HSUS’ Pets for Life program. In 2019, inspired by Chetana Mirle and supported by Spring Point’s Life of Riley, James founded Companions and Animals for Reform and Equity [C.A.R.E.].
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’ve always been fascinated and kept at peace by animals, companion animals, and wild animals. I grew up in Baltimore, Maryland at a time when German Shepherds were popular. There were many living in my under-served Park Heights neighborhood. Whenever I found a lost dog in need, I took the dog home, and at one point I had as many as five large dogs living in our kitchen pantry. When my mother discovered this, she made me put signs up and return the pets to their homes, which ultimately taught me valuable lessons. I got my wildlife tug from watching Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, at the time, the only television program that explored the world of Natural History. To this day, I still love that show!
I went to high school and college for art and design and thereafter worked for several national and internationally renowned design and architecture firms. I loved the work, but the design field tends to be sexist and not inclusive. During my 20 plus years of working for several elite firms, I never worked with any colleagues of color. Many of my coworkers back then lacked cultural competency, particularly my direct reports.
In 1999 I started my own firm. Like any upstart, the first three years were a rollercoaster ride, but in our fourth year, we started to level out, won some significant design awards, and garnered several major clients. One of them was the Human Society of the United States (HSUS). My firm did outstanding work for them, including helping to create one of animal welfare’s first diverse programs called Pets for Life. This program focused on supporting Black Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) communities and their pets.
In 2019, a few months before the COVID outbreak and George Floyd’s murder, a significant animal welfare grant maker, Spring Point’s Life of Riley, contacted me and asked if I would be interested in creating a nonprofit organization that focused on bringing more equity and inclusion into the animal welfare field. I said yes, and I’m now the nation’s first CEO of a national BIPOC-led pet advocacy organization, called Companions and Animals for Reform and Equity or CARE.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
I worked as a vendor through my communications firms for many national animal welfare organizations, including Best Friends Animal Society, HSUS, and others. And while these organizations have never been diverse, neither in staff nor board makeup, I find it interesting that these organizations pledged to diversify their staff following George Floyd’s murder.
But yet as of right now, they remain as they were before 2019. I simply don’t understand how well-resourced national organizations fail to see the benefit of diversification across lived experiences amongst their ranks. There is no shortage of studies proving that organizations that advance diversity and belonging, have better outcomes than those that do not.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. 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?
I’m not sure how funny this will be, all of my mistakes have been expensive ☺
When I first started out as an environmental graphic designer, my principal role was to add meaningful and visually appealing designs to architectural spaces. For example, themed floor title designs, sconces, informational blade signs (wayfinding), and in the case of this story, a rod-iron gate design to prevent people from stepping into an interior water fountain. Keep in mind, I was working for an elite design firm at the time, and every element of what we produced was themed and customized for each client. That said, the rod-iron gate design needed to be beautiful and in theme with the architecture it lived within.
The project location was Durban, South Africa. So, when I started my design “research” I started looking through a book in the studio called African Patterns or some title like that. I found lots of inspiration throughout the book, all of which I incorporated into the gate design. My colleagues and my direct reports loved the work so much that the designs were incorporated into the overall interior motif.
Then came the moment of truth. The clients we’re flown in from South Africa to review our progress. These meetings are designed to showcase forty or more large prints of design concepts that are hung from the wall. Once the clients walk in, there is no way to hide from your work.
Within minutes of the meeting starting, the client expressed a strong objection to our designs. They were deeply frustrated because the design elements I used were symbols, some of them sacred. Not only had I used several symbols inappropriately, but many of the symbols were not from where the project was located.
What I learned: People matter. Conversations matter. Studying something is an important first step, but mastering a design, any design, whether a seat belt, glove, or congressional bill, should always include a conversation with the entity the design is being made for.
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
Pets are family. And for the first time in U.S. history, an organization exists that advocates for fair pet adoption policies, resources for BIPOC communities on the frontline of climate-related disasters, and veterinarian scholarships for African American students. CARE’s social impact is amplifying and lifting people and pets within rural indigenous communities and in urban communities across the U.S.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
Alexandre Contreras VT, C.C.M.T of Pet Trio Charity is a veterinary assistant.
CARE provided Alex with a start-up fund for his nonprofit to provide him with opportunities to meet and partner with donors previously outside his circle. Because of CARE’s assistance and Alex’s tenacity, Pet Trio Charity is able to help young children on their journey into veterinary medicine.
For context, our country is facing a lack of veterinarians. This shortage has a disproportional disadvantage for underserved communities that don’t have access to vet care. Organizations like CARE and Pet Trio Charity seek to close the gap by supporting BIPOC students and communities.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
Yes. One thing politicians and policymakers can take decisive action on is to ensure disaster relief efforts include supporting people with pets. Approximately 44 percent of people who declined to evacuate during hurricane Katrina did so because they feared abandoning their pets. Many human shelters do not accept companion pets — not even during natural disasters.
Society and people individually must attempt to look past their biases, particularly racial biases. Almost all things that CARE and other social justice center organizations are attempting to solve are challenged by racism and sexism. When we fail to deal with our bias as a society, we allow talent and genius to go untapped simply because we don’t see it in “certain” people.
All of society suffers when we fail to get the best from our citizens.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
I define Leadership as follows: providing others the opportunity to see, understand, and follow your vision.
Leadership is simple and has less to do with the leader, and more to do with followers.
Anyone who publicly shares their vision is likely to have followers, people who are willing to move toward that vision or idea. It actually can happen with or without the leader who first provided the vision. The only people who don’t have followers are people who don’t share their ideas.
Good leadership, aside and separate from being a leader, requires that the leader do the work needed to make their vision come to fruition.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
I wish someone told me:
- Tax management is more important than profit. When I first started in business, I had no grounding in various taxes that needed to be paid, which lead to tax obligations that could have been avoided.
- I wish someone told me that saying “no” is healthy, smart, and often the best thing to say. I think many of us fear not being liked or losing a client, whatever the case, “no” is important.
- I wish someone told me to be more honest about my limitations. I think too often people go into business with the exception that with enough positivity they can conquer anything. But, running a business requires lots of different talents and it’s best to know what your talent is and get help to support your weak side.
- I wish someone told me how important it is to be clear. Influence comes with being the leader of an organization. As I just mentioned to a colleague, “every time I speak, my thumb is on the scale”. The CEO and other senior staff members with great power can easily sway a conversation. This can be dangerous because so often the senior leadership team needs honest feedback from other staff to make informed decisions. So, being clear, direct, and honest is crucial.
- I wish someone told me that there is greatness in humility. I think I’m naturally humble, but in this context, it sounds like I’m bragging ☺ Seriously, when people talk about good leadership characteristics rarely do folks mention humility. I find power in being a lifelong learner. When the folks following you see you seeking knowledge constantly, they tend to do the same.
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. 🙂
If I could inspire a movement that did the most good for all people it would be a movement deeply centered on equitable education or information sharing. People with good information make better decisions!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.
In my role as a father and advocate, I have submitted to the fact that people learn best when they want the lesson and when they’re seeking the information. I’ve also learned that having the answer does not make you the best teacher for some individuals. As hard as it is, we have to give people space to come to their own realizations.
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. 🙂
Hands down, Stacy Abrams. Abrams, in my opinion, is an exemplary leader, primarily because she does the work she demands from others. Her intelligence, poise, grace, and tenacity have shepherded our country throw dark days and I suspect she will guide us throw the dark nights to come.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
My organization can be found online here:
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Social Impact Heroes: Why & How James Evans Is Helping To Change Our World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.