Episode 13: Building Communities of Practice: A Conversation with ELGL's Kirsten Wyatt

In this episode of the BSC podcast series, Director Salimah Samji interviews Kirsten Wyatt, Executive Director & Co-Founder of Engaging Local Government Leaders (ELGL). Salimah and Kirsten discuss the origin story of ELGL, how they've grown their membership to over 4,000 people, and the many ways in which they've built a sense of community among their members from all over the country.

Learn more about the Engaging Local Government Leaders (ELGL) organization.

Listen to the GovLove podcast interview with BSC Director Salimah Samji.


Katya Gonzalez-Willette Hello and welcome to Building State Capability at Harvard University's podcast series. 

Katya Gonzalez-Willette In this episode of the BSC podcast series, Director Salimah Samji interviews Kristen Wyatt, Executive Director and Co-founder of Engaging Local Government Leaders, also known as ELGL. Salimah and Kirsten discuss the origin story of ELGL, how they've grown their membership to over 4000 people, and the many ways in which they've built a sense of community among members from all over the country. 

Salimah Samji Welcome, Kirsten, to the BSC podcast, it is a real pleasure to have you on. 

Kirsten Wyatt Thank you. I'm so happy to be here. Thanks for having me. 

Salimah Samji So I want to start with you are the CEO and the Co-founder of ELGL, which is Engaging Local Government Leaders, and you now have a membership of four thousand eight hundred people. But before we get down to four thousand eight hundred people, how did you start? What's the origin story of ELGL. 

Kirsten Wyatt My husband and I moved from Virginia to Oregon, and we had both been working in state government in Richmond, Virginia, and after we got married, we both wanted to get back into local government. That was where our interest was. And so we made one of those compromises that you can make when you are young and you don't have pets or a mortgage or anything to worry about. And we said the first person to get a local government job, we'll move there. And so I got a job in the city of Westland, Oregon. And so we moved across the country and quickly realized that we were in a brand new place without any contacts, without any friends, and we really only had each other. And so we just started thinking about what would it be like if there was an organization out there that welcomed people to come together and talk about local government topics. And so while we both have local government jobs, we just realized that there wasn't a network like that. And some of the existing legacy organizations just had a very siloed approach to professional development, professional education. And so even though I was working in finance and then my husband got a job, the city of Tigard was working in community development. There wasn't a place for people like us. We were too young in our careers and we didn't have an organization that we could turn to. And we were lucky because we had each other and so we could talk about work things over the dinner table. But we always joke that not everybody is lucky enough to be married to a bureaucrat. And so wanting to provide that connection opportunity was something that just kind of was always in the back of our minds. And so after a couple of years, we just said an organization doesn't exist and so let's do something on our own. So we just started contacting the people we had met and said, let's have lunch once a month and talk about what we're working on in our cities and counties. And we didn't put any limits or barriers on who could come. So at some of our first lunches, we had MPA students, we had city managers, we had local elected officials, we had planners, librarians. So really meeting this need that we saw of welcoming everyone to the table and recognizing that local public service is better and stronger when we can learn from each other. And so the monthly lunches turned into monthly meetings. We started to bring in guest speakers. We would read a story in the paper about something cool that was happening in an area city and we'd bring that person in to talk and share what they had done. And so as time went on, the event started to get bigger and bigger. More people started to attend. So we added some digital components to make sure that people could still learn from the events even if they couldn't be there. So we were sharing on Facebook and on Twitter, we built out a website. And then really the addition of that digital component allowed people in other parts of the country to see what we were doing and to see this vision of a big tent, an all-inclusive organization focused on towns, cities, counties, and districts. And it just started to grow tremendously from there. 

Salimah Samji When you started, what did you think success would look like? You know, I love that your comment. Not everyone is married to a bureaucrat. I love it. And so to start from there and then have these monthly meetings and then have guest speakers, did you have a sense of what this would grow into or was it just let's get some people together so we can start to grow this conversation? What were your thoughts around that? 

