Last October, over 150 Circles USA staff, volunteers, partners, and friends convened at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church (UMC) in Orlando, FL for our 2023 National Leadership Conference. Our first in-person convening since 2019 was incredibly inspirational, engaging our robust community of practice all across the nation. We gathered not only to reconnect with the mission, the message, and the model, but to share innovations and to begin to imagine: What does poverty alleviation look like going forward? 

“This year, our theme has been Deepening and Expanding Circles,” CUSA executive director Kamatara Johnson noted in her opening remarks. “CUSA is always committed to deepening the quality of what we offer in the national office, just as much as you all in the field are committed to improving your chapter and deepening the expression of the Circles model in your community. We’re all working to do what we do better, deeper, stronger.”

The 2023 conference brought together a diverse, dynamic group of Circles USA participants, from people overcoming financial obstacles to funders, policy-makers, and national partners. Our schedule was chock full of knowledge-sharing and fellowship around CUSA’s local, statewide, and national efforts to end poverty.


Circle Leaders Step into the Spotlight

At this year’s Leadership Conference, we began a new tradition: opening our time together with keynote addresses by Circle Leaders, those who have lived experiences of poverty and are closest to the issues we work together to solve. 

Annette, Tim, Carmen, and partners John and Rebecca each shared powerful messages of transformation and hope that set the tone for an incredible week. Building on our 2023 theme of Deepening and Expanding, these Circle Leaders described how the Circles experience has changed their knowledge and perspective of poverty and prosperity; improved their financial and social skills; helped them reach personal goals; and supported them in sharing their unique voices within their chapters and communities.

Tim Rodgers of Circles West Orange, FL, described how his recovery from a personal injury became an opportunity to connect with his community. “Circles is about overcoming poverty,” he said. “Although I have not fully accomplished that end financially, I have grown to be far more than who I was when I began my journey.”

Carmen Gonzalez of Circles Northwest Arkansas spoke on how CUSA helped her grow trust alongside financial stability. “Before Circles,” Carmen recalled, “I didn’t have a lot of faith in humanity. I didn’t believe in community; I didn’t have people I could depend on locally. I joined Circles and met people who genuinely cared and wanted me to succeed in ways that no one has ever wanted for me before. That was life-changing for me and my family.”

Annette Brown, a longtime leader in Circles West Orange, FL, discussed the ways in which Circles connections helped her advocate for herself and stand in her power: “I hope that my sharing at the Circles conference will help other Circle Leaders to gain courage,” she said, “to step up and be seen and heard in their most authentic way possible. And to give everyone else in the room a glimpse into my life living in poverty, and out of the same lens, see me today for the woman I have become, no longer living below the poverty guidelines.”

Finally, couple John and Rebecca Fabanwo (Circles Upstate SC) appeared side-by-side in a recorded message. Together they shared how they’re boldly paving the way for others through their nonprofit work that supports those in need. John remarked: “Our nonprofit, Hearts of Compassion, was started out of necessity and love for the community. We connect with local businesses to receive donations, then partner with local churches for a safe location to give away the non-perishable items to those in need in the communities. We believe that good hygiene and basic cleaning products for a family’s home are essential to give one pride, wellness and ambition to go out and succeed.”

Keynote VIPs Emphasize Empathy, Philanthropy

To lead us in our work of expanding CUSA’s impact, board member and partner Christy Vines delivered a plenary talk entitled “Taking a Big View: Disrupting the Systems of Poverty with Empathy.” Christy (a featured presenter at our 2021 Virtual Leadership Conference) is the founder and president of Ideos Institute, a global leader in the research and understanding of empathic intelligence and its application to human relationships, social cohesion, and cultural change. Learn more about empathy and the Ideos-Circles USA partnership here.


Mark Brewer (President/CEO of Central Florida Foundation) wrapped our conference keynote series with flair. His talk on strategies for independent sector workers (a.k.a. nonprofits) to engage philanthropic partners’ “heads, hearts, and wallets” was clear and galvanizing. Read more about Mark’s work at our blog, or enjoy his keynote talk now:


24 breakout sessions over three days addressed pressing issues for chapters throughout our Circles network, such as the intersection of poverty and mental health; new ways to tackle the Cliff Effect; and emerging trends in philanthropy. Experts from universities, nonprofits, and community-rooted organizations across the country presented new data on topics like trauma sensitive approaches to Circles; ways chapters can support Spanish-speaking Circles; empathy tools for systemic change; and leadership pathways for Circle Leaders. 

