In 1984, Sitkans Don Muller, Alice Lee, Marylin Carty, and Carolyn Servid, co-workers at Old Harbor Books, founded the Sitka Symposium, an event they imagined would explore writing in the context of ideas. What they couldn’t have imagined was that the program would continue to be held each summer for twenty-five years or that it would grow into an expanded organization—the Island Institute—that includes a Resident Fellows Program for writers, a bi-annual literary journal, and a range of initiatives focused on community sustainability and collaborative civic engagement.
The Symposium achieved national distinction. Its themes worked to foster, through story, a language of community and place. The roster of more than ninety guest faculty included some of the country’s finest writers on environmental and community issues as well as important emerging, Native American and international voices. Poets, fiction and nonfiction writers, folklorists, anthropologists, scientists, teachers, and politicians were all part of the mix—a deliberate variety to approach each year’s theme from diverse perspectives. Symposium participants—people of varied ages, experiences, and backgrounds—came from more than thirty states and as many Alaska communities. Robert Hass, a two-term U.S. Poet Laureate and twice a faculty member, said of the Sitka Symposium:
“It is that ideal thing: home grown, community-based, sustained for years now by mostly voluntary and always inspired work, national in reputation, global in its concerns.“
The Institute’s Resident Fellows Program, unique to Alaska, was initiated in 1989 to demonstrate the links between language, story, and place—between the literary arts and the community of Sitka. Residencies have been offered to seventy published and aspiring writers to develop their work against the backdrop of the diverse beliefs, experiences, and cultural traditions that make up the community of Sitka. They have shared their work with the community through readings, writing workshops, class visits from the elementary level through college, community discussions, and sessions with groups as diverse as the women’s shelter, conservation groups, and Sitka’s Rotary Club.
In 1993 we launched our literary journal, Connotations, as a means of sharing the substance of the Symposium and Resident Fellows Program with a wider audience. Published twice a year,Connotations features prose and poetry by participants in our programs. It inspired our award-winning anthology From the Island’s Edge: A Sitka Reader, commemorating the first decade of the Symposium. A second anthology, The Book of the Tongass, followed.
Through our literary programs, we became recognized as one of Alaska’s leading literary organizations. We have frequently cooperated with the Creative Writing Programs at the University of Alaska campuses in Anchorage and Fairbanks to bring noted writers to Alaska communities. These cooperative efforts included a 1998-2000 National Endowment for the Arts project that involved tours of seven writers to 23 Alaska communities; the development of LitSite Alaska; and production of Northern Letters, a 13-part radio series of interviews with writers made available to public radio stations throughout the state and around the country.
When Sitka’s largest employer, Alaska Pulp Corporation, closed its mill in 1993, the Institute turned some of its attention to serious local issues. With our programs already linked to community, the uncertainty brought about by Sitka’s mill closure prompted a heightened interest in issues of community sustainability and consensus-building civic engagement. We were the catalyst for research and publication of Sitka Community Indicators: A Profile of Community Well-Being, developed by local citizens to track social, economic and ecological trends in Sitka. The report was widely used in the community, and hailed as a model for other communities. And as controversial issues surfaced in Sitka, we sponsored open and inclusive community forums for public discussion before policy decisions were made.
In 1999 we took this kind of citizen engagement further and began working with David Chrislip, principal of Skillful Means in Boulder, Colorado, to introduce Sitkans and Southeast Alaskans to collaborative leadership and constructive ways of making community decisions. In each case we served as conveners, bringing together people with diverse perspectives to create viable ways to deal with community concerns.
The value of the Institute’s work was acknowledged in 2008 when Co-Directors Carolyn Servid and Dorik Mechau were awarded Honorary Doctorates in Humane Letters from the University of Alaska Southeast, recognizing their and the Institute’s significant contributions to the culture of Sitka and Alaska.
Our new focus—resilient communities—is an extension of the work described above. Through special events and ongoing community activities, we aim to deepen people’s understanding the importance of resilience—the capacity to creatively adapt to change, the ability to thrive in turbulent times. We anticipate communities large and small will be faced with enormous challenges and change in coming decades. Cultivating resilience now will help communities and their citizens adapt with ingenuity and a sense of possibility.