Creating Culturally Relevant Communities of Practice

I have to say…I love Etienne Wenger’s (2000) article, “Communities of Practice and Social Learning Systems.”  Why?, you ask.  Because I have realized how broken our communities of practice are in my community…not only with the administration, teachers and other staff, but with our students and community members as well.

When I think about the various communities of practice that are visibly present, I come up with two very distinct ones, the tribal members (insiders) and the non-tribal members (outsiders).  I navigate between the two communities of practice on a regular basis.   As Wenger (2000) would call me, I am a “roamer” who has the ability to make connections with members of other communities of practice and bring to them the knowledge from other communities.  I can relate to the outsiders because I’m an urban Indian, meaning I grew up in the city.  And, I can relate to the insiders as I am a tribal member.  Wenger (2000) talks extensively about the boundaries that communities of practice create that are both positive and negative.  In this case, oftentimes, the boundaries established by the insiders create a great disconnect between itself and others.  More often than not, the outsiders’ personal experiences and their competence about Native American culture, in my case Tohono O’odham culture, is so disconnected that fostering learning can be very difficult.  The boundaries are not meant to spotlight what you do not know, but the very idea of communities of practice require it (Wenger, 2000).

Is it possible to create a community of practice that involves both the insiders and outsiders?  I am pretty sure we could.  Of course, both the insiders and outsiders would have to connect enterprise, mutuality and repertoire with engagement, imagination and alignment (Wenger, 2000).  This not only applies to the outsiders learning about the culture that they serve (the insider’s culture), but it will require the insiders to understand the different cultures the outsiders bring to the Nation.  I, unfortunately, have only been looking at this from an insider perspective…the outsiders must learn about our students and our community.  I really did not see a value in it being the other way around.  And, now that I have, I am intrigued by the idea of creating a community of practice that involves both sides who truly have an interest in becoming one cohesive group that all have the same goal in mind…providing the best education possible.

These very boundaries and the ability to access an educational community of practice may very well be as the cause of lack of parental support.  Education itself has its own set of boundaries.  Gregory Cajete’s chapter titled, “Seven Orientations for the Development of Indigenous Science Education” in Denzin, Lincoln and Smith’s (2008) book, Handbook of Critical Indigenous Methodologies, Cajete wrote “the sustained effort to ‘educate’ and assimilate American Indians as a way of dealing with the ‘Indian problem’ inevitably played a key role in how American Indians have historically responded to American ‘schooling.'”  He later writes, “early missionary and government teachers naively assumed that American Indians had no education at all and that their mission was to remedy this ‘great ignorance'” (Cajete, 2008).

Unfortunately, the assimilation process that many of our elders experienced in boarding schools has created a great dislike for the education system.  The way the American schools operated were very different than the way Native American’s education system operated.  Native Americans education was “characterized by observation, participation, assimilation, and experiential learning rather than by the low-context, formal instruction characteristic of Euro-American schooling” (Cajete, 2008).  Thus, many of our parents and grandparents (who may be legal guardians) do not care to participate in the communities of practice within the educational system.  They have no vested interest because of the disconnect between their personal experiences and competence in the modern educational system.

By possibly creating new communities of practice that do not initially have a focus on education may be a way to draw in our community members who do not see education positively.  These individuals would have to connect with other community members in the same way that the insiders and outsiders as mentioned above.  Communities of practice cannot make an impact if they do not have buy-in from all members.  As relationships continue to build and mutuality is strengthened by engagement, imagination and alignment, the direction of this new community of practice can begin to shift its focus on educating our youth.  This community should include administrators, teachers and staff (both tribal and non-tribal), parents/guardians, students and community members.  Much of what people learn about what is going on in the community comes by word of mouth.  If we can create a strong community of practice, the word will get out and we can then begin to expand it to reach and include more members.

Redefining communities of practice on our Nation will be critical to changing the mindsets of all administrators, teachers and staff members, as well as community members, in regards to the educational system present on the reservation.  In order for us to build a successful school system, all of us must meet in the middle to ensure that we are preparing our students for the best possible future.  And, who doesn’t want that?


Cajete, Gregory.  (2008).  Seven orientations for the development of indigenous science education.  In N. K. Denzin, Y. S. Lincoln, & L. T. Smith (Eds.), Handbook of critical indigenous methodologies (pp. 487- 496).  Thousand Oaks, CA:  Sage Publications.

Wenger, Etienne.  (2000) Communities of practice and social learning systems.  Organization, (7)2, 225-246.

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Tanya Suydam

1 comment — post a comment


Hi Tanya! I agree – I loved Wenger’s article. One of the main take aways for me was that I am deficient in “engaging” in my community of practice(s).
I’m sincerely hoping to improve.
Great post.

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