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Tia Burroughs Clayton, MSS
Learning and Community Impact Consultant

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Chief Operating Officer

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Derrick M. Gordon, PhD
Learning and Community Impact Consultant

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Learning and Community Impact Consultant

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Senior Learning & Community Impact Consultant

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Director of Learning & Community Impact

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Nadia Ward, MEd, PhD
Learning and Community Impact Consultant

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Grants Manager for Learning and Community Impact

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Developing a Community of Practice: Theory to Practice

Jun 10, 2022

On May 25th, community leaders and organizers part of the Community Fund for Immigrant Wellness came together to kick off this year’s Community of Practice. In a Zoom meeting room, and across several smaller breakout groups, members of various immigrant and refugee serving organizations from the Philadelphia region discussed the critical topics impacting their respective communities and work. Although the space was virtual and focused on common professional goals and shared values, it was also intended to be vulnerable and open, which according to recent research, is a key component of effective Communities of Practice.

A Social Learning Theory

Communities of Practice (CoPs) is a social learning theory that draws on the dynamic social nature of human beings as a fundamental source of learning, growth, and betterment. Although the idea has been practiced by communities and groups of like-minded individuals for hundreds of years, it has only been formally integrated into modern academia and organizational activities in recent decades.

According to Wenger-Trayner, communities of practice are groups of people with a shared interest or passion for something they do and, by forming a community around that interest, can learn to do it better. They are characterized by the presence of three formal aspects, the domain of interest, the community that takes the interest, and the practice, or the work they are interested in doing.

As they operate as a part of broader “landscapes of knowledge”, Communities of Practice offer more than an opportunity for like-minded knowledge sharing, they create spaces that enable and accelerate innovation. In his article on CoPs and Social Learning Theory Gavin Beever notes that while boundaries are important for building identity and a history of learning, it is at the boundary’s edge where new ideas and innovation are more likely to take place”.

He goes on to argue that the ability of CoPs to increase knowledge and innovation is inherently intertwined with the “coexistence of depth within practices”, reinforcing the importance of collective and concurrent learning. 

Developing an Effective Community of Practice

Given their informal and synergetic nature, CoPs can be challenging to construct and facilitate, as adding formal structure to a group characterized by open collaboration could limit necessary free flow of knowledge between participants. This presents an inherent paradox; CoPs are meant to work not as a formal work group or even project team, but rather as organic, self-led groups centered around interest and passion.

A “good” CoP is driven by process rather than results. Success is measured by the learnings made by connecting with others in trying to understand how to better reach both individual and collective goals. And although the path to develop such an environment is not always clear, it might be better guided by the people and organizations at its frontline.

A blog post from the Social Change agency reminds us to be patient. In a quote from Jamie Pett, the piece notes “You can’t move faster than you can build trust…sometimes that means letting things go slower than you would have preferred.”

This idea was reinforced in last week’s Community Fund for Immigrant Wellness CoP, as participants reflected on the complex nature of community work, noting that there are often more questions than answers. According to current literature on social and behavioral change, addressing intersecting, systemic issues is not a linear process, but one that requires time, space, and sensitivity.

Looking Ahead

As we look ahead at the upcoming year of the Community Fund for Immigrant Wellness’ Community of Practice, we are reminded that the issues that impact Philadelphia’s immigrant and refugee communities are intersectional and multifaceted. In the process of planning  future CoP sessions, we hope to develop a  space in which participants are able to share robust and vulnerable conversations about those issues, about respective learnings and experiences.