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What if Our Society Truly Valued Community Leadership?

Vital Village Network’s 2020 National Community Leadership Summit, “Our Future, Our Communities,” brought together trail blazers, community leaders, advocates, practitioners, educators, and policymakers from across the country to reimagine our collective efforts to advance equity for children and families, exchange wisdom and pioneering strategies, and expand space for healing, restoration, and connections. The summit raised questions, sparked discussion, and offered tools and strategies for advancing racial equity and justice for communities of color and indigenous and immigrant communities throughout our beleaguered nation.

Our Future, Our Communities, the summit theme, was explored through four plenaries, over 30 sessions, workshops, panels, and two poster presentation forums and incorporated language justice, child enrichment, and creative arts over a dynamic two days.The very fact that the seventh annual summit was a virtual one underscores the challenges we face as COVID-19 takes a disproportionate toll on communities of color, both physically and economically.

The summit focused on two key questions—What does a society that values community leadership look like? And what resources would support immediate and long-term transformation to achieve community healing, equity, social justice, and much-needed policy change? The Summit built the capacities and relationships local leaders need to dismantle structural racism, mitigate childhood adversities, and advance equity and wellbeing for all children. The pioneering work presented in the resulting two days of programming answered these questions through interactive presentations and workshops organized in five tracks:

  • educational equity

  • health equity

  • social justice

  • advocacy

  • measurement

  • civic engagement & servant leadership

Each theme was explored in the context of addressing all forms of racism—internalized, interpersonal, institutional, and structural—and the resulting inequities in education, health, and community economic development.

The diversity of presenters, the inclusion of language justice, and representation of multiple perspectives on issues affecting our communities reflected an intentional commitment to inclusivity. Throughout the two days, the emphasis was on creating an environment in which

to learn from local wisdom gained through lived experience, practical lessons for community-based action, and key strategies to augment community leadership.

What does a society that values community leadership look like? The summit directly addressed community-led practices for promoting community healing and radical forgiveness and expanding connections and opportunities to work in solidarity by bringing more allies to the table to work together for social change. A society that at its core values community leadership honors the dignity of all people, appreciates and incorporates the wisdom and strengths of community social connections, and takes direct action to be anti-racist, acknowledging and working to dismantle systemic and structural racism

How do we come together? Running Water, also known as Danielle Hill, a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, opened the first plenary session on Day 1 of the summit with her inspiring story of community action spurring social change by stressing the importance of solidarity—positive activism that can emerge from coming together. What ignites us to come together in solidarity? Sharing her 20-day Sacred Fire Prayer Protest that brought thousands together, she described how prayer, intention, and gratitude form a foundation for creating opportunities for others to connect and join in solidarity to work towards social change. The prayer she offered, first in the language of her ancestors and then in English, asked for help “to see only what is good and to do only what is right.”

Little did she know when she lit a fire and kept it going for 20 days and nights, praying to the land, the waters, the birds, the plants, and everything that would feel the negative impact of the government’s decision to disestablish the Wampanoag reservation lands that it would lead to a nationwide prayer fire protest day. As a result of that act of positive activism rooted in spirituality, community, belief, and solidarity, a judge ruled against the Department of the Interior and upheld the rights of the Mashpee Wampanoag.

How do we restore and heal? The first keynote of the summit, “Developing Leadership Skills by Learning Calling In Practices,” was described by many who attended the summit as foundational to the conference experience. Loretta Ross offered the practice of “calling in” as a leadership strategy for bringing people into the human rights movement. But calling in is far more than an invitation to participate. Calling in begins with healing our relationships with ourselves and others, which requires radical forgiveness and radical love and gives those doing the calling an opportunity for self-reflection and correction. It breaks down silos and leads to alliances and partnerships that make inclusion and collaboration the norm. Building a calling in culture enables us to use our collective strengths to help heal the planet.

