Q+A with 2023 Kantrow Award Winner: John Spain

Q+A with 2023 Kantrow Award Winner: John Spain


John Spain was awarded the Marcia Kaplan Kantrow Baton Rouge Visionary Award at the Foundation’s Annual Meeting in March. We asked him a few questions to learn more about his approach to transformative leadership for our Community.

How did you start working in the nonprofit sector? Tell us generally about your journey to BRAF.

I have been involved in the community since college. I have always felt a need to be involved and to make a difference. I have always been blessed with strong sense of curiosity. For example, when I walked by the MLK monument, I asked why doesn’t someone paint that? When there were algae growing in city park lake, I asked who is responsible for that? That curiosity has led me to ask questions of why can’t we fix schools, or reduce crime or have better health outcomes? My television career and BRAF gave me platforms to make a difference, shine a light on injustice, health, and education issues and to engage public officials and citizens on critical challenges.. It also gave me experience in how to raise money for those causes. My Mother was a great example. She was always involved in church and civic issues.

What is the most valuable lesson you’ve learned while implementing transformative change in Baton Rouge?

That it is not easy, it takes time, and while I strongly believe that one person can make a difference, that person can achieve more if they can get others to join them. It’s also helpful if you don’t care who gets the credit.

Do you have a favorite quote or guiding mantra?

“Standing on the shoulders of giants” is a metaphor which means “using the understanding gained by major thinkers who have gone before in order to make intellectual progress”. I was blessed with mentors like Doug Manship, John Barton, John Noland, Chuck McCoy, and John Davies; all giants in our community who were my mentors and taught me to give back and gave me the tools to make things happen. They were my inspiration and I think about them all the time and am grateful for their mentorship and kindness.

If you could describe your community in one sentence, what would you say?

A place I love and a work in progress. It is filled with people who love life and care about their hometown. It is home to my children and grandchildren and we need to make progress so they will stay here. It is LSU and Southern and Saturday night in Tiger stadium. It is a river city with a great history from French explorers to Huey Long and is filled with beautiful places and unique structures. It is a capitol city but maintains its small-town charm.

What inspires/motivates you to keep serving Baton Rouge?

It’s corny but I have said this many times. When I get on the elevator to go home each night, I reflect on the fact that someone in the office made a difference in someone’s life today. Maybe it was a scholarship or a grant to a non-profit, or a meeting and conversation that brought people together to solve problems or to start a new program. If BRAF was not here would those things happen? I am curious and impatient and I want to see things get done. I keep a “Dream” list of things I would like to see get done or cool exciting new things that would help keep our best and brightest here. I think we are making progress but that dream list is long.

When you have out of town guests, what do you insist they must see or do before leaving South Louisiana?

Eat and then eat some more! I try to show them true southern hospitality mixed in with business. I often try to show them some of our major projects like the Shaw Center and Manship Theatre, the Career and Technical High School or the McKay Automotive training center. I try to invite others to share our meals and conversations. I think I give a good tour of Baton Rouge and I combine that with my love of history showing them the beauty and unique places in our city. And sometimes I can get them behind the scenes or in places that are not always open to the public. I try to be a good host, tell stories and make them comfortable.

What skill do you consider to be your secret superpower?

I don’t know if it’s a secret but a combination of things. It’s the curiosity and impatience but I have also been blessed with a background that gave me communication skills and the ability to easily meet with people and engage them in my ideas. I think the different careers and skill sets they demanded, from broadcasting to running 15 diverse companies at the Powell Group provided a solid foundation for the work I do at BRAF. I also love what I do and work hard with others to make things happen and I don’t accept “no” for an answer.

Success rarely happens in a vacuum; who has helped support your work?

It’s always about building partnerships; nothing gets done without bringing people together. We have joked about my list of contacts. Because of my age and background, I know lots of people and combining that with the reputation of BRAF we can get others to join us. Those may be public officials, business people or citizens with a passion. I think they see our excitement about projects and want to be a part of that. On occasions I have said people would pay us to be able to be in our private dinners or meetings. Our meetings on the lakes project attracted hundreds of people. CEO’s and physicians readily agreed to be a part of the health district. Everyone wanted to support our bike share program. Success breeds success.

What has been your favorite project to date?

That is an impossible question. I love the Bridge Center because it saves lives and families every day. I love the McKay Automotive Training Center because it is named for my best friend’s dad who devoted his life to education and gives young people the state-of-the-art training they need. I love the lakes project because they deserve to be saved and thousands of people for years to come will enjoy their beauty. I love the autism project and get tears in my eye when I think of it because it gave voice to those that did not have the support they needed. I love the Water Institute and campus because their work will save this place we call home. And I love the train idea because people said it could not be done, it will create a connection between our cities and people and because I am little bit goofy about trains and can’t wait to ride it with my friends.

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