By Xochilt Hernandez Levia, Co-CEO at Peace First

“Pana Pana” and “Biri Biri” are the ancestral terms the Miskitu and Mayangna people in Nicaragua use to describe the practice of sharing. These concepts were imparted to me early in my professional career as an anthropologist on the Nicaraguan Caribbean coast. The community leaders I had the privilege of working with made it their mission to ensure I understood them. The idea wasn’t foreign to me; as an older sister, sharing was a foundational part of my own upbringing. However, these terms encapsulate a sense of community that was new to me. For this reason, I now want to reflect on these words after my first year as Co-CEO at Peace First.

The truth is, co-leadership revolves around sharing: the challenges, the excitement, the burdens, and crucially, the learning and growth. It isn’t about equality but proportionality. The sharing, as embodied in “Pana Pana” and “Biri Biri,” occurs based on each individual’s unique conditions, identities, experiences, backgrounds, and personal characteristics. So, although each co-leader experiences differently, the magic of co-leadership lies in the willingness to share and build bonds, not only with your co-leader but also with the broader community we’re part of. This sentiment perfectly encapsulates my past year.

At the heart of co-leadership is shared responsibility, collective decision-making, and mutual trust. It operates on the belief that two heads are indeed better than one. Yet, I would take it a step further and emphasize that it relies on continuous mutual and collective learning. My Co-CEO, Isaac Cudjoe, and I stepped into these roles at a time when Peace First was undergoing its own learning journey. We didn’t just join an organization transitioning from its founder and long-serving CEO, but a living community consciously seeking growth in ways that better reflected its vision for a just and equitable world, built through the leadership and collective power of young leaders worldwide.

My partnership with Isaac has been integral to the beginning of Peace First’s new chapter. We shared a vision of Peace First as not just a robust organization embodying its values, but, more importantly, one that places its community at the heart of everything we do. Establishing that vision while navigating the inherent challenges of a leadership transition (along with the added complexities of being two leaders of color) was no easy feat. Yet, learning from and trusting each other, our staff, board, donors, and wider youth network, formed the cornerstone of our successful strategy this year.

Reflecting on the past year, I am immensely proud of our achievements at Peace First. We continued to partner with young people, reached new leaders in new countries, and expanded our global community. We also took the conscious risk of questioning our impact model, and innovating program offerings, and began an organizational learning process that will continue into the next year. These successes have only strengthened my belief in the power and potential of co-leadership, but behind them, lies one important lesson. Just as we approach the co-leading challenge, it is impossible to unlock this power and potential if we don’t lean into each other with honesty and transparency, owning our authentic selves. As I dwelled with insecurities, doubts, and exhaustion, the conscious choice of leaning into each other brought the best in me to grow even further as the leader I wanted to be for Peace First. Just like in “Pana Pana” and “Biri Biri,” the sharing will not build community if it is not authentic and honest.

I am optimistic about Peace First’s future under our co-leadership. We plan to strengthen our commitment to facilitating learning, demonstrating our trust, and building a community around and for young leaders globally. I am committed to continually evolving, learning, and innovating. After a year at the helm of Peace First with my Co-CEO, my conviction in the power of co-leadership is stronger than ever.

In conclusion, the prefix “co” has been my favorite aspect of this leadership journey and is fundamental to my leadership style. It was the allure of co-leadership that motivated me to apply for this role. I had seen too many examples of leadership styles in corporations and institutions that failed to align with my values and often lapsed into narcissism, authoritarianism, and personal gain. For me, the “co” in co-leadership encapsulates Peace First’s values of collaboration, compassion, and courage. But it also adds a fourth value, reflected in “Pana Pana” and “Biri Biri” and is central to my journey: community, the community that welcomed us, the community we are building and are committed to, the community we are learning from.

So, now, I would like to invite you all to share your thoughts. How have you experienced collaboration in leadership? How can we avoid falling into leadership models that distance us from our values, and what does the “co” in “co-leadership” mean to you?