Far too often we associate leadership with power, status, and authority.  But with this narrow outlook, we often tend to forget about the leaders closest to us: local leaders. These local leaders, the people who care deeply about community issues, who implement initiatives and who shape local development, represent a huge window of opportunity for global social change.  With their direct contact with communities, local leaders are uniquely positioned to push forward ideas, galvanize others and create immediate social impact.  And we believe that harnessing this opportunity is key to fulfilling the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Local leaders are an untapped power in the global arena.  A single leader can create an endless chain of social change—to meet the SDGs, we need to work closely with them.  If we enable local leaders, not only can we tackle global challenges faster and more effectively, but we can create a ripple effect.

The Dr Alaa Murabit Mentorship Programme does exactly that. From coaching selected participants in public speaking, policy writing and leadership skills to engaging them in political and social fora, the programme supports young leaders to fulfil their aspirations. Participants are individuals often ignored in the decision-making of the international system—women, minorities and youth—putting Sustainable Development Goal 5 (gender equality) at the heart of the programme’s values.

Moreover, we’ve guided these leaders to view the world from a sustainability lens. Promoting dialogue between participants, an interesting finding of ours has been the effect of the programme on their vision of the interconnection of the SDGs.  For Michael Smith, a leader from this year’s cohort, the SDGs “highlight and typify the idea that our global community is a continuum—that health, economics, equality, and the environment are not standalone issues”. Nayana Bijili, one of our first leaders from the mentorship programme, also believes that they “force us to envision the world future generations will grow up in”.  This understanding of the intersection of social issues with the SDGs is and will remain the key to developing leaders with impact.

The most tangible finding of all, though, has been the immediate “domino effect” of our mentorship.  With each young leader working on a personal project of their own, they’ve already begun to make a mark on their local communities.  One such project is “Futuros Abogados Descalzos” (Future Barefoot Lawyers), an initiative by Aàron Rodriguez-Amaya that provides underprivileged communities in El Salvador with legal access via law students and young lawyers.  He believes that local leadership is “contagious”, with his project inspiring more young people to become closely involved in their communities. Benya Kraus, another participant from our first batch of leaders, also felt particularly enthused by the end of the mentorship programme: “I am amazed and humbled by the trajectory of growth I’ve experienced, and I am also so grateful, as I know mentorships like this are truly hard to come by, but leave their impact on you forever”.  Her experiences with us have led to a continued path of inspirational leadership and, most recently, her running for and winning the student union presidency at her university.

In a short period of time, the mentorship programme has inspired a new generation of young local leaders and set forth a ripple of change.  However, mentorship alone is not enough.  Dialogue and collaboration among young leaders and the wider public is also needed to reach the SDGs.

With this in mind, we’ve developed Omnis Institute.  In the spirit of the mentorship programme, Omnis Institute provides a platform for local leaders around the world to excel through sustainable leadership training, mentorship and a model of continuous long-term support.  With a focus on implementing the SDGs, we aim to develop local leaders into vital assets for their communities and provide a means for their voices to be heard, not just by those in their immediate community, but also by the wider world. Moreover, by directly fulfilling Sustainable Development Goal 17 (strengthening the means of SDG implementation), we also envision the natural attainment of all 17 Global Goals for Sustainable Development, particularly goals 1 through to 5 (ending poverty and hunger, promoting health, providing quality education and achieving gender equality).

As part of this commitment, we’ve selected Colombia as our first target region. Despite their longstanding role in peacebuilding processes, local leaders have long been neglected by global and national policymakers alike.  What stands out, though, is the diminished political and social interest in supporting these leaders, particularly after peace process negotiations fell through earlier this year.  We chose Colombia because supporting local leadership is even more essential in the absence of political support.  Omnis Institute aims to create a network from existing empowered local leaders in Colombia that can bring voice to their causes, add a more local perspective to a shared global platform, and push them to the forefront of national and global conversations.  Colombia is only the first country in our list; we intend to create local understanding in many other parts of the world. This is, in fact, one of Omnis’s core principles: along with providing mentorship to emerging minority leaders, we must learn from and amplify the voices of local leaders in environments that lack global attention and support.

A single leader can create an endless chain of social change.  A ripple effect.  Now imagine what a global network of leaders could achieve.

Dr. Alaa Murabit is a SDG Advocate and a co-founder of Omnis Institute.