Tidelines: Experiments in Community Storytelling in Alaska

As an organization that has freshly gone through the first leadership transition in its history, we have been in a deeply immersive learning process in the last year, which has been given shape, form, and context through the New Pathways process. We’ve been gaining understanding of the relationship between our programming, our community, and the perception of elitism that has been widely felt about our organization. In that process, we’ve come to recognize that the goals of our work cannot be achieved unless we employ a diverse array of inclusive approaches designed to incorporate a variety of perspectives. Those goals – to foster a language of place and community; to strengthen resilient community through literature, story, and conversation; to deepen civic engagement and collaborative leadership – demand that we intentionally build our ability to work adaptively and flexibly, to do work grounded in empathy, designed for community, and built with story.

The Institute’s new facility in Sitka, Alaska offers a bustling, street-side home for their programs

In the last year, we took on three substantial pivot points to allow us to better do this work. The first is to put more of our attention towards capturing or celebrating Alaskan perspectives in our work. The second is to view our work through a broadened concept of story, rather than through the more limiting, exclusive lens of literature. As people who often live in tight-knit communities and who work in direct contact with rugged wilderness, Alaskans tend to have rich, eloquent, and nuanced ideas, observations, and perspectives about the relationship between people, place, and community – the widening of our approach to incorporate story of all sorts is a response to that (you can read more about this in my blog post from last year). The third is to work consciously and thoughtfully to develop and build programs that will reach beyond our usual constituency. The New Pathways program involves coaching for innovation and adaptive change, and in our individualized coaching sessions with Laurie Wolf from the Foraker Group, we identified this need to establish a potluck of approaches in order to have a broader impact.

In those conversations, we identified that most of our programming has traditionally demanded participation in formal events, whether that be in the form of a community conversation, a reading from a visiting writer, or an intensive weeklong Symposium. Earlier this year, the National Endowment For the Arts identified that the time and cost involved in arts events are the primary barriers to participation, and we wanted to experiment with programming that gave people the opportunity to participate on their own terms outside of formal event structures.

Source: When Going Gets Tough, National Endowment for the Arts

Given the opportunity through New Pathways to stage a Small Experiment With Radical Intent, we struck on the idea of planting logbooks around our community which asked respondents and residents to tell us about a feature of Sitka, Alaska that they hoped to see in 2025. We’d hoped to learn what would happen if we did something that wasn’t a traditional event and that cast a wider net for participation. We decided to ask simple, relatable, and open-ended questions that reflected on concepts of resilient communities while asking people to draw on their imagination and insight to tell stories. It was an instructive process.

Of our Sitka 2025 respondents, most identified as non-traditional Island Institute participants, having never engaged in our programs previously. We also learned that more people requested anonymity if their responses suggested negativity or trepidation about the future (and the present) of our community, an important lesson in fostering inclusive dialogue about community questions. Less surprisingly, we learned that by far the greatest volume of results came from locations where a community member or partner was working actively to solicit responses. Most importantly, we were reminded that many people who don’t participate in our current programs are still very much ready to engage in questions involving the health of the community, and that they will be ready to engage in programs that better resonate with them.

These ideas represent big changes in our organizational attitudes, assumptions, and approaches, and as we enter a new season of programming and a new phase of New Pathways Alaska, we are eager to incorporate these lessons as we move forward. This will be most notable as we consider the evolution of the Island Institute’s long-running flagship program, the Sitka Symposium. As the program that launched the Island Institute in 1984, the re-imagining of the Symposium represents a hugely daunting and uncomfortable challenge. Beloved by many, the program has been a haven for people interested in connecting the dots between literature, nature, and community. Our belief, our concern, and in some ways our hope, is that people for whom the questions and themes of the Symposium are important haven’t found the event approachable or inviting. We hope to rebuild the Symposium as a series of events, initiatives, and conversations that a wider cross-section of the population wants to engage in, while maintaining the sense of uncommon conversations involving deep, immersive dialogue around the relationship between people and the places they call home – for now, we’re calling this thematically linked collection of programs Tidelines.

zach writers read
Zachary Desmond reading at Writers Read–a popular program that showcases local authors

As we consider the development of Tidelines, we’re going to be focusing on the theme of climate change – of how our lives are changing as the climate is changing. We’ll focus in particular on Sitka and Alaska, but will frame the conversations in ways that will be relatable and relevant for people considering climate change elsewhere. We wanted to do work around this issue because it is something that tends to be spoken about in the context of science or policy, and less often as a fundamentally human question that can be investigated on emotional terms through lived story, experience, and observation, and in the context of more humanistic disciplines. As a small organization, we want to make sure that our energies are going towards elements of the conversation about climate change that aren’t given requisite attention as is. At the same time, we intend to work boldly to do transformative work around this issue. When we started thinking about doing work around climate change, we assumed that that would primarily take the shape of our traditional Symposium. We figured that it was a sensible extension of the work that has been done by the Island Institute over the years to instigate dialogues that often touched on the relationship of people to the broader natural world. As we thought about it more, we realized that we would need to design new program approaches in order to help people think about climate change in new ways.

As such, we’ve identified four broad goals for our work around climate change – to collect information, to build conversations, to deepen collaborations, and to synthesize all of this through the dual lenses of literature and storytelling. Towards facilitating that work, we are building a multidisciplinary hub and crowd-sourcing engine for information about climate change in Alaska – this will be built as a scalable or replicable model for other regions, and will be the backbone for our work moving forwards. That will involve bringing together the many individuals and organizations working around climate change in Alaska to share information, stories, and experiences about their work and observations. It will also involve digging more deeply to access the exceptional eloquence of Alaskans observing the world around them, and coming to terms with how their lives are changing to adapt to the changing climate and to mitigate the scale of those changes – that will involve interviews, profiles, and conversations, all of which will be available on that hub. Throughout our work, we will emphasize the local – the hub will be built around a map that will identify the different ways that climate change is manifesting in different regions. We feel that people are overwhelmed by the global proportions of climate change, and feel helpless in the face of the immensity and complexities of the problem. We hope that by pointing out the regionalized nature of climate change manifestations, we can also help people see that adaptation and mitigation strategies are also best considered on a local level. As we collect and disseminate content on the hub, we will draw on some of those materials to craft print publications, to produce radio programs and podcasts, and to inform in person meetings and conversations that will take place throughout the year. As this work develops, we will coordinate with our statewide collaborators to define and to craft an Alaskan climate summit, which will draw on elements of the traditional Symposium to offer a uniquely cohesive and multidisciplinary interrogation of the relationship that Alaskans have with climate change.

Island Institute’s youngest after-school Story Lab group working with coordinator Sarah Swong

One of the challenging parts of this particular project is that we don’t know when or how it will end, nor do we know when we might start thinking about a different theme to build new programming around. We don’t know how adequately this series of initiatives and events will fill the void of the Symposium, and we don’t yet know how much the aforementioned climate summit will resemble the Symposium.

As frustrating as it has been at times to not have the answer to questions about the future of the Symposium, this new work feels right. We’ve had an opportunity through New Pathways to dig deep and really confront what we hope to accomplish with our work, and the mix of openness to change and intentionality about how that happens has left us feeling invigorated. At the same time, it is gratifying to be able to identify the essential pieces of the Institute’s traditional focus areas in this new work – civic engagement, collaborative leadership, resilient communities, the exploration of core human values, and the fostering of a language of place and community.

We have a new team member, Annika Ord from Juneau, joining us this month, and she’ll be working with me and our New Pathways team to take what I’ve described from concept to action. I’m looking forward to sharing our progress early in the new year!

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