What It Means to be a Community of Practice with Kamatara Johnson

As the Chief Learning Officer for Circles USA (CUSA) and one of the key planners for our 2019 Leadership Conference, I’ve been asked quite a few times about my key takeaways and the best part of our time together. There was a lot on which to reflect:110 participants representing 24 states plus D.C., 28 breakout sessions, three featured speakers, and everything that happened in between. It really comes down to one realization for me: This conference embodied the difference between a network and a community of practice.

We insist that Circles USA is not a program–it is an initiative. Similarly, I now know from my experience at the conference: we are not a network–we truly are a community of practice.

A community of practice can be defined as the place where domain, practice, and community meet. Our domain is ending poverty. Our practice is all of the learning and innovation that continue to keep this initiative relevant and potent. Our community consists of concentric circles: local, county, neighboring communities, state, nation, and globe.

While CUSA exists in 70+ Chapters and now four Poverty Reduction Labs, locations are not a franchise. It’s not about wearing the same blue and white polo shirt; it’s not about checking a box. Each Chapter and Lab is empowered to use the model and its best practices and then customize in ways that make sense for that community. We have a dynamic (not static) domain within which to do powerful work to end poverty.

Then the practice expands and deepens as Chapters and Labs share their innovations with each other. The conference’s 28 breakout sessions were almost entirely presented by people in Circles: we have passionate and skilled experts in-house. As we say in Circles, “everyone has something to learn, and everyone has something to give.” The conference held space to honor innovation, to elevate the voices of our leaders and visionaries, and to inspire each other to take risks. Ending poverty is pioneering work!

What is special about our sharing is the sense of care and attention to people in Circles give to each other. There’s support professionally and personally. I knew regardless of what we planned for the conference, the most important sessions would happen in the in-between — the unscripted time of breaks, meals, and nighttime activities. These moments build the intentional friendships that fuel Circles on every level. This bonding gives us the motivation and courage to persevere upon returning home and facing whatever obstacles may be in the way of standing in our truth and ending poverty. Our work is more potent because of each other.

And so we live the Circles model of moving communities from surviving to thriving, developing courage and skills to change the system, and supporting each other to persevere. The values of Circles is reflected in the larger structure for how Chapters and Labs function and relate to each other. Everyone in Circles USA is positively impacted.

My goal at the CUSA Headquarters is to continue to encourage this connection with each other. I aim to support innovation and to push the boundaries of what people think is possible.

It’s easy to feel busy — nose-to-the-grindstone — forgetting to look up and around. But we have a dynamic and meaningful community of practice here that is as good as you engage with it. Make time for the webinars, the monthly network calls, and the wellness calls with CUSA staff. Read the newsletters, save money in your budget to attend the next Leadership Conference, and above all, reach out to each other and know you’re not alone.