How do we repair and transform? Mayra Alvarez, President of The Children's Partnership, challenged attendees to sharpen their collective actions to disrupt oppressive systems. She specifically highlighted the need to prioritize children and young people in our policies and political agendas. Health equity cannot be achieved without racial justice. Stressing the importance of anti-racist policies, Alvarez deftly summarized the negative impacts of racism in all its ugly manifestations, especially the impact of family separation policies on child well-being. . In her closing keynote address, “Reimagining Child Well-Being Together: The Role of Race, Love, and the Power of Partnership,” she declared that “We cannot do right by all children in this country until we do right by black children, immigrant children, indigenous children, and other children of color.” Alvarez identified relationships and the bonds of family and communities as the factors protecting children from the trauma caused by “racial and ethnic inequalities, white supremacy, anti-blackness and structural racism” and the communities where families and children feel safe as the appropriate venue for delivering care, services, and supports they need to thrive. And how does that happen? How do we “find ways to disrupt oppressive systems and old ways of thinking to better serve children?” We do it collectively, through the power of partnership, working together to build a calling in culture and “muster the political will necessary to prioritize our children and young people.”

How do we reimagine and uplift? Jennie Joseph, the keynote speaker on Day #2, built on the accomplishments of the National Perinatal Task Force, which “seeks to dismantle the breed of oppression impacting communities of color [recognizing] strength in abundance and the breadth of our intersectional collective in order to harness the limitless power of our

lived experiences … in solidarity with our partners in movements for reproductive justice and all forms of social justice.” She emphasized that to achieve equity we must begin with respect for the dignity of individuals, appreciate the protective nature of community and the power of collective action, and provide practical, low-cost strategies, examples, and tools. Joseph’s keynote address, “Building a Movement to Birth a More Just and Loving World,” addressed the racial disparities in prematurity rates and maternal and infant mortality rates in the United States and highlighted her evidence-based maternity care model. The causes of the maternal mortality crisis are “straightforward,” she said., It is racism. It is classism.” She described a vision in which all women have what she referred to as the “four cornerstones” of the optimal pregnancy, birth, and parenting situation for very woman:

  • unimpeded access to culturally appropriate, quality care

  • connections between the woman, father or partner, and family and the “team” of providers, practitioners, ancillary staff, etc.

  • knowledge and information, not only for the mother and family, but also for providers and agencies,

  • empowerment

Jennie provided several examples of programs and various models for providing trauma-informed care, all of them emphasizing what is practical, doable, and achievable.

What resources support transformation to achieve racial equity, social justice, policy change, and community healing? This was a key question across all five programming tracks. Achieving educational equity will require acknowledgement that the norms for what constitutes a positive, safe, affordable child care environment or fair compensation for child care staff do not reflect the reality of black and brown communities. Neither do educational standards, practices, or values, all of which are shaped by and reflect white cultural expectations. That was a key message from Alycia Hardy (Policy Analyst, Child Care and Early Education, The Center for Law and Social Policy) in her discussion of how communities of color are impacted by the connection between disparities in access, affordability, and compensation and the long-standing systemic and structural barriers that perpetuate racial inequity and the people and organizations that drive research and funding, develop legislation, and implement policies. Hardy attributed this disconnect to the fact that educational policies typically are not established by the black and brown communities that are impacted by them. She described the current situation as the result of “the intentional development over many generations of interconnected systems of health, education, housing, job quality… designed to maintain the power of white communities and minimize the power of black and other communities of color” and stated that “there needs to be the same degree of intentionality in dismantling the foundation of inequity as there was in creating it.”

Dr. Phil Fisher (University of Oregon) and Meme Styles (MEASURE) similarly highlighted existing structural educational inequities that have widened during the COVID-19 pandemic and called for communities to transform educational leadership by taking the lead with data collection and creation to support policy development. Fisher shared results of a survey aimed at understanding how experiences shape development, emphasizing that structural inequalities based on race and ethnicity and family structure that existed prior to the pandemic are clearly increasing during the pandemic. Styles discussed engaging communities in data collection to guide responses to the twin pandemics of COVID-19 and racial injustice, stressing that communities need to manage their own research, control and analyze the data, and use it to eliminate disparities in education and improve the well-being of the community. Her organization, MEASURE, has developed several tools offered free of charge to black and brown-led organizations, specifically: the Care (Community Advocacy, Resilience, and Evidence) model, a community mobilization tool that acknowledges the potential for data-driven harm to black and brown people and the need to connect community voices to research to provide the basis for meaningful community action; the Community Impact Metric Tool, a performance indicators tool that helps organizations create their own metrics; and the Equity-Centered Focus Group tool that aids in putting together focus groups that reflect the community under study.

