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Laying the Groundwork for a Better Dallas

Laying the Groundwork for a Better Dallas

Through his firm and various civic groups, architect Darren James has laid the foundation for inclusivity and community growth.

When you look at Darren James’ career, it’s hard to tell where his work as a professional architect ends and his work as a civic leader begins.

“It was never the plan, but they’re so intertwined,” says James. “A lot of the work I do is truly going to transform Dallas for the better, and it overlaps what I do on a daily basis. I joke from time to time that KAI is my night job.”

To clarify: James is president of KAI Enterprises, an integrated architectural, engineering and construction services firm. But he also sits on several boards in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, affecting civic change that’s as substantial as erecting new buildings.

Most notably, James is Chair of the Dallas Black Chamber of Commerce — the oldest continually operated Black chamber in the United States — and board president of Fair Park First, a revitalization committee overseeing the restoration and management of Fair Park, home to both the State Fair of Texas and a history of racial animus. Taking on such roles is hardly the path of least resistance, but James says they’ve led to high rewards. “I’ve been able to take my experiences and grow my business and open some doors at KAI,” he says. “But I also have a responsibility to take the information I have and share that with others so that they have similar opportunities.”

Darren James works with his team during a meeting at KAI Enterprises.

James says he wouldn’t have it any other way. Growing up in St. Louis, he developed a strong sense of civic duty from his father and grandfather, both of whom were leaders in the Boy Scouts. Like his father, James was an Eagle Scout.

That civic-mindedness also bled into his love of architecture. At a young age, James began noticing the discrepancies between where he lived and other parts of the city. Ultimately, he became an architect with a focus on working in underserved communities in Kansas City and continued that work after moving to Dallas and joining KAI’s Texas office in 2005.

“Our portfolio has traditionally been under-resourced, ignored communities,” he says. “So that outgrowth of serving on the professional side led to what I do on the nonprofit side.”

He soon joined the Dallas Black Chamber of Commerce, later becoming its Chairman in 2016. Typically a resource for local Black-owned businesses, the chamber’s mission shifted when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020. James directed the chamber to help member companies secure PPP loans in the wake of the resulting financial crisis, then extended those services to non-member companies. In some instances, he helped businesses retool their finances and establish relationships with local banks.

“I wanted to make sure that we were an asset to the community at large,” James says. “Not every business was deemed essential like us (KAI as architects and engineers).”

James also got involved in a bid to revitalize the 277-acre Fair Park but had to choose between working on the project or serving on its board. He chose the latter, knowing Fair Park’s past and its continuing, contentious relationship with the surrounding Black and Hispanic communities.

2021 Member Excellence award winner Darren James, photos courtesy of KAI Enterprises
The community can and should be better, and if I’m not going to do it, who is? I want to be part of the solution.
Darren James

“I felt that I had a voice, perspective and agency to actually affect change,” he says. “I wanted to be in the position to make sure that the residents around the park were a part of the future more substantially than they were in the past.”

Still, James has learned a few tricks to manage his responsibilities, from being aware of his energy levels to delegating to taking time off and recharging. He’s also found a resource in his Vistage Chair, Becky Powell- Schwartz, who helps clarify issues with James on both for- and nonprofit challenges.

“There’s so much connectivity between who I am as a business leader and as a civic leader,” James says. “Becky asks questions that are poignant and timely. She knows when to challenge and when to support. It’s been very helpful.”

The good news? The chamber has seen a huge uptick in membership this year, the Dallas City Council approved the board’s master plan for Fair Park and KAI is expanding its operations. All of which means James is ready for his next “day job.”

“It goes back to why I wanted to be an architect,” he says. “The community can and should be better, and if I’m not going to do it, who is? I want to be part of the solution.”

Passion Play
The Unbeaten Path

Darren James wanted a way to meld his work as an architect and civic leader toward impacting underserved communities.

Result

James leveraged several leadership roles, including his job as president of KAI Enterprises and his volunteer positions at the Dallas Black Chamber of Commerce and Fair Park First, to affect economic and social change.

Key Takeaways from Becky Powell- Schwartz, Darren’s Chair
1
Listen with an open mind and be OK with discomfort. Darren listens to all sides and, given the institutions, he deals with a lot of discomfort. But that helps him get to a win-win solution for all.
2
Create a culture of trust. Darren is great at building teams he can delegate to. He leverages his time and talents toward developing and mentoring teams that can work independently.
3
Walk your talk. A lot of people give you lip service. Not Darren. He doesn’t just say it, he does it.
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