California Community Calls, Creating Connection between K-12 Leaders

By Anissa Sonnenburg

Just prior to the pandemic, a seed was planted in California that was starting to take root in the state’s K-12 education system. The Compassionate Systems Framework, focusing on positive systems change tools and generative social fields, was resonating with leaders across the state. Almost 150 leaders from districts, county offices of education, state agencies, and/or community-based organizations attended one of two introductory workshops in either November 2019 or March 2020. Many of these leaders wanted to know if it was possible to start something like a “community of practice.” They wanted to deepen their understanding of the Compassionate Systems tools and approaches. And so, the Center for Systems Awareness, alongside the California Department of Education (CDE), and the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence decided to host two Community of Connectedness virtual calls in April and June 2020.

During this time, events in California and the United States demanded our education system respond to meet the needs of our communities and students. Whether it was COVID-19, shelter-in-place orders, virtual classrooms, the violence against our communities of color, or protests, the emotional pressures within California’s K-12 system were quite present during the calls. However, even more, present during the calls was the quality of trust and connection growing between participants, allowing them to share and truly listen to one another.

Soon thereafter, I was asked by Mette and Michael Funk (CDE Director of the Expanded Learning Division and my director at the time) to host and design a series of virtual calls that could build upon what started to bloom during the Community of Connectedness calls. The Center for Systems Awareness and the California System of Support that the CDE helps lead would host the calls. The invitations for these calls were sent to all California K-12 leaders who had attended an Introductory Leadership workshop held over the last three years–almost 400 individuals were in this category. The new series was named the California Community Calls and was launched in December 2020 to support participants in deepening their understanding of the Compassionate Systems tools and approaches. I hoped to provide K-12 leaders “the opportunity to feel supported, reconnect with one another, and become inspired to work with the Compassionate Systems tools in a virtual community setting.” Lisa Salas Brown, Associate Superintendent, Educational Services, Ventura County Office of Education, shares the following about the calls:

“I attended the in-person Introduction to Compassionate Systems in November 2019. The pandemic was around the corner, who would have thought that I was equipped with the skills to be present as I entered the unknown. The virtual community calls allowed me to connect with others who had experienced this framework. There were many people who had similar County Office responsibilities, and that connection to lead with compassion through Covid-19 helped me stay present and still thrive.”

Lisa Salas Brown
Associate Superintendent, Educational Services 
Ventura County Office of Education 

As the calls continued in 2021, it became clear that what participants valued most during our time together was starting their day with a mindful grounding, a few moments to journal, and the Check-in—a small breakout when each person shares one at a time. After each Check-in, the chat would fill up with thank-yous and gratitude for their Check-in partners. There would invariably be a few comments that said, “We could have used five more minutes for our Check-in.” So, I thought of making the California Community Calls —just that—a time for a mindful grounding, journaling, and a Check-in. From my own experience, I knew the importance of having a mindfulness practice. In my position at CDE and within the System of Support, I could also see the continued strain that many across the state were feeling. I have and continue to experience that strain. However, I have found it valuable to sit and work through it and listen to others with an open heart. Although it has been hard to listen to what they say sometimes, it has helped me understand how a compassionate system serves us all, especially our youth.

With the invitation now being sent to over 700 individuals, the 2022 California Community Calls are providing a space for California education leaders to come together for one hour per month for a mindful grounding and check-in with the focus on being fully present. While not nearly all 700 show up for the monthly calls, many do when they can or watch the recordings later.

Each month, I feel that the generative social field is growing as folks show up as their true, authentic, selves. What was once a tiny seed, continues to flourish in the hearts of our California K-12 leaders. These feelings are beautifully expressed in a note I received from Janice Lourenzo, Accountability and Programmatic Support Specialist, Humboldt County Office of Education: 

“Starting my days with the California Community Calls is awesome! I get to arrive and connect with colleagues on a deep and meaningful level. Like with all the Compassionate Systems virtual interactions, I’m always impressed with the number of faces that are video-on during these calls. Humans showing up in space and deeply connecting with one another is exactly what we need more of right now … Anissa … The vulnerability you modeled created a space that allowed my small group to deeply connect and listen to one another. Thank you for providing a space that invites us to show up, share our hearts, and be fully present in community. We need this work to permeate the system now more than ever.“



Anissa Sonnenburg
Education Administrator | System of Support Office
California Department of Education
California Hub | USA



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