“The Institute draws upon a vision I see as unparalleled in range and depth as well as commitment to the future of our planet.”
—Jean Anderson, 1996 Resident, Fiction, Fairbanks, Alaska
For almost three decades, the Island Institute’s varied programs have explored social, environmental, and cultural questions of local and global concern. Our work falls into two broad categories: Fostering a Language of Place and Community and Fostering Community Well-Being.
The program that launched the organization—the Sitka Symposium—involved us deeply in language and story—essential tools we use to understand the world and tell each other about it. Threads of relationship between story, place, and community were constants in Symposium discussions. We broadened our interest in these relationships by adding our Resident Fellows program for writers and our literary journal Connotations. With all these literary programs we were interested in fostering a language of place and community.
Our literary exploration of core community values took a pragmatic turn when Sitka’s largest employer, the Alaska Pulp Corporation mill, shut its doors in 1993. Amidst the fear and uncertainty about Sitka’s future, ideas and principles from our Symposium discussions stuck in our minds. We began to see a role for ourselves as conveners of conversations and initiatives concerned with fostering community well-being. Over the next six years, we hosted community discussions about sustainability, were catalysts for the publication of Sitka Community Indicators, and began our work promoting collaborative leadership as a means of deepening civic engagement.
The links between the literary arts and community engagement are not obvious to everyone. For us, the common thread is the pursuit of essential questions about our human experience—as individuals and members of communities. Core values explored through the literary arts are reflected in the ways we live together in community—and vice versa. We have seen the Institute’s work in these arenas change lives in ways not often measured. Assumptions have been reconsidered, values examined, and spirits renewed for people from all walks of life.
In 2009, the Sitka Symposium, held annually for twenty-five years, ended its remarkable run as the Institute’s flagship program. Out of those years of inquiry through language and story, and out of our years of nurturing civic engagement, we are developing new programs focused on resilience, the critical capacity to adapt to change, to thrive in times of turbulence. We believe the expression of resilience in language, story, place and community will be essential in the challenging decades ahead.
We are carrying on this work from our new location on the Sheldon Jackson campus, a National Historic Landmark. We made the move to join Alaska Arts Southeast, the campus’ new owners, in their efforts to create a thriving educational center for the arts, humanities, and sciences on the site of the former college. We are pleased to contribute our perspective and experience to this creative vision.