Meet 2019 NGen Award finalist James Dold
// By Jacqueline Brennan
Once the votes are counted, this year’s winner will be announced at Upswell this November. Here’s a heads up: Selecting just one winner from our six finalists will be tough. Each is an amazing changemaker who has made great strides toward transformative social impact in the communities they serve through collaborative leadership.
To help you make your decision, we asked each finalist to tell you a little bit about themselves, what drives them, and why the work they do is important.
So meet James Dold, CEO and founder of Human Rights for Kids in Washington, DC. James is working to end the broad spectrum of child abuse and ensure “that every child has hope and love.”
Q: Who or what inspires you — and why?
JD: I was inspired to start Human Rights for Kids, in part, by my late cousin, Justin, who tragically died of an opioid overdose during my second year in law school. As children, Justin and his brother lived with our grandmother and uncle. Justin’s father was serving a prison sentence. His mother, who suffered from severe schizophrenia, was subsequently killed by a hit-and-run driver, and our grandmother succumbed to alcoholism several months later. Facing the prospect of being placed in the foster care system, Justin and his brother came to live with my family when we moved from Long Beach, California to Las Vegas. Justin and I were more like brothers than cousins, so it was heartbreaking to witness the impact of these early childhood traumas on his life. He began smoking, drinking, and experimenting with drugs, which later became lifelong addictions for him. He did poorly in school, was frequently truant, and ran away from home on occasion. After the 11th grade, he dropped out of school and moved to Texas to live with his father, who was then out of prison.
Justin later married, and developed a prescription pain pill addiction. While I was in law school, he texted me about how desperate and “very lost” he felt, confiding that the uncle he lived with at our grandmother’s house had physically and sexually abused him for years. He died on August 24, 2008.
Justin experienced every negative category of harm connected to a person’s Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) Score, measured through the occurrence of traumatic events.
When I talk about our work around adverse childhood experiences and how they correlate to every negative social ill, I always tell Justin’s story, which, unfortunately, is all too common in the world today.
The tragedies endured by my cousin drive my work, because I know that if we succeed at changing society’s understanding and response to early childhood trauma, we can prevent what happened to him and to so many other children who continue to suffer from negative life outcomes.
Q: What does changemaker mean to you?
JD: A changemaker is someone who can transform suffering into hope. They are fearless leaders who, to paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, can see that a situation is hopeless and yet are determined to make it otherwise. We all suffer, but it is how we use our suffering that differentiates a changemaker from others. The changemaker empathizes with people’s suffering and uses their experiences and empathy to make things better for others. And because we all suffer, we all have the capacity to be a changemaker. We just have to have the courage and determination to do so.
Q: Other than the announcement of the winner of the NGen Leadership Award, what are you most looking forward to at Upswell?
JD: Learning from and being inspired by the other changemakers attending Upswell, including my fellow nominees and others working to make the world a better place.
Q: What is the most personally meaningful action/protest/campaign that you have participated in?
JD: Over a five-and-a-half-year period I developed and implemented the national advocacy strategy to ban life without parole and other extreme sentences for children across the United States. I personally led campaigns in states as diverse as Arkansas, West Virginia, and Nevada. This effort resulted in the quadrupling of the number of states that prohibit the use of such sentences on children and has led to the release of hundreds of people across the country who were told as children that they would die in prison. I stay in touch with many of them who I get to see get their first jobs, get married, have children they never thought they would, and become productive members of society. They teach me, more than anyone else, that one heart with courage is a majority.
Q: In one sentence, how would you capture your core values?
JD: “Love is at the root of everything, all learning, all relationships, love or the lack of it.” — Fred Rogers
Q: What leadership qualities do you think are most important for emerging leaders in the charitable community or working for social impact to develop?
JD: I’m a HUGE fan of Jim Collins and the research he has done on successful organizations. In his seminal works he talks about Level 5 Leadership and what differentiates great leaders from others. A Level 5 leader combines personal humility with unconquerable will. This includes having incredible ambition for the organization and its purpose, not oneself. To be an effective and high social impact leader, one must develop and maintain the right level of unyielding resolve and unconditional love for those we serve, including the colleagues we work alongside. To me, these are the most important qualities emerging leaders should develop, with the goal of becoming a Level 5 Leader.
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