11/27/2013 03:21 pm ET Updated Jan 27, 2014

Sparking Greatness Through Community Leadership

When I first started practicing law with the North Central Legal Assistance Program in Durham, North Carolina, I had the chance to work side by side with neighborhood residents, grassroots leaders and local activists trying to make their community better for their children and themselves. This meant showing up at City Hall to make sure Community Development Block Grant funds actually benefitted their neighborhoods. It meant organizing to stop an interstate highway that threatened to fracture the physical connectedness of their homes and destroy the essential bonds of social capital so essential to a child's growing up. It meant ordinary people doing extraordinary things because their community needed them and they needed their community.

In my current role as President and CEO of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, I often think of those neighbors and everyday citizens who held their kids on their laps during City Council meetings and then went back home, working side-by-side to make their neighborhoods safer, cleaner and more playful. At WKKF, we believe that the best way to create real opportunities for vulnerable children is at the community level -- working with those who already have a deep understanding of their community, its networks and its needs. If one person can be equipped with the skills they need to make an impact, they create a spark within their community that ignites change in those around them. Individual engagement becomes community engagement.

Rooted in this approach, the foundation seeks to elevate community leaders and develop their skills using a new paradigm defined by three key tenets -- community, network and place. To deliver on this promise we're launching the WKKF Community Leadership Network, a new fellowship program that will support community-based leaders in the foundation's priority places -- Michigan, Mississippi, New Mexico and New Orleans -- who can be transformative change agents on behalf of vulnerable children.

Leaders can be found in unlikely places. This was evident in my work in Durham and it's something the foundation has seen time and again through our fellowship programs. Working with more than 1,300 past fellows on a variety of issues, we've seen local farmers, assistant professors and second-shift community organizers develop their leadership skills and take on projects that create positive social change. Past fellows have gone on to become legislators, judges, presidents of universities and founders of nonprofit organizations. Their ranks include former U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin, Pew Charitable Trust President Dr. Rebecca Rimmel and World Bank President Dr. Jim Yong Kim. As a part of the WKKF Community Leadership Network, a new generation of community-based fellows will emerge.

The spark to engage a community can come from anyone -- the small business owner, the local city council member, an early education teacher, the community gardener, the pastor. The key is identifying emerging and established leaders who embody a diversity of perspective -- those with a readiness to embrace collaborative work and seek out community partners and those with a willingness to mentor and be mentored while exploring respectful, creative opportunities for action.

We know that leadership and learning go hand in hand. We recognize that when wisdom and know-how come together to support children's best interests, entire communities can thrive. And we know that one spark in a community -- whether it's a neighborhood in Detroit, a Native American reservation in New Mexico or the city hall of Durham, North Carolina -- can make an impact and create better opportunities for children.