Community Corner: Prince William Sound Natural History Symposium goes virtual

By Betsi Oliver
Outreach Coordinator

Photo of Betsi Oliver
Betsi Oliver

The third annual Prince William Sound Natural History Symposium, held on May 24, 2021, featured 20 speakers and over 260 participants. The Prince William Sound Stewardship Foundation hosts this annual event. The foundation is a small volunteer-led nonprofit dedicated to keeping Prince William Sound healthy, clean, and wild, for all to enjoy. The Council helped sponsor the event and assisted the planning effort.

Speakers represented tribes, land management agencies, nonprofits, and scientists working in Prince William Sound and the North Gulf of Alaska. Representatives from Chugach Regional Resources Commission started the day with a Land Acknowledgment and the Mayor of Whittier, Dave Dickason, welcomed attendees. Topics ranged from wildlife to glaciers to history. Council volunteer Dave Goldstein presented on weather in Prince William Sound. I provided an introduction to how oil spill response is managed in our region.

The symposium was first conceived in 2019 as a pre-season training for guides and interpreters based out of Whittier. Nobody expected the event, which was held at the Whittier Public Safety Building, to be standing-room-only with over a hundred attendees.

Then, in early 2020, the organizers faced a challenge: cancel, or go virtual? I had already attended a few virtual conferences thrown together hastily in March 2020, so I knew it could be done. I was able to support the transition to an online symposium, preparing speakers and hosts to pull off this “new” thing: a live, public videoconference event. Over 260 people registered that year. It was a success! The virtual platform allowed participation from the entire Prince William Sound region, as well as statewide and beyond. Registration in 2021 matched numbers from 2020.

The future of the symposium is unclear. Presenters, participants, and organizers have all said they want to see it continue. After three years of volunteer efforts, the foundation is seeking financial support to hire a symposium coordinator. As pandemic restrictions lift, many would like to see the event return to Whittier. The possibility of a hybrid event (in person and online) seems to serve both the needs of local guides and interpreters – the original audience – and the broader interest that has developed over two years of online distribution. A dedicated coordinator would be critical to a successful hybrid event, which requires advanced audio-visual technology and greater staff support. The foundation hosts other events, including extensive volunteer efforts, throughout the year.

Recordings from the 2020 and 2021 symposiums are posted on the Prince William Sound Stewardship Foundation’s website.

Community Corner: We miss our volunteer family!

Photo of Betsi Oliver
Outreach Coordinator

The Council’s staff has spent much of the last year working from home. We consider ourselves lucky to have jobs that allow us to continue working so safely during the pandemic.

However, we find ourselves missing our fellow coworkers and volunteers. Our volunteers are not just our colleagues, but also our friends.

In honor of our wonderful volunteers, here are a few of our favorite photos from recent years.

Volunteers Robert Archibald, Patience Andersen Faulkner, and Jerry Brookman with staff members Betsi Oliver and Brooke Taylor at the Alaska Forum on the Environment in February 2019.

 

The Council wants to specifically honor long-time volunteer George Skladal, (left, with Executive Director Donna Schantz) member of the Council’s Terminal Operations and Environmental Monitoring Committee. George attended the very first meeting of that committee, over 30 years ago, and he remains an active member to this day. Thank you for your service!

 

Volunteer Jane Eisemann joined staffer Betsi Oliver and Lynda Giguere in 2018, at the joint booth with the Council’s sister organization, Cook Inlet Regional Citizen’s Advisory Council. Happy retirement, Lynda!

Community Corner: How does outreach continue in a pandemic?

Photo of Betsi Oliver, outreach coordinator.
Photo of Betsi Oliver
Betsi Oliver

My job at the Council is to foster community engagement. This includes lots of travel to our many small communities, from Cordova in the east to Kodiak Island in the west. I also represent the Council at events such as oil spill prevention and response professional conferences, fisherman conventions, scientific forums, local government meetings or conferences, and community receptions.

All that came to an abrupt halt in March 2020 when the pandemic stopped all travel for the Council. Since then, meetings have been via videoconference, educators have cut most hands-on programs, and conferences have been canceled or switched to online.

To continue citizen oversight of the operation of the Valdez Marine Terminal and tankers that use it, Council staff had to get creative and roll with the rapidly changing field of public engagement.

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Community Corner: Peer listeners build community resilience

Photo of Betsi Oliver, outreach coordinator.
Photo of Betsi Oliver
Betsi Oliver

By Betsi Oliver
Outreach Coordinator

After the Exxon Valdez oil spill, a Council project assessed the social impacts of the spill and developed resources that could be used by small communities to help with healing. An oil spill has complex and long-lasting impacts on the social and emotional health of a community, more than a natural disaster. Substance abuse, domestic violence, self-isolation, and suicide all increase as a result of stress that can be felt throughout a community. Activities that strengthen community connectedness help counteract these effects.

Mental health professionals today are making comparisons between the ongoing mental health impacts of disasters such as the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill and those of COVID-19. Many of the elements that make an oil spill so challenging can also be applied to the current COVID-19 crisis, in particular the high levels of uncertainty about when the crisis will end, how long recovery will take, and whether individuals are doing the right thing in response. Like an oil spill, the pandemic will have long-lasting impacts on individual physical health, the economy, and communities’ social fabric. All of this has a cumulative impact on mental health.

After the Exxon Valdez oil spill, many people needed a friendly ear to listen to their struggles and stories with empathy. The Council sponsored creation of the Peer Listener Training, which empowers residents in our region to support each other through effective listening. In a disaster, mental health professionals are swamped and costly. In small communities, like many rural villages in Alaska, professional support may not be readily available. A neighbor who shares your culture, lifestyle, and experience may be more approachable than a professional counselor, especially for those who may not have a positive view of mental health counseling.

Trained peer listeners, unlike therapists or counselors, do not give advice and are not experts. Instead they actively listen and help their peers vent strong emotions, feel heard, and have their experiences normalized. A peer listener is connected to resources in the community and knows when to make referrals to professionals or other support systems.

The Council offers a “train the trainer” event every few years to individuals who are positioned to bring the training home to their community. Trained peer listeners increase the resilience of the Exxon Valdez oil spill region should another disaster threaten the fabric of life so deeply. One of the primary takeaways is that even a regular citizen, someone who is not a mental health expert, can make a big difference in their community. Checking in on neighbors, asking intentional questions about well-being, and listening with empathy make a big difference for connectedness and healing. These lessons apply broadly, to all disasters that impact our communities.

More: Peer listening program updated for COVID-19

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