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Report to the Board of Trustees, October 2020

Thursday, November 05, 2020 6:03 PM | Marissa Bieger (Administrator)

NIA Report

Summers Eatmon Williams, NIA President

October 2020

In September, Dave Durant began a new career and resigned as NIA President, we are happy to say he remains on the Board of Directors and I will be completing his term as President until the elections in December 2020. For this report I decided to take a look back to my previous Board Report in October of 2015 to see what has changed and what we are still striving towards.

The few months prior to NOLS’ 50th were record breaking for the NIA, seeing a huge increase in membership, and expansion into WMI (Wilderness Medicine Institute) now NOLS Wilderness Medicine. We had 350 members and our website had just launched the previous year giving us record systems and communication avenues of which we were previously incapable. We now have 123 Lifetime Members and have accrued 100 new memberships since 2015.

Like the rest of the world we meet virtually. This spring in lieu of the Faculty Summit Annual General Meeting we hosted an online event with NOLS President Terri Watson as our guest panelist. Throughout the summer there have been smaller informal zoom meetings to take the place of “Branch Meetings” previously run at nearly every location across the globe each season. In a world that has removed a lot of our previous capacity to interact intimately, the screen and zoom chat sessions have become a vestige of the community once felt at every campus. It certainly is with mixed emotions that I have introduced my new daughter, who is ten weeks old as I write this, to my wide NOLS community through a screen versus kisses and hugs.

Something that was beginning in 2015 and is incredibly prevalent now is the accessibility of administrative and in-town staff. NOLS administration has begun utilizing virtual meetings. These have created even more opportunity for the ET (Executive Team), faculty, and staff to dialog. These interactions are a benefit to instructors whose questions can be answered promptly and it allows faculty and staff to hear about school issues.

The NIA has been focusing over the years on travel reimbursements, mentorship, and faculty engagement in decision-making. These topics are consistent themes of concern within the instructor pool. We are not abandoning these issues however we have, like NOLS and the rest of the world, adapted what this looks like. Without work, travel reimbursements are meaningless, as well as mentorship on courses. Faculty engagement has reached new heights with new avenues. We may be a more well informed faculty with more access to ET level employees to answer our questions, however, as employees below the Executive or Director levels we are still less likely to be actually partaking in strategic decision-making discussions. The NIA has revamped our outreach, adding Instagram and new Mentors to our roster. In times of economic loss and disconnection, the ways we stay connected and how we think about moving forward has become increasingly more important. Looking back, the NIA Mentorship Program was officially launched in May 2015. In the spring of 2020, the link to the NIA website was added to the Field Staffing Page on IkoWapi. The spectrum of expertise of mentors spans from senior instructors and branch staff to people who have found success working outside of NOLS.

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion has morphed into the JEDI taskforce and the NIA supports their efforts to better identify and dismantle the systems of oppression that exist at NOLS.I imagine some of these same systems of oppression are the foundation of the issues that support our call for full travel reimbursements, paid training opportunities, and better mentorship. These same efforts directly correlate to more access to work for folx with less means, less exposure, or less prior experience. We know that instructors often have to make major decisions about when and where they work for NOLS based on travel costs. But before they make decisions about when and where they work, they must be able to entertain the idea of even applying for an Instructor Course and withstanding the job insecurity for the wages offered.

In 2015 the Moorhead Survey discussions were underway. Ten instructors were able to partake in the discussion of three main agenda items: instructor job security, faculty representation and engagement in schoolwide decision-making, and the travel plan. Job security is something at NOLS that has always been limited and has been affected to an unprecedented degree this spring and summer. Previously we worried about the discrepancy of need that varied year round - the summer peak of roughly 350 people versus 150 in the fall.

It seemed unreasonable to some to think about capping courses that ran mid-summer, in order to create a more even distribution of work throughout the year, or at least to arrest the growing inequality between summer and off-season. But this has now happened, necessitated by an impossible to predict global crisis. We discussed utilizing new course types and running more short courses that are now becoming available on a regular basis. The new idea of running college-age courses during winter and spring breaks was thought to potentially increase contracts available in the off-season and this has been true to varying degrees.

The NIA has always offered to be a resource for NOLS administration to provide insight into the life and perspectives of NOLS employees. Most recently the NIA has been sought out to provide input on the impact of cancelled contracts this spring and the NIA seat at each BOT meeting has been reinstated.

We believe that the next step is to directly and formally include NIA representation in schoolwide decision making. We were excited to see the administration reach beyond Lander and gain a broader perspective of instructor and staff ideas and opinions. We look forward to working with the ET and NOLS President to develop a plan to utilize the NIA to access those voices.

The NIA Board generated a list of key decisions and topics where employees will benefit from representation. These representatives should be faculty members who earn at least 50% of their yearly NOLS income working NOLS courses or staff below the Director level, rather than top-level who work an occasional contract. We would like to see an NIA-appointed employee representative in the following:

  • All committees making major strategic decisions at NOLS. Current examples of these committees are the Restart Task Force and upcoming Strategic Planning Committees and the new work group tasked with examining the operating model.
  • Committees charged with making changes to faculty training programs, including Instructor Courses, Instructor-In-Training Programs, and seminars.
  • Committees charged with the restructuring of employee compensation and benefits, including the Annual Faculty Program, Salaried Faculty Program, and faculty and staff pay scales.

At the NIA we believe in and support Terri’s goals, that are referenced here from her Juneteenth 2020 Update, of “restructuring NOLS to more effectively support our educational mission, to devise solutions to address compensation and turnover concerns, address IT and business systems challenges, and to find ways to more meaningfully support diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts”. At the NIA we believe that all of our voices combined can help add diversity and varied perspectives from around the globe, levels of seniority, and course types. Together we are stronger.

In the past five years it is clear to me, that while some things have been reimagined, many things have remained the same. The school is continuing to thrive thanks to the sacrifices of many and nimbleness of the thought processes behind our reopening this summer. Our tolerance for adversity and uncertainty is truly remarkable and something to be proud of as individuals and an institution. Let the next 55 years bring even more positive change, diversity, and fry-bake pizzas to the generations that follow.

I would like to personally thank you for serving on the Board of Trustees and I look forward to a time we can all meet again. I acknowledge my privilege and access to opportunity when I say the school has held a place in my family’s history for nearly 50 years. I am the daughter of a Wind River Wilderness course graduate from 1971, and in total three members of my family have graduated from six different courses. I came to the school first as a student in 2004 and have since worked and visited branches around the globe. NOLS continues to be an amazing place to work and grow personally and professionally. I would like to be a part of the NOLS legacy that opens the doors even further, one that takes a hard and uncomfortable look at how we operate and who we serve. I look forward to continuing my work at the NIA and engaging with the Board of Trustees and Executive Team to create even greater successes for NOLS and its instructors. And I really look forward to the day when I am sending my daughter on a course in 2035.


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