For years, Lt. Gen. (Ret) Larry D. James has been looking at the universe with the broadest possible scope and sweep. Throughout his career in the Air Force, he focused on space operations. Today he serves as the deputy director of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. 

However, as Board Chair of United Way of Greater Los Angeles, General James believes in the power of person-to-person connections in driving social change.

“When it becomes personal, you want to give back and be a part of the solution,” said General James. “Each person is an individual and has worth. When you start talking to someone and understanding their life and how they got there, you see them as a person who could have been you in different circumstances.”

A year of challenge and opportunity

General James took the helm of the UWGLA board in the midst of the pandemic and has overseen a transformative time for the organization. His vision and leadership have helped to chart a course that remains true to the strategic vision of UWGLA while bringing an additional lens of racial equity and justice in the fight against poverty. 

His approach to leadership has been deeply shaped by his 35 years of experience in the military and at JPL.

“In all of the environments I’ve worked in, including during wartime, my perspective is that in the face of any challenges, we will work through them, we will get better, and we will move forward,” said General James. “As hard as this past year has been, it’s been great to see the ability of the United Way staff to grapple with and work through the challenges we’ve faced.”

Amidst the disruptions of COVID, General James and UWGLA have sought to chart a middle course between remaining focused on the organization’s core priorities while responding to the deep social inequities that the pandemic laid bare.

“The key things that we focus on have not changed in a decade. We will continue to march down the three pillars of housing and homelessness, economic mobility, and high-quality education for those who currently lack access,” he said. “But COVID changed our calculus in that we saw the disproportionate impact it had on communities. As a result, we’re now looking at those pillars through racial equity and equity in general.”

That means focusing on the same fundamental issues but attempting to understand them on a deeper level.

“It changes our approach and perspective. We’re peeling back the layers to examine the root causes.”

Leading with empathy

That lens necessitates developing a compassionate understanding of the circumstances into  which many are born.

“A lot of your life is determined by where you start, which you have no choice over,” General James observed. “For those starting in difficult places, how do we move them into places that are better? Those of us who are in a better place must give back to those who are not.”

General James’s own experiences have deepened that sense of understanding, and that obligation to give back. In particular, he and his wife have had what he describes as a “long-term encounter” with someone experiencing homelessness.

“We would go to a coffee shop every weekend, and this person was always there. We knew he was homeless and started talking to him and understanding his life and how he got there. He went through a long process, he took care of himself, and he is now in supportive housing.”

How you can give back

General James hopes that a sense of enlightened self-interest will, in turn, spurn individuals and companies to work with organizations like UWGLA to give back.

“Companies want a strong community and an educated workforce, diverse and vibrant and strong -- that’s what they need to do business. When people live paycheck to paycheck and don't have a home, it takes away from the community, from the vibrancy throughout Los Angeles.”

UWGLA can help make that happen if it can continue to move forward in pursuit of its core goals.

“Success will come if we can continue to make demonstrable progress in all three of our pillars and if our board grasps the underlying causes and racial equity issues, and fuses them into our strategy and our work,” he said. “We’ll know that we’re being successful when it’s recognized by peers outside that we’ve got it right and when the community says, ‘You’re awesome and we don’t want to live without you.’”

To get there, General James believes that UWGLA must continually return to personal stories that illustrate the importance of the work that the organization is doing.

“We all need to get out of our offices and get out, get engaged, and see the impact that United Way has on people’s lives. It's about people giving out of what they have to help those who are less fortunate -- that’s what United Way does, and that’s what drives me to do the work.”