One session, “Community Engagement” was presented by Lamont Hampton, Circles Davis County who was joined virtually by Councilwoman Nike Peterson in Clearfield City, UT. Together, they emphasized engaging the whole community as critical to chapters’ success and shared concrete examples, including useful interactions with city officials, as we work together to move all our community members from surviving to thriving.

“When Tragedy Strikes…Preparing, Processing and Responding With Care,” presented by Addie Hartnett, Circles Central FL; and Bruce Forbes, Circles Upstate SC, thoughtfully addressed best practices in preparing for and responding to community-wide tragedies affecting Circles chapters.

And “Disrupting Unconscious Bias to Build Better Relationships,” presented by Mariam Mengistie, St. Luke’s United Methodist Church (partner to Circles Central Florida), taught strategies for identifying and understanding biases, as well as tools for disrupting them on personal, interpersonal, cultural, and institutional levels.


Throughout the week, a series of special sessions showcased Circes USA leadership at every level. 

A CUSA Board Panel discussion featured longtime board members, Joan Kuriansky, Jim Masters, and Jennifer Pelling in dialogue about topics including Big View innovations, emerging philanthropic trends, and future directions for Circles USA national leadership.

The 2023 Circles USA Network Awards brought attendees to their feet in celebration of the people blazing trails in chapter leadership. Established in 2014, CUSA’s Network Awards celebrate the best of what our chapters do out in the world. This year, we received our highest-ever volume of nominations due to the outstanding leadership so many of you demonstrate in your work building community to end poverty. Awardees included:

  • Best Video: Circles NWA
  • Best Data Results: Circles Upstate SC
  • Best Social Media: Circles Salt Lake
  • Best Newsletter: Circles Salt Lake
  • Outstanding Circle Leader: Carly Maine (Circles in Columbus)
  • Outstanding Circle Leader: Carmen Gonzalez (Circles NWA)
  • Outstanding Ally: Sandi Wallace (Circles West Orange)
  • Outstanding Allies: Van and Lauren Schwiebert (Circles Hilton Head)
  • Outstanding Resource Team Volunteer: Beth Witten (Circles Central Florida)
  • Outstanding Coordinator: Emily Gilbertson (Circles NWA)
  • Outstanding Coach: Joyce Schoepp (Circles Sauk Prairie). 

For more information on our 2023 Network Award winners, visit our blog.

Other offerings during conference week included the opportunity to attend a weekly meeting on Tuesday night with the local Circles chapters (Circles West Orange and Circles Orlando) and on Thursday post-conference, the Cost of Poverty Experiment (COPE) poverty simulation facilitated by Poverty Solutions Group (lead organization for Circles Central Florida). These additional experiences extended the conference in profound ways.


A bevy of local and regional partners, vendors, and friends made convening in Orlando a joy. In particular, CUSA would like to recognize and thank the following people and organizations for their generous contributions to our 2023 Leadership Conference: St. Luke’s United Methodist Church staff, volunteer teams, and community members; Circles Central FL/West Orange/Orlando chapter staff, volunteers, Allies, and Circle Leaders; delicious local vendors Pammie’s Sammies, Natez Catering Company, Steve Smith and Luky Nova, and House Blend Café; and lead organization Poverty Solutions Group of Florida.


The numbers are in! From standout breakout sessions to standing-O keynote speakers, our 2023 Leadership Conference received high attendee ratings across the board. Among our highest-ranked breakout presentations were “When Tragedy Strikes…Preparing, Processing and Responding with Care”; “Peer Counseling Skills to Compliment Ally Training”; “Disrupting Unconscious Bias to Build Better Relationships”; “Racial Wealth Gap: Train the Trainers”; and “Circle Leader is More Than a Title: Why We MUST Center Leadership to End Poverty.” Presentations this year focused notably on self-care strategies, trauma-informed practices, and educational resources to address racial bias and inequalities—proof that CUSA continues to lead the field in heart-centered poverty alleviation work. 

Overall, the Leadership Conference gathered 126 attendees spanning 26 states with 86 attendees identifying as CUSA conference first-timers! The event featured 24 breakout sessions and 30+ individual speakers and presentations over three days.

In her remarks opening the conference’s final day, Kamatara invited attendees to imagine beyond current iterations of CUSA to bold future visions for our shared work.

“For those of you who are veteran chapters,” she said, “take a moment to think how far Circles has come since you began. When Circles first started, we only had the core of the model with Circle Leaders, Allies, and youth, plus an advisory council, with limited materials and limited support. Circles 2.0 came to life with the addition of Resource Teams and the upgraded curriculum, materials, and support services from the national office. Now, we all wonder, what will Circles 3.0 look like? Truly, what will the next chapter look like for Circles USA as we turn the corner on our 26th year of building community to end poverty?”