James Swan is a Beverly Hills-based interior designer who sits on the national board of The Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund. In 2006, he helped launch the Victory Film Project Los Angeles, an annual documentary short-film competition featuring the stories of openly Gay and Lesbian political candidates as told by today’s most talented young filmmakers.
His firm established The Swan Scholarship Program at Los Angeles City College. The scholarship will help expand educational options for students victimized by domestic abuse. The Scholarship will fund tuition, fees, books and supplies, as well as unexpected financial challenges that can often force at-risk students to drop out. Swan also works with PAWS/LA, which works to provide comprehensive packages of essential pet care services to people living with disabling illnesses.
Where did you get the idea for your scholarship program?
Every year during the holidays, we try to do something above and beyond Christmas cards for our clients or vendors, just some sort of holiday acknowledgement. And we’ve been doing that for the seven years that we’ve been in business. Last fall, a very dear friend of mine became development director for Los Angeles Community College and over lunch one afternoon, as he was telling me about the work that they were doing and the impact that their foundation program and their scholarship program has on low income, at need inner-city not just kids, but even adults -- single mothers, people trying to get their lives back together -- I was just blown away by the direct impact that a very small amount of money could have on keeping these people in school and moving towards their goals in life.
So we brainstormed a little here in the office, and we decided to take the money that we would normally spend on gifts and put that money in our clients’ names, so everyone is listed as a donor into the foundation and create this foundation that we would fund on an annual basis, and hopefully be able to make some real changes in some people’s lives.
How much money have you put into the program?
We started with $5000 and we’re hoping by partnering with some of our clients in this upcoming year to see that number grow. But we’ve made a commitment to do that dollar amount every year.
Do you think there’s a little too much ‘lavishness’ today…is that even a word?
I don’t know if it’s a word or not, but I know what you mean and I think you’re right, yes.
Have you had an opportunity to meet with any of these recipients?
Not anyone specifically. Because the program isn’t really set up for that kind of direct contact, although I’m sure if I made a request we probably could. I mean, we’re a tiny little donor. Our little $5,000…they’ve got people that are giving lots and lots of money, but David’s a good friend, and I know if I asked for that, I could. But I have been on the campus I think four times at this point and just been able to walk around and see the work that they’re doing. LACC is the oldest community college facility in Los Angeles. It is actually the campus that spawned both USC and UCLA as part of the state school system. It’s in sort of, it’s not East LA, but let’s just say, it’s a rough neighborhood, let’s put it that way. It’s a hard neighborhood to be in and this campus provides the swimming pool for kids to swim in during the summers because they don’t have anywhere else to go, the sports fields for them to play on, it’s a place for people to congregate as well as take their adult education classes.
There are scholarships set up in the school system because, as a state run school, they keep their class costs low so that at-need students can afford to go to school. But what David has pointed out to me is where they fall apart is the other support that they (the students) need. They may have the tuition, the $20 per course hour to go to school, but they don’t have money to buy the books to attend class. So our little contribution might be able to buy textbooks for 10 students for one school year and thus allow them to participate. How amazing is that?
College is expensive even at the smaller community colleges.
It’s daunting. It really is. And then the other things, for single mothers, what of child care? Well, they’ve got an amazing childcare program on campus there, but it does cost. It’s like $20 a day. But for a single mom who’s trying to go to school and working a night job, on many occasions, there are single moms who have to drop out of school because they can’t afford the $20 a day for childcare. That’s just so wrong. It shouldn’t have to happen. So hopefully we can make a little bit of a difference there.
Tell me about PAWS (The Progressive Animal Welfare Society)
PAWS, yes. I’m a dog lover. In fact, I’m sitting in my office and I’m looking at my two Yorkshire Terriers curled up on a little pillow here in my office. It was workday for them, so they got to come to work with Daddy today. Animals have always been a big part of my life and PAWS is an organization that believes in the power of animal love and the good that it can do to people, particularly people that are ill. So they do a lot of really good work. And again, a friend of mine in San Francisco, Emily Scott Pottruck’s wrote a book Tails of Devotion. She’s very passionate about animals and all of the proceeds from her book go to animal protection agencies. So again, she asked, and we were able to be a small part in the local fundraising efforts for the organization here in LA and it was a really delightful thing to participate in.
What have you done with them?