Sessions in the health equity track focused on resources for intentional community self-healing. For example, Dave Ellis (New Jersey Department of Children and Families) presented the Community Capacity Development model for building self-healing communities. This public health model is based on a 4-phase process for nurturing the development of healthy and productive adults regardless of their background and life circumstances. The goal is to “solve interrelated problems by improving people’s connections, their shared responsibility, and the collective impact of their efforts.” The four phases of the model— leadership expansion, coming together, shared learning, and results-oriented decision-making—all use the resources of the community, including its people power. A key takeaway was the idea that “neighboring” can be used as a verb in the sense of coming together around issues that matter, sharing knowledge and leveraging collective resources to achieve systemic change.

The panel session “Feeding Our Babies for the Future” promoted the view of

breastfeeding as a public health issue, not a lifestyle choice, and discussed strategies to help improve breastfeeding equity by unmasking the biases and systemic differences in care received by women of color. Charlene Fraser spoke to the need to normalize breastfeeding in a time when convenience takes precedence over “morals and traditions in the areas of maternal and child health.” She shared the example of the work that Vital Village and members of the Boston Breastfeeding Coalition are doing to support mothers and babies through a telephone hotline. Lonias Gilmore made the case for recognizing health and well-being, especially maternal and child health, as basic human rights. Differences in health outcomes and experiences between groups of people tend to be systemic and have

community implications, and because they are unnecessary and avoidable, they are unfair and unjust. Gilmore urged us to devise ways to eliminate common barriers to breastfeeding and increase workplace support for nursing mothers. Paige Belevieau presented information about the CHAMPS (Communities and Hospitals Advancing Maternity Practices) initiative intended to improve breastfeeding rates and maternal health practices in hospitals in Mississippi, which has one of the highest infant mortality rates and lowest breast-feeding rates in the country. CHAMPS partnered with Mississippi hospitals to help them achieve the baby friendly hospital designation, assisting them with training, data collection and data analysis. Race-based data was collected from 2014 to mid-2020 through patient chart reviews, to support determination of any racial disparities with regard to three variables:

1) breastfeeding initiation

2) breastfeeding exclusivity

3) the availability of rooming in

Some of these practices weren’t even available in many hospitals at the start of the study period, but as hospitals began implementing them, they did so across all racial groups. Rates of breastfeeding increased significantly, especially among Black patients, racial disparities have decreased, and hospitals working with CHAMPS now account for half of all hospitals in the state designated as baby friendly.

Bending the Arc towards Equitable Community Leadership. The social justice track highlighted beloved community practices for developing more equitable community leadership. The “Beloved Community in Practice” presenters shared lessons learned from the transformative practices of the Berkeley Education and Early Care Collective and the Voices and Choices for Children Coalition and challenged us to envision a world in which all early childhood institutions respect and honor the dignity and choice of all children of color and their families. The connection between building the beloved community and building a calling in culture was apparent in the question, “What are you doing to invite others who should be a part of the conversation?” One of the tools suggested for answering such questions and exploring issues affecting a community is the Indaba negotiation tactic for achieving consensus, which session participants had an opportunity to apply in a breakout session devoted to identifying barriers to implementing the beloved community model in their own communities.

The presenters described some of the practices used by their respective organizations. For example, Berkeley early education and care collectives in South Carolina are working to build an integrated mental health framework to improve birth outcomes for pregnant women and increase socioeconomic development outcomes for children from birth to age six through community conversations and engaging policymakers. Voices and Choices for Children uses a dignity and beloved community framework in its legislative advocacy work to improve outcomes for children of color and Native American children. The idea for the legislation came from the community, led by a steering committee composed entirely of people of color and Native Americans, and the concept of dignity and beloved community was throughout the testimony of community members during the legislative journey.

Transformative Community Capacity. The advocacy and measurement track pointed out the power for change that already exists in communities and showcased examples of how empowering community residents and making them data owners is critical to using community data for meaningful advocacy and action.

The Healthy Neighborhood Study is a participatory action research project collecting data centered on neighborhoods and health in nine communities in eastern Massachusetts over the last five years. The presenters of “Using Data for Action” outlined the five-step research process used: 1) recruiting community partners and resident researchers; 2) understanding the neighborhood change health and development research questions and tailoring them to the specific community; 3) collecting data; 4) discussing and analyzing the data; 5) developing the regional action justice findings for resident researchers to report back to the community and establish community ownership of change. They concluded by identifying three key takeaways from the project experience: 1) participatory action research gives community residents empowerment and ownership and a sense that they are valued; 2) embracing the culture in researching and planning action makes community members feel safe and healthy; 3) “residents and community partners know best when it comes to developing research about their communities and using it for action.”

