Building a community of courageous leaders for kids

Reflections on the Partnership’s annual retreat for Executive Directors


Image courtesy of Michelle Hughes.

Just a month into my tenure as executive director, I had the opportunity to share space with child advocacy leaders from all over the country during our 2023 Executive Directors’ Retreat. We spent time at the Annie E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore, which was our first in-person meeting in several years.

We strategized together, learned from each other, and encouraged each other to keep going and fight for policy changes that benefit our kids even when facing huge obstacles. I don’t think it’s acknowledged enough that leaders and advocates need space to rest and feel supported by each other, so it was such an important chance for the Partnership to offer this space to our members.

Committing to courageous leadership

One of the highlights of the retreat was the session led by our Board Co-Chairs, Kim Perry and Jenifer Wagley, called “Making Honey Together: The Courage to Lead in Disruptive Times.” Jenifer and Kim facilitated a supportive space for deep listening, storytelling, and connection. One of the themes that surfaced during that session was examining how we show up as courageous leaders and support the leadership of others.

During this session, we explored our stories as individuals and leaders and creatively expressed what we heard in one another’s stories. One personal insight I gained from this impactful session was how we define leadership. The notion of “leadership” can often push us to squeeze into a box based on our perception of other people’s expectations or even stereotypical images of leadership. But true strength is in showing up authentically as ourselves and being willing to have vulnerable moments as a leader.

Leading and learning as a network

The strength of the Partnership network is that our members all share the same collective purpose – we advocate for kids and families. Through this shared purpose, there are endless opportunities for learning from one another. During the retreat, we highlighted the expertise and wisdom within this peer community, from powerful conversations about building your organizational culture to succession planning and fundraising with an anti-racist framework.

Building for the future of child advocacy

Another theme that shaped the retreat was exploring what we are building for the future of children’s advocacy. We invited everyone to a strategic planning conversation that will inform the vision for the future of the Partnership. A key aspect of that future we’re building also hinges on supporting and amplifying the future leaders in child advocacy. We heard directly from youth advocates Aaliyana and Kayla, who joined Virginia’s Youth in Action, supported by Voices for Virginia’s Children. They talked about their engagement in policy advocacy and shared their perspectives on how child advocates can authentically partner with youth. It was a powerful closing conversation that invigorated and challenged us to amplify youth voices with intentionality.

Asking ourselves the right questions

In preparation for the retreat, I reflected on what drives me as a leader and shared my thoughts during the retreat. I shared that since becoming a parent, I often ask myself a question that I did not ask enough throughout my advocacy career, “How am I building a better future for my child?”

As advocates, professionals, and leaders, we often juggle competing interests. And sometimes, we feel the pressure to prioritize our political capital or only take a small risk in service to getting the policy win. Though these things feel important in a conversation with a lawmaker, they don’t always mean as much to the well-being of our kids. I wondered aloud with the leaders in the room how our advocacy and leadership might look different if we truly put children first. It might be more audacious, more urgent.

I walked away from the retreat with a renewed commitment to courageous leadership – even though it will sometimes push me beyond my comfort zone and dare me to take bigger risks for our children. I feel an urgency around that. It’s an honor to be part of a community of leaders who ask themselves the same question every day, “How am I building a better future for our children?” because our children’s futures are worth taking big risks.