Kirsten Wyatt We really thought it would be Oregon-focused and we really thought that it would be very casual. I think one of the things that really got us thinking about this was my husband's city was renewing their cable franchise agreement. And so he was able to like email me and say, hey, some of your cities. But then there wasn't a network or an opportunity to exchange information quickly and easily that didn't require kind of like either working through an existing association or reaching out to people that you didn't know. And so we just really started to focus on this idea of how do we freely and easily share information between local governments in a way that doesn't add to the bureaucracy that we're already dealing with in our day jobs. And so as we started to think about kind of that concept of something very specific and tangible, like a franchise agreement, then we also started to think about the other thing that's really valuable is just like that idea exchange. And so the city of Portland hired a new director for their Bureau of Transportation. She was the first woman in that position. And so you said, come and talk to us. And in that case, it wasn't like we were looking for a specific document, but we just wanted to hear her story. How did she get to lead one of the more progressive transportation bureaus in the country? And so that kind of combination of not just exchanging templates or items, but then also opening up our worldviews to people who are doing interesting work really took hold, and then the feedback we were getting was that there was an interest in continual learning and to have information being shared regularly and not just at like twice a year or conference that some of the legacy groups were holding. And we've attended some of those events and they seem to be really centered around golf and also around the networking piece, which is important. But we had a sense from people who we were meeting with that they wanted this kind of continuous drip of content and information that they could pick and choose if they consumed it or if they held on to it for later on in their career when maybe they were dealing with a cable franchise agreement. And so early on, we started to see this need to be not just a membership organization where people could come together and get to know each other, but also being a content organization that really promoted learning and reading and sharing as part of how we act as good public sector employees. And the term we've always used is that local government is the original open-source network. Everything that we do, nothing is proprietary. And if I do something incredible in my city that has a huge impact, absolutely. Your city should rip off and duplicate that idea because we can all be better if we're sharing freely what we're working on. 

Salimah Samji Absolutely. Absolutely. We're stronger together. Right. This idea of creating a peer community and this is something that's extremely important for us at building state capability, this idea of building a community of practice where practitioners who are facing the same challenges, they have these aha moments that I'm not alone and that in itself can be so empowering. 

Kirsten Wyatt It's huge. And I think people say, how do we deal with imposter syndrome? How do we deal with feelings of self-worth? And the number one way is to know that other people are in your shoes and to hear how they work through a challenging problem. And so you don't feel like you're alone or you don't feel like you're the first one ever to have those feelings. 

Salimah Samji And you feel like you have a group that you can commiserate with that you can say, oh, my God, this happened. And others are like, aha, I've been there. Right. Just that alone makes you feel that you're with people who get you, who get your life, who get why you're in public service. Right. And that just is so powerful. So you talked about your growing strategy when you went digital. You really started to grow as a community grows. What are some ways that you use to keep that feeling of a community? Four thousand eight hundred people is a large number. So how do you create that sense of community for your group? 

Kirsten Wyatt For us, it's about promoting networking and community and building a friendship that has absolutely nothing to do with local government, because I think it can be really intimidating if all of the ways that we try to connect people ties back to the profession because then we have a librarian, let's say, and we're trying to connect them with the mayor. And their first thought is, well, we have nothing in common. So what we try to do is engage our members in conversations that have nothing to do with local government and everything to do with who we are as individuals and the reason that we've chosen to work in public service. And so what that looks like is we talk a lot less about networking and more about making new friends. One of the pillars of our strategic plan is joy, and we want to find joy in this work. And so that means that we don't become so focused on the mechanics of the job that we lose sight of the people doing the work. And so I joke that some of the people that I have connected with the most authentically, there are a couple of people who really enjoy like shrimp buffets where you can get a huge bowl of shrimp. And for some reason, we all realize that. But then along the way, I realize these two people that love shrimp as much as I do are also gifted public engagement and professionals and coordinators. I have another friend where she is so angry that women's clothing doesn't include more pockets. And so she is like tweeting about this often. And all of a sudden there are all of these members who are like, yes, I hear you, or I found this great line of pants, and their pockets are amazing. But along the way, what we're also connecting around is our work in the public sector and our work as women leaders or our work as shrimp fans or whatever it might be. But I think that that's how we form friendships. We don't meet someone new and say, what's your job? And then determine, OK, well, I'm going to be your friend. We connect around something else and then from there, you can determine values. And so we're always promoting our members to meet and connect around things that aren't necessarily professional, but then can grow into that once that trust and that friendship is built. 