My first involvement with them was co-hosting a cocktail event, actually where Emily’s book was featured. She hired a photographer in San Francisco, and she made the rounds of all of her friends, some of them very visible people in San Francisco, and took pictures of them in their homes, portraits of them with their pets. Not necessarily just dogs, but cats and rabbits and iguanas and whatever. And then had each of the households in their own handwriting share the stories of what the impact that their pets have had on their lives. And then put together this really beautiful book just talking about the relationships and sort of celebrating the relationships. So I co-hosted a cocktail reception for Emily here in town at one of the local art galleries. We raised a lot of money that night through the sale of her book for Paws.
Tell me how you got started in the Gay/Lesbian Victory Fund?
About 9 years ago, just after I moved to LA, I attended a brunch and was introduced to Chris Price, who became a very dear friend of mine, and he had just begun work with this group called the Victory Fund. And he was chatting all about it, and he gave me something to read, and I started reading it and was I struck by how immediate and how local, how grassroots the organization was. And unlike some of the other organizations -- political organizations that I had been involved with -- where my money went somewhere else; I knew it was being put to good use.
We’re supporting openly gay and lesbian politicians on both the local, regional, and national levels. We’re close to 400 openly gay and lesbian politicians in either elected or appointed offices nationwide right now. Now that’s a small number in the 15,000 political positions that exist, but it’s a growing number and I’m able to support, here in my local community, a lesbian woman who’s running for the school council board, or the water protection board, or fill in the blank, whatever the position is. And it gave a real sense of immediacy to my involvement, and it was something I got very interested in. I began writing some checks, and at one point, Chris, my mentor left the board and I was asked to fill his position on the board. And I’ve been very happy to do that.
You launched a film project through this, correct?
Yes. Well, I live in LA, it’s kind of all about entertainment here. I’m not in that industry. I have clients who are, but I was sitting around at dinner one night with three friends and we were just talking about what could we to help raise money and raise visibility. And the conversation was there to marry entertainment and politics…what would that look like? And we came up with the idea of creating a student-driven contest, or scholarship fund is what it eventually evolved into, where students in master’s program at film schools immediately here in LA would go out and film, in short format documentary form, little films about our openly gay and lesbian candidates.
We had Jim Roth who was running for city councilman in OKC, we had Virginia Lender at the time who was running as an openly lesbian woman for the OR state Supreme Court. There were 3 others, politicians, one in Boston, one in Wilmington, MD, and I forget now where the 5th was, who are in races. The film was premiering in October, their races would culminate in the elections in November, so we were to put this together and then we premiered all 5 of the short films that evening in October at our event, it was sort of a cocktail event here in West Hollywood. And it was really quite successful. We packaged the five films and now have taken them on to film festivals around the country, and we’re getting ready to do the 2nd one, which will come up next year.
What’s the ultimate goal…awareness, funds, both?
I think it’s both. And I would say it’s probably an equal split, although probably really, when it comes right down to it, raising funds for our candidates probably takes the lead. If we can, by doing that, raise visibility and awareness of the organization, then it’s a win-win situation. We were introduced to people here in LA who didn’t know about Victory Fund and who liked what they saw, were excited about what they say, and were generous to open their checkbooks and write checks. And we also produced 5 really good films that have gone on and in one instance, has won one award at, I think it was the Austin Film Festival, for short format documentary. So we’re doing good things on the artistic side and good things on the fundraising side. So that was kinda cool.
How much time do you spend working on charity projects?
You know, some days, it feels like far too much, and then most of the time, it feels like not nearly enough. One of the goals that I have for my business, as my business grows, is for it to grow in such a way that my time is freed up, more of my time is freed up to do things like that.
What do you think about the design industry as a whole and the charity work that is being done?
You know, I think when we look at the numbers across the board, not paying specific attention right now just to the design industry, but I think the numbers say that it’s a very, very small percentage of Americans, let alone companies, are involved in any sort of charitable giving. So those numbers need to go up across the board. So if we then reduce our sort of venue down into the design community, the design community has been amazingly supportive, particularly of the AIDS issues. If AMFAR or these organizations sort of had their grassroots, their exceptions in, whether it was interior design or fashion design or a combination, that’s sort of where they came from, or at least they were vital to their initial beginnings. And the work continues and they continue to do good work. Could it be more? Absolutely.