By Dr. Isaac Cudjoe, Co-CEO at Peace First

Today marks a year since I began my journey at Peace First, and as I venture into this reflection, I am determined to be transparent and sincere. For the past twelve months, I’ve grappled with the paradox of leadership. To the world, I was granted an exceptional opportunity to co-lead a 30-year-old organization and carry forward a legacy of profound impact on young lives. That is an undeniable truth. However, it isn’t the entire truth. My private experiences are the chapters that shape the core of this leadership journey for me.

In the world’s tapestry, people like me (in the various identities I proudly call my own) are often represented as beneficiaries of change, not weavers. In this experience, the loom and thread fell into my hands, challenging me to weave my own pattern that could inspire others like me. The past year has been a dance with doubt and opportunity, but it also echoed the vibrancy of faith. While the world saw growth and successes, they missed parts of the story I now want to share.

On my first Friday at Peace First, I held a “team hangout” for staff to get to know me better. At the end of the call, one colleague remained. I thought he’d ask me more challenging questions or share what he hopes to see come out of my leadership, but instead, he said something profound to me. He told me that when he read my name and saw who I was, he was touched because he never imagined that someone like me, no someone like us, would ever be given a chance to lead an organization like this. He shared that he was proud of me and wished me the best of luck on the road ahead. His words, and many other words of encouragement, stayed with me this year, and I’m not sure anyone knew how much I’d need it for the road ahead.

I wanted to write and tell you a triumphant story of how we turned a tiresome fundraising obstacle into a hopeful runway. I wanted to share financial figures and inspiring milestones. I wanted to tell you about the places I’ve been and the people I’ve met that have inspired me to love this work more. But all of that would only be part of the story. It would only be complete if you also heard my stories of the challenging moments.

If I tell you about fundraising wins, I have to tell you about the losses.

If I tell you about the places I’ve traveled, I have to tell you about the racism I experienced in hotel lobbies, train stations, and more.

If I tell you about the highs, then I should tell you about the lows because this, too, is leadership.

This journey has often felt like a raw climb, one I’ve known my whole life. Challenges presented themselves as stern teachers. There were days when self-doubt was overwhelming and long shadows of uncertainty were near. But in those challenging moments, I remembered my colleague’s encouragement. His reminder that this isn’t the norm, but I deserve to be here, has served as a beacon, guiding me through the most challenging terrain.

As a young leader, I came to understand the power of representation. One of the most rewarding aspects of this journey was seeing the spark of recognition in the eyes of others who saw themselves in my story. For me, this hasn’t just been my leadership journey. It is our journey. And it was not without its costs. There were many evenings when I returned home, exhausted, carrying the weight of decisions that did not unfold as planned, the sting of mistakes freshly made. These experiences were as important to my leadership journey as the triumphs and milestones.

At Peace First, we’re building a culture that cherishes the voice of every member. Our diversity isn’t just our strength; it’s our heartbeat. Our collective victories and shared struggles form the rhythm that drives us forward. Our pursuit is not a race for perfection but a continuous journey of learning and improvement.

This year has helped me learn that leadership isn’t about being flawless. It’s about authenticity, transparency, and, most importantly, growth. It’s about painting a complete picture, not just the parts bathed in sunlight but also those that dwell in the shadows. It was a test of resilience and adaptability, a realization that sometimes, leadership means painting with all the colors, even the dark shades of hardship and struggle. Leadership embraces the full spectrum of experiences, even when the colors run deep and challenging.

To both young and older leaders, remember: your story is your power. The world needs to hear it in its whole, unvarnished truth. There is immense strength in authenticity. Wear your journey proudly and continue to weave the tapestry of change. The world is waiting, eager to embrace the profound impact we can create together.