Salimah Samji That's lovely. I love that it's that connection to the humanity that we all share. Right. We all have our quirks, things that drive us crazy, and trying to find someone else, again, a different kind of I'm not alone in my love for shrimp. 

Kirsten Wyatt And I think that this idea that professional networking doesn't have to be intimidating like we really are strong believers and that there's no hierarchy in ELGL, like you could be a recent MPA grad and you have just as much of a voice as the most seasoned city manager that's part of our organization. And I think that type of structure also lends itself to letting people make those authentic connections. I think some of the challenges sometimes is that some learning opportunities can be limited based on either not just your job title or your job function, but then even so far as the size of your agency or the population of your community. And we know that there if you are working or two of the largest cities in the country, you're going to have something in common right away. But it doesn't mean that if you work for a really small special district, you don't have something to learn or to share with the person that's working in that very large city. 

Salimah Samji The other question I have for you was how do you hear the voices of your community? How do people share their thoughts, feedback, etc, with you? 

Kirsten Wyatt So we are very much multichannel. And so we haven't said the only way to offer feedback is over email. We definitely adopt every platform that's out there, which, you know, definitely takes more time, takes more effort. But we know that we have a demographic of members who are really into Facebook. And so we have a Facebook group and we get a lot of feedback and conversation there. We have a Slack channel. We use Twitter, we use Instagram, we use LinkedIn. We're now on Clubhouse. We started having Clubhouse conversations. And then on our content side, we're publishing articles. We're also producing webinars for people who are more visual learners. And then we're producing our GovLove podcast of the people who want to learn the podcast. I think it's appealing to think that there could be one way that we connect with our members. But what we've realized is we have to use all of those platforms and then modify our message and our outreach. So the message is appropriate on those platforms. So, again, it's taken time. But part of our goal of being a nimble organization means that you know, when I first got invited to Clubhouse, what we did is said, OK, how might we use this as an organization? But then also let's have a conversation about how local government could use Clubhouse as a form of engagement. So we're also trying to I think the term is eating our own dog food. We're when we're promoting a concept for what local government should do, we're also trying to do that as an organization. And even our website is built on a municipal government content management system that a city could use. But we want to showcase the fact that some of the things that we do to engage our members are things that communities can do to engage their community members. 

Salimah Samji Wonderful. I really like that idea of meeting people where they're at and recognizing that people consume content in very different ways. Absolutely. It's definitely been an experience that we have had. I also wanted to get a sense from you during this pandemic you know in the last year I know we've heard from a lot of people that they're feeling burnt out. It's too much. Getting online yet again for another Zoom meeting or a team meeting is just too much when you're working with a community as large as yours, that probably needs ideas, content, et cetera. More now than ever and are probably open to it. How did you deal with engagement with your community? 

Kirsten Wyatt So a couple of things. First of all, we look at contributing content to ELGL, whether, again, it's an article or a webinar podcast or even just engaging in conversations on social media about topics. We look at that as an important part of advancing your career in this day and age, having that digital anchor back to something that showcases what you're good at, what you're passionate about. And so we want to offer that up to all of our members. And so with our different writing series or even with invitations, join the webinars or podcasts. We definitely frame it as you're doing amazing work, like let us celebrate you. And in return, you're going to have a link that you can add to your resume, to your LinkedIn profile. You can share it with your network because this idea of showcasing talent and lifting up and celebrating people who are doing good work really aligns with that value of joy and of celebration and even if it's not always success stories either. We tell people that if you failed forward or if you've done something where you made a mistake and someone else could avoid that same mistake. Talk to us about that. And so I sometimes feel like we do have a lot of the majority of our content is written by volunteers and sometimes I think that they were voluntold by me to share what they're doing. A great example, a city manager had posted that they had changed their minimum requirement language on their job applications to recognize that not everybody has the same path and that they value and recognize that women and people of color have historically perhaps been excluded by traditional language on a job description from considering an application. And so even though she was sharing something that she was proud of, my response was, that's amazing. But can you also write about this for us and can you also share what you're doing? And I'm not trying to add more work to people's plate, but it's that recognition and that invitation to share. And then for us to be able to lift people up and again celebrate them, that's kind of kept our content and our information sharing consistent and steady. And then the other thing that we do is everything that we create is available on demand. We think that's really important for people who are feeling burnt out, who are busy, who have schedules that sometimes take a life of their own. And so if we host a webinar, let's say, and 50 people attend, we know that we're going to get another two hundred people watching it on-demand later on. And that's OK. We don't make it seem like you have to fit into this mold this time calendar item to learn, because we've also seen that our members, as they progress in their careers, need different information at different times. And so if we're hosting an event on performance management, someone might not need that today. But six months from now, when they've been promoted and they have a goal that's been set for them to incorporate performance measures into their work, then we want it to be super easy for them to get on our site and go back and get that information and then be like, OK, I'm ready to learn this now. 