Dr. Xavier Morales and Jenna Garde from the Praxis Project posed the question, “How do we gain the trust of the community and honor, respect, value, and leverage community wisdom for meaningful change in public health?” The Praxis Project works with national and community partners to improve health, justice, and racial equity for all communities by harnessing and focusing the power for change that already exists in communities. Building a base by working with trusted community partners instills confidence and trust in solutions. It’s not uncommon to find by working with community partners that what outsiders believe to be the root cause of a perceived problem really isn’t. The best solutions, solutions that really fit the problems and are defensible, come from within the community. The base building that Praxis does is key to eliminating the disparity between the advances in health outcomes for the population as a whole and those in communities of color that are directly impacted by “widespread structural systems of historical oppression and discrimination” and the Institutionalized policies and practices they have created.

How do we welcome new Leadership? The civic engagement and servant leadership track looked at ways to bring new voices into community activism and leadership. The Group Peer Support (GPS) model enables community residents to call ourselves in together in a way that allows everyone to show up fully as themselves and speak their truths without fear of being judged. GPS is a trauma-informed approach that allows people to talk openly about their lived experience and understand that there’s nothing wrong with us other than that living in an oppressive system distorts our views of relationships and what we think is true about ourselves. GPS creates a space where healing can begin and people can become the parents that they want to be. It enables each of us to recognize our strength, resilience, and competence and our ability to become leaders—to lead in our own lives, our family, our neighborhood, and our community.

A panel of young presenters provided examples of youth leadership and how it can guide our journey to achieving racial justice. Citizens for Juvenile Justice advocates on behalf of young people at risk of or with actual legal system involvement, working with youth organizers who, among other accomplishments, successfully lobbied the legislature for the clearance of juvenile records. The Chica Project connects young Latinas and women of color with a network of accomplished professionals to offer mentoring, leadership development, career exploration, network development, and opportunities for civic engagement and community service. Social Responsibility through Me is growing local youth leadership by engaging youth where they are and letting them come up with and create their own leadership opportunities, such as working with New Jersey Youth for Justice on the “Enough” campaign to get the governor to close all of the youth prisons in New Jersey. Through programs like these, young people develop communication and leadership skills, learn to collaborate with others and work collectively, explore issues like racism, social justice, and social responsibility, identify problems in their own community, and find innovative ways to address them.

How do we elevate collective leadership? Dr. Renee Boynton Jarrett closed the summit by urging participants to continue “striving for a beloved community where love is etched into our policies … our systems [and] structures …. The love of community and the collective responsibility for children in our community.” She thanked everyone for “leaning in to collective actions and collective spaces” where honesty, vulnerability, and expressions of pain, disappointment, and anger can be shared. She asked participants to come up with one word to describe what they felt called to elevate and change. The resulting list included: community, love, justice, dignity, listening, decision-making, history, research, conversations, hope, leaders, evaluation, systems, equity, narratives, unity, youth, space, collaboration, myself, conversation, resilience, innovation, access, vulnerability, collaboration, truth, partnership, history, vote, voices, systems, community. And from those who couldn’t capture their thoughts in a single word: structural oppression, radical creativity, narrative stories, revolutionary love, daily actions, community voice, and calling in. In response to the summit evaluation question, “What skills or knowledge did you gain from the Summit that will be most useful to your work or volunteerism?” participants identified the following: Calling in as a leadership skill; to listen to others and self; self-care; leading peer groups; breaking down systems of oppression; tools to use to start the conversation; village model mentality; community engagement; health equity data; frameworks and tools for participatory action research; using data for advocacy, activism and community action. These are what will enable us to meet that call for elevation and change and as Boynton-Jarrett shared to continue “shaping, molding, and building the world that we ream so that it can be a reality for all of the children to fulfill their purpose, their promise, and their potential.”

Finally, Tiffany Rodriguez of Vital Village Networks left us with these transformative words from Harriet Tubman: “Every great dream begins with the dreamer. Always remember that you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world."

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