How Can Storytelling Transform Our Communities?

Our organization, which centers on sustaining resilient communities, is now turning to an emphasis on story. How can storytelling help us evolve our approach to creating relevant programming?

Island Institute Executive Director Peter Bradley gives local artist Norman Campbell the backstory to a piece of art by visiting Sitka Fellow Bene Rohlmann. Photo by
Island Institute Executive Director Peter Bradley gives local artist Norman Campbell the backstory to a piece of art by visiting Sitka Fellow Bene Rohlmann. Photo by Christine Davenport.

What is the Island Institute?

Our work at the Island Institute uses literature and story as lenses to help us understand community, place, and belonging – to help give language to the concept of living together in resilient community.

Over the thirty years of the organization’s life, this has meant a great number of visits from artists – mostly writers – and many conversations touching on elements of the human experience that are seldom explored.

The Institute has carried other threads too; when our hometown of Sitka, Alaska, was in greatest economic and civic turmoil in the 1990s, the Institute convened conversations that would help the town find new ways forward. It has been rewarding, unique, and valuable work, and has laid a wonderful foundation for our current work.

Now, though, having gone through the first leadership transition in the Institute’s history, it is time for our organizational habits, attitudes, and assumptions to shift in order for us to move that work forward.

The complex challenges we’re facing

Through the New Pathways | Alaska program, we have been investigating the complex challenges at the core of this organizational evolution. What do we need to do in order to give greatest meaning to our work?

The organization has long worked around the idea of resilient community, building a language around how people can best inhabit the places and communities where they live, and fostering the thriving web of human relationships, responsibilities, and connections to the greater natural world.

One challenge that we face is to demonstrate the core traits and values of resiliency in the very fabric of our own organization. Towards that end, we know that we need to develop programs that reach a wider portion of our community and meet people on their own terms without sacrificing the intellectual values of the organization, while working in a spirit of resilience – iteratively, flexibly, adaptively, and in collaborative partnership with other organizations and individuals.

Another challenge that we’ve struck on time and again is that in the course of 30 years working around literature and in the domain of big humanistic ideas (past Symposium themes include “Writing the Natural World: Science, Spirit, and Imagination,” “Groundwork: Renewing the Covenants that Sustain Us,” and “Gifts of Nature, Gifts of Culture: Who Owns the Commons?”), we’ve left many people feeling alienated by our programming. Even though the ideas at the heart of those investigations are of wide interest, the presumed knowledge of the literary and humanistic approach is inherently exclusionary. By creating a single stream of programming that appeals to a small community of thinkers, readers, and writers, we project a sense of inaccessible elitism.

Guest faculty member Molly Sturges leads an exercise at this year's Sitka Symposium. Photo by
Guest faculty member Molly Sturges leads an exercise at this year’s Sitka Symposium. Photo by Christine Davenport.

This was in evidence at this year’s Sitka Symposium, an event convened to explore the ways that story can be used to transform our communities. It was an inspiring and successful event in many regards, but the people registered for the entire Symposium indicated a limited demographic base that we need to expand on in order to bring in a more representative spread of perspectives and offer a greater exchange of experience. Between the ticket price, the weeklong timeframe for the event, and the nature of the discussions, there were a number of barriers to access for that event that we need to better navigate in the future. We believe that by rethinking the nature and structure of our programs we can get the best of both worlds – we can keep having the intimate and brainy conversations that have been the hallmark of the Institute while becoming more inclusive. The good news is that our audience and contributors have identified and acknowledged this challenge over the years (and at this year’s Symposium), and we know that they will welcome this shift.

As we think about resilience, we’ll need to think about what it looks like for a community of people to come together to address shared challenges. We’ll need to consider the role of marginalized and historically excluded voices in the health of a community. Most notably, we will need to work closely with the native communities who have for thousands of years been the stewards of this place, to get a stronger understanding of what resilience means for them, and to find ways to build those ideas, voices, and perspectives into our own work.

How we’ll pivot to change our approach

These days, we are working around two key pivots in the way that we approach work at the Island Institute.

The first is a widening of our focus on literature to a broader emphasis on story. Story is universal in a way that literature is not, and will give us space to create programming that feels relevant to more people. Already, we have launched the Sitka Story Lab, a creative writing and storytelling program for local youth, and it is off to a tremendous start.

The second is to do more work that honors the voices and wisdom of Sitka and of the rest of Alaska. Our programming has, in many cases, involved the importing of knowledge from the lower-48, and we would like to find more of a balance by highlighting and broadcasting the hugely valuable and unique perspectives of Alaskan people.

Towards that end, we have brought Writers Read – a program where local writers publicly share their work – under our umbrella, but there is much more work to do. We are also developing a new series of community conversations, workshops, and storytelling events, and are considering the role of radio, as well.

At a recent workshop, a group of writers shared plays they wrote over the course of 48 hours with visiting playwright Dipika Guha. Photo by
At a recent workshop, a group of writers shared plays they wrote over the course of 48 hours with visiting playwright Dipika Guha. Photo by Christine Davenport.

This process has been a reminder that an organization’s work is never done and is never static. Our founding director, Carolyn Servid, did a phenomenal job over 30 years to develop exciting and innovative programs that have had a great impact on the lives of many. I’ve heard time and again of the transformative nature of the conversations that the Institute has convened. And yet, despite the storied history of this organization, it is clear that there are changes that we need to make in order to take the next step. It’s quite a ride!

Peter is the Executive Director of the Island Institute in Sitka, Alaska. The Institute uses literature and story as lenses through which to understand place and community while acting as a catalyst for resilient community. Before moving to Sitka in October 2013, Peter spent nine years in Guelph, Ontario, where he worked as the director of a community radio station, hosting weekly music programs and a books-focused radio show. Peter was also involved in many other community and arts-based initiatives, including an innovative publishing initiative called PS Guelph