Salimah Samji Wonderful. On that theme of celebration, I love this joy of being part of the ethic of who you are as an organization. I noticed that you have a diversity dashboard and you have a ton of awards and you have book giveaways and there's just lots of fun stuff going on all the time. How do you come up with these ideas? And if you could share some of the things that you've learned about doing these kinds of and there's like six awards are a large number of awards that you have. 

Kirsten Wyatt So, again, it goes back to this idea that local government can be demanding and it can wear you down. And I don't think there's anyone out there who hasn't sat through a marathon public hearing where people are just angry and they have frustration. And then sometimes, you know, that gets taken out on individuals. And so we know that that is just a reality of our work at the local level. But we think as an organization, we should be counteracting that and lifting up the people who do great work and then also celebrating the services that local government provides that I think your average community member doesn't think about it, so right now one of our awards programs is celebrating water, sewer and stormwater facilities as a way for us to not just recognize how essential those services are, but then allowing the facilities that have been nominated and that are in our bracket to then reach out to their communities and say, let me tell you more about what this water reclamation facility does and how it's so critical to the health and economic development of our community. And so for us, it's really thinking, how do we make sure that our members are getting that support and encouragement that they need? So they stick with it. And even when they have that public hearing that when till 2:00 in the morning and everybody was screaming, there's something in their next ELGL newsletter that will make them feel proud or feel inspired. And back when my husband and I had our first daughter, we had a good family friend that just said, you know, like, there are so many things you can buy for babies or for kids. You can enroll them in Spanish for infants and you can send them to baby yoga. But just remember, what every kid needs is just to know at any point in time, there are five people who love them. And so I think about that a lot with the ELGL. And how do we make every person feel like there are five people out there who love them or who support them? And so some of the different kind of connector activities we do, like we do a mug exchange, we do a birthday book exchange. It's just about connecting people with someone else who is hardworking and kind for them to just have maybe one more person. They can add to that list of five people that they know to support them in their public service career. 

Salimah Samji It is really remarkable. This is a real inspiration to me. Kristin, at the end of last year, you had two point seven five F.T. And I don't know where you are now. How do you do all of this stuff and engage create all this content with such a small staff? 

Kirsten Wyatt So since then, we hired one more person. So now we have we're closer to four FTE. So that's been really exciting. But really, we kind of channel all of us who work for or have worked for local governments. And we specifically hire people who understand how local governments work. But we harness the trait or the talent of volunteer management and again, push everything back out to our members to help us with content creation, with event planning. It's not uncommon that someone will just send us an idea for something new and we'll say, OK, we'll get it off the ground with your help. And so, like any endeavor where you're so dependent on volunteers like sometimes things don't come through as exactly as we would like. But that's also the beauty in being able to say this is a network that's member-driven. And yes, those of us who are on staff are going to provide some frameworks and we're going to be the ones who are asking our members to contribute content back. But it really is driven by our members. And it's turned out wonderfully that way because we also know that our members are getting the programs and the content and the events that they're most looking for. It's not just us sitting back and saying this is what you need. So it's really just that dynamic of really engaging volunteers. 

Salimah Samji What advice would you give to people who want to create similar peer groups? Networks where like-minded people can meet with each other, share exchange ideas, etc. What is some advice that you give them? 

