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Coalition Building: Key Takeaways from the 2023 National Community Leadership Summit

November 14, 2023

By Gabrielle Cockerham, NOW Practicum Student

Contributions and edits by Vital Village Networks Staff, Diana Rivera, Program Manager and Corin Bauman, Program Coordinator.

Community leadership plays a pivotal role in empowering neighborhoods, fostering trust, and promoting growth. This year's National Community Leadership Summit brought together passionate leaders and organizations, each with their unique perspectives on how to address this year's theme of inspiring joy, justice, and healing through collective leadership. One commonality throughout Summit sessions was the insight and wisdom shared to better understand the essence of coalition building in community leadership.

In the first session block of the Summit, the panel discussion Educating to Liberate: Building Strong Partnerships for Early Care and Education helped set the tone for the summit, emphasizing that building communities isn't about gimmicks; it's about creating genuine spaces for parents, children, and guardians to connect and grow together. Karla Guerrero, a Parent Leader with First Teacher since 2015 and the current Director of Programming, highlighted the importance of prioritizing the "how" over the "what." This message resonates deeply because it reminds us that genuine efforts to understand what community members want out of programming are far more valuable than using superficial strategies to get temporary increases in participation.

First Teacher's commitment to hiring parent participants exemplifies their dedication to building authentic partnerships and touches on the importance of diversifying community leadership groups and coalitions so that everyone has the opportunity to be heard. As Dinah Shepherd, Co-Founder and Co-Director of First Teacher, stated, "families are always the experts in their own lives." This acknowledgment of parental wisdom emphasizes the necessity to include knowledgeable parties of all titles as part of emerging coalitions.


The speakers in the session Community Centered Model for Food Markets as a Pathway to Civic Engagement brought a broader perspective to coalition building, reminding us that we must see the entire community to understand it. They stressed the interconnectedness of the community and the idea that supporting one another is integral to the community's health. The saying, "When I feed you, I feed myself," shared by Jamie Gonzalez, a 2023 Community Food Systems Fellow and Founder of the BIG FRESH Market Box and Produce Markets in San Antonio, TX, underscores the symbiotic relationship that coalitions must prioritize within their communities in order to make long-lasting change.


Vital Village Networks’ 10th National Community Leadership Summit and the sessions held provided a wealth of insights into effective coalition building. The importance of authenticity, respect, and consistency were underscored as critical elements in community leadership through the wisdom of many national leaders and changemakers. As we work together to build stronger communities, we must remember that by supporting one another, we, in turn, support ourselves.


About the Author

Born and raised in Central Ohio, Gabrielle Cockerham moved to Boston to pursue an education in Community Health. She is currently a Master of Public Health candidate at the Boston University School of Public Health, specializing in Program Management with a strong focus on Maternal and Child Health. Her journey in Public Health has been guided by a deep commitment to building healthier communities, particularly among young people.

Gabrielle's professional journey has included working with various impactful organizations, including Peer Health Exchange in Boston Public Schools and EPECARE's Junior Responder Program for emergency preparedness, further strengthening her experience in working with local teens on youth-led projects. In June 2023, she embarked on an exciting collaboration with Vital Village Networks' national team, the Networks of Opportunity for Child Wellbeing (NOW) initiative. This new endeavor is fueled by the continued desire to contribute to the betterment of children's health and overall well-being on a national level and collaborate in making a lasting impact on the health and future of our communities.

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