A Conversation With Daniel Leon-Davis

Daniel Leon-Davis embodies success in his niche as senior creative director at The SOZE Agency and social media director to Russell Simmons. Leon-Davis is also a 2011 Jack Kent Cooke Undergraduate Transfer Scholar and alumnus of Seminole State College of Florida and American University in Washington, D.C. He majored in international relations and minored in music theory. Through his work, Leon-Davis has worked on the creation of #SonsAndBrothers, a campaign to help uplift young people of color; building out the first-ever #ImmigrantHeritageMonth; and curating the content that appears on Russell Simmons’ social channels. He is also happily married to his husband Dom and the proud father of a 13-year-old Jack Russell terrier named Ralph.

Advise: What inspired you to begin working with young people and giving them a voice?

Leon-Davis: Every single day I am amazed at the compassion and authenticity of young people all over the nation. From apps that they create to save the environment to programs they put in place to ensure their community is safe, it’s amazing how many ideas can stem from a community of young people who are guided by service. But this isn’t news to you all; instead, it’s the very framework by which the National Honor Society and National Junior Honor Society function that has led so many students into positions of leadership all over the world and that continue to bring together communities to show the power of servant leadership.

As a National Honor Society alum, I can’t help but think of the impact that my teachers and administrators had on me by simply giving me and my classmates a platform from which to speak and act on the injustices on campus, in our community, and in the world. It was those opportunities that would lead me to my path in servant leadership and, in turn, help build my career as a creative storyteller.

I was 17 years old when I was inducted into the National Honor Society; it was that same year that I decided to break from the shadows and come out as gay to my family and friends. What I didn’t know was the way in which my community at school would show up for me in allowing me to be the most authentic version of myself. In fact, I would use that year and my experiences to start acting on the ways in which I could be of service to others in more than just my capacity as a volunteer.

Advise: How do you define “servant leadership”?

Leon-Davis: So often we have spoken about service as volunteer work, but every day it becomes more and more evident that service for this generation and those to come is not just about what we do on the side, but rather it’s our life’s work. It’s no longer about just making money when you graduate; it’s about finding ways to give back and change the world. From the lawyer to the graphic designer, to the doctor, and even the filmmaker, the definition and positions by which servant leadership is now defined is limitless.

It is our duty to continue to open the narrative around leadership and success and to open our minds to what is truly needed in a world of service. For so long students were defined as leaders by the strides they made in their careers, rather than the strides they made in being their most authentic selves.

Advise: Was there a specific turning point in your youth that set you on your path to success?

Leon-Davis: I was the student who always did his homework, always raised his hand in class, and always wanted to find a way to give back. That led to the typical conversations around what I needed to do with my life, which would often be presented as one of three options: lawyer, doctor, or engineer.

I don’t blame my mother or teachers, though; it was the way in which society was programmed to think. Take all the “smart” kids and put them on a path to “positions of power” with the least risk possible. This often meant pushing these very kids away from opportunities that would allow them to thrive as artists or storytellers. And to be honest, this would have been my path, however there would be one factor that would change everything for me: finding out I was undocumented.

Just as I was applying to colleges and receiving my acceptance letters, I found out that although I had been in school in the United States since first grade, I wasn’t “American” enough to receive the same opportunities as my classmates. Rather than going straight to college after high school, I ended up being forced to take a year off to figure out if there was truly anything I could do to go to school and receive a college degree.

Through the support of my community, I ended up attending Seminole State College of Florida, where I graduated as valedictorian, was awarded the Jack Kent Cooke Scholarship, and given the chance to transfer to American University. However, it would be my experience of then having to come out for the second time, this time as undocumented, that would allow me to create a different path for myself. Rather than staying stuck to a traditional view of success, I would be catapulted to a path that valued me as an artist—creative and storyteller—while still maintaining my passion for equity in this nation and around the world.

Advise: Could you share a little more about the work you’ve done since graduation? 

Leon-Davis: Through my service work, particularly focused around using art as a form of activism, I was granted seven internships, including becoming the first openly undocumented intern at The Clinton Foundation. Upon graduation, I then had the opportunity to become the chief of staff to Russell Simmons’ then-political director Michael Skolnik. The rest is sort of history. In the last three-and-a-half years, I have become the social media director to Russell Simmons and the co-founder and senior creative director of The SOZE Agency—a social-impact creative agency focused on creating campaigns around compassion, authenticity, and equity.

Through our work at The SOZE Agency, I have gotten the opportunity to create platforms and campaigns such as “Sons & Brothers” and “I Am An Immigrant.” Sons & Brothers, which focuses on changing the narrative around young people of color, has allowed me to work directly with young people from across the nation to think about the ways in which we can challenge the media to stop portraying young people of color in a negative light. Through this same project, we have also had the opportunity to commission more than 15 artists of color to highlight young people through a portrait series, which was most recently featured in the Smithsonian and the East Wing of President Obama’s White House.

The “I Am An Immigrant” campaign, on the other hand, was born out of the creation of Immigrant Heritage Month (June), which I had the pleasure of co-founding in 2014. The campaign featured everyone from Lupita Nyong’o, to Rosario Dawson, to Miguel, and it served to highlight the beauty and power of immigrants across the nation. Through videos, photos, and, of course, storytelling, the “I Am An Immigrant” campaign has become key in showing immigrant allies that they too have a place in the movement.

Advise: What do you believe is the best way to encourage today’s students? 

Leon-Davis: None of the value I bring to this work would have been possible without my experience growing up as a gay, undocumented Latino kid who would one day be shown that it’s not about getting to a “position of power,” but instead about striving for a position of impact.

Every day I am reminded that we are in a new era in which service to your community is no longer a choice, but our duty to the world. That is why we cannot limit our students to the notion of success as one focused on power. Instead, let’s give our students the tools and opportunities they need to find their purpose without limit. Whether that’s becoming a doctor or a musician, let’s instill our students with a responsibility toward social impact.

That is why I share my story—in hope that as we grow as a nation we can open our hearts and minds to the beauty of diversity in our purpose. If I had stayed on the path I was on, I’m sure I would have made a great lawyer, because I was trained to do well in what I set my mind to. But, let’s instead give our students the freedom to do well in what they set their hearts on. It is this freedom that will allow us to build the world we want, where everyone leads in their purpose and becomes a true servant leader to the world.

Advise: Based on your life experiences, what is a key takeaway you would share with advisers of students in the National Honor Societies or student councils?

Leon-Davis: Instill the need for purpose-driven work. Although both NHS and student councils create opportunities for students to lead, it can sometimes cause students to lose their need for purpose. I remember when I was in NHS and how much I loved being part of the community. However, I also remember how much everything became about looking great on paper, to the extent that I did some of my work without purpose. Instead of truly investing my time in some projects, I did them because I knew I needed my résumé to look a certain way for my college applications. As I got older, I realized that some of my work had become monotonous habits, rather than intentional and purpose-driven habits. If you as an adviser are able to break that cycle for students earlier, I think that that’s one of the best things you could provide to a student. There is a beauty in being intentional about all of the work that you do, and that can sometimes mean really pushing students to think about how their purpose shows up in the way they lead on campus.