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The transformative power of Communities of Practice

The transformative power of Communities of Practice

Group of women in discussion

Communities of Practice (CoP) provide a unique opportunity for professionals to come together to share their expertise and resources, and to troubleshoot challenges in a safe and expert-led environment.

Building a robust and connected prevention of violence against women sector has been at the heart of DVRCV's Communities of Practice pilot program over the past two years. Here we unpack the process participants underwent and learn why CoP is an important workforce strategy.

What are communities of practice and why are they important?

A community of practice is made up of a group of people who regularly come together to share stories and insights and engage in critical reflection and discussion. Communities of practice offer a space for problem solving and support, to improve individual and collective practice and impact.

Within the prevention of violence against women and family violence workforce, practitioners come from such diverse organisations, dispersed locations and varied settings that it often results in feelings of isolation that inhibits their ability to work effectively.

Because of this isolated nature of their work, communities of practice bring practitioners together in a safe setting that encourages collaboration, strengthens evidence based practice and develops a consistent approach. All of which builds a more unified, cohesive and professional support system.

There are five developmental stages of a community of practice:

  1. Potential – a loose network of people recognises common interests about a key issue.
  2. Coalescing – the community establishes the value of sharing knowledge and develops relationships and sufficient trust.
  3. Maturing – the community clarifies its focus, role and boundaries. It shifts from sharing tips to developing a body of knowledge.
  4. Stewardship – the community maintains its relevance and voice, keeps the tone and focuses on living and engaging.
  5. Transformation – the community will split into new communities or merge with other communities. Sometimes they lose relevance and dissipate.

How the DVRCV Communities of Practice pilot program worked

Using the five developmental stages above, DVRCV conducted its communities of practice over five workshops over a six-month period. It took a few sessions to move through the 'coalescing' phase because participants needed time to build trust and feel safe to express the fears and challenges they face in their work. A skilled facilitator provided emotion management and guided participants through their discomfort and vulnerability as they shared and engaged in challenging (and sometimes confronting) conversations.
By interrogating their own and one another's prejudices, values and assumptions about gender and privilege, discomfort and vulnerability naturally arose in the group discussions. One of the strategies employed in this process was in-depth, reflective exercises in which participants unpacked their fears of being wrong or judged, and then considered how these emotions restricted their own development and work.
To support participants overcome any shame, the sessions focused largely on building self-awareness and emotion management skills in a professional context. These skills and capabilities could then be taken back to their work settings and communities. Like the ripples in a pond, these emotion management capabilities then have the potential to impact and influence the people around them.

Facilitation and the importance of emotion management

Skilled and knowledgeable facilitation is vital in supporting participants to develop reflective practice and the know-how to navigate their unique prevention work. Moreover, facilitators need to be caring and empathetic in order to create a safe and trusting space in which participants can freely express themselves without fear of judgement.

Also needed is the skill-set to design and facilitate creative exercises and critical conversations to encourage personal and group reflection.

Above all, facilitators need to be able to delicately navigate the group through tensions and disagreements, and respond appropriately to reflections and emotions as they arise.

Underpinning it all is the imperative of having a solid understanding of primary prevention theory and approaches to support participants to navigate their way through this work and effectively handle challenges or resistance when trying to gain support from their workplaces and communities.

The results

"[The facilitators] were gentle and gave us space to reflect. You never felt like you were taking too much time... the flow of the facilitation helped nurture the group."

Through sharing, supporting and encouraging, the connections created in each CoP provided an important ecosystem, one that enables practitioners to keep their passion and commitment alive as they navigate their daily challenges. Most importantly, the close relationships fostered within this ecosystem continues and sustains them to engender ongoing patience, empathy and an open mind within communities.

When participants looked back months after completing DVRCV's CoP pilot, they recognised the importance of collaborative learning and mutual support for their work in the prevention of violence against women.

"To share ideas and the commitment and be on the same wavelength is such a special bond. It gives me hope – change is slow but it will make a huge and positive impact on our overall community. I feel honoured and grateful to have been a part of this group."

For most, CoP not only met their learning needs, it also strengthened their emotional and professional resilience. They reported having a more cohesive and shared understanding of what primary prevention is and how to get others on board in supporting the important work they do.

Prevention work requires practitioners to continually question gender structures and norms, and imbalances of social power, as well as their own values, assumptions and prejudices. None of this stops after a workshop. In fact, it is only the beginning of a life-long process of individual and collective transformation.

Future sessions

DVRCV will hold three communities of practice in 2020. For more information and to see all of our training opportunities visit DVRCV Training website.

This article originally appeared in the Advocate, Victoria's industry magazine providing news, interviews, articles and expert review for family violence specialists, prevention practitioners and allied professionals.