Kirsten Wyatt It has to be authentic and to a certain extent organic. And I think that often when groups or organizations want to create a network, there's a tendency to say, well, let's buy this app or let's use this listserv or whatever, whatever that might be. And I think the time that it's taken for us to build out and cultivate our network is notable. Like while we're growing fast, this didn't happen overnight. And then we use that multichannel approach to recognize there's not just one way to engage people. And I think really paying attention to the fact that everyone engages differently and everyone needs to be made to feel comfortable and like they belong. And so we work really hard at things like ensuring that our speakers and our panels at events reflect our members. So we're not just picking people at the very top of their careers to be the experts on a panel or, you know, on the podcast. The guests that we invite represent the diversity of jobs that our members have. And I think all of that is important because that is signaling that this is an organization that welcomes anyone to join and be involved, and I think it's tempting to just kind of rest back and say, oh, I know so and so, well, we'll do this or organize this and ask them every time to help with something. And instead, you know, as we put together our events is a great example. We're reaching out to newer members, to members who have job titles that maybe haven't been involved with our events before, and then asking them, would you like to step up and help out with this? And then the one thing that we talk about at the staff level is we do all of the boring stuff when it comes to planning events and programs. And we empower our members to do the fun stuff, to do the things that let them dream about the conference they've always wanted to attend and then make it happen or think about the program and how it would develop in a way that makes sense to them. But then again, going back to what we talked about earlier, but allowing members to connect with each other around things that have nothing to do with your organization mission, because, you know, if you're always connecting in a way that just feels natural, then it's a lot easier when you have a really tricky challenge that you're trying to solve in your local government to then be able to reach out and be like, hey, I know we spent the last month tweeting about shrimp, but now I really need help dealing with this community engagement challenge that we've realized we're not doing an effective job reaching out to our non-English speaking population. All of a sudden, that pivot to getting that expertise is easier because you've built a relationship out before. You're saying, tell me how to solve this, because then it becomes more like a friendship or an exchange. 

Salimah Samji You know, I love authentic and organic. I think that is just so, so powerful, meeting people where they're at, creating an ideas exchange, this idea of belonging, the idea of human connection. And three words came to my mind as you were talking. And one is intentional. You are very intentional in what it is that you were doing. The second was the purpose. You have a very clear purpose that drives your entire organization and your being, it seems. And this idea trying to build relationships of trust first, right before we can then expand and move into other spaces, which I think is just so so powerful in trying to create any sort of a community, a real community, and authentic and organic community. 

Kirsten Wyatt Yeah, and we also just kind of at our core, try to have fun. And this goes back to the joy of peace. But again, a public service career can be very challenging and there can be a lot of bureaucracy and a lot of politics. And so if we're able to just have fun with each other if someone shares something on social media and we can reply with a really funny gif that lightens the topic of the conversation, I mean, I think we all need that in any career path. But again, especially something that's really public-facing and can be really intense. And so I'm just also looking to just put the fun back in professional affiliation because we know that when you go to work, you don't have that same ability when you're dealing with public trust or public money. But when you're on your own time, you're a professional network. Like why shouldn't that be something that lifts you up and makes you smile and makes you feel like I can do this, I can get back up on the horse, I can do this another day. And ultimately, our hope is it keeps people in local government that they're not going to give up. They're not going to say, I can make a lot more money in the private sector. They're going to say, you know what, this is worth it. I feel that when I do something great at work, but I also feel that with the community that I've built around me.

Salimah Samji That's incredible. Very powerful words. Well, thank you so much, Kristen. This has been an absolute delight. 

Kirsten Wyatt Thank you. Thank you. It's wonderful to be here. And thank you, too, for appearing on GovLove and being part of our podcast as well, and also for speaking at our conference last fall. It's just been a delight to learn from you and from your whole team. 

Salimah Samji Thank you. I love your people, all your members. I could make them all my best friends. 

Kirsten Wyatt And that's what we want. Yeah, you have 4,800 new best friends for sure. 

Salimah Samji It's a large number, but yes. Bring it on. Thank you very much. 

Kirsten Wyatt Thank you so much. 

Katya Gonzalez-Willette To learn more about the Building State Capability program, visit www.bsc.cid.harvard.edu.