Higher learning

Squaw Valley Institute aims to bring brains to the beauty

“We have to work on a cultural, artistic place to live,” says Renee Koijane, executive director of Squaw Valley Institute.

“We have to work on a cultural, artistic place to live,” says Renee Koijane, executive director of Squaw Valley Institute.

Photo By Allison Young

For more information on Squaw Valley Institute events and times go to www.squawvalleyinstitute.org or call (530) 581-4138.

When people think of Lake Tahoe, they might think of skiing the powder, hiking the Tahoe Rim Trail, or dipping their paddle into the lake’s deep blue waters. In the winter, locals dash out before work for a skate ski at Tahoe Cross-Country Ski Area, while in the summer early mornings are spent carving turns on Tahoe’s classy calm waters on a water ski or wakeboard. For many who live in Tahoe, outdoor recreation is the primary focus of life, but Tahoe folks also crave a bit of intellectual stimulation. Over the past few years, one important place they go to for their regular dose of brain development is the Squaw Valley Institute, which brings world class speakers and events to the North Tahoe-Truckee community.

Squaw Valley Institute executive director Renee Koijane, who became the director about a year ago, says her goals for SVI are to “bring in people that are not accessible here otherwise. I want to make it something our community holds precious and dear. A place to keep on learning, exploring and discovering.” One recent event presented by Squaw Valley Institute was surfer Bethany Hamilton. She was the teenage girl from Hawaii depicted in the movie Soul Surfer, who returned to competitive surfing after her arm was bitten off by a shark. Also presenting at SVI in the past year were: Cheryl Strayed, whose raw memoir about her hiking the Pacific Crest Trail became an Oprah pick and New York Times bestseller; Pulitzer Prize winning financial author Gretchen Morgenson; and most recently, Joel Gallatin, small farm guru extraordinaire and a star of Michael Pollan’s best selling book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

As the packed house for Strayed’s event proved, when the Squaw Valley Institute brings fascinating speakers to Squaw Valley, the people will come. That seems to especially be the case if the speaker is also connected to our outdoor oriented proclivities such as hiking or skiing. For example, while Strayed’s bestseller was to a great extent about a woman trying to fix her broken life, the fact that she did so by hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, section of which is just a few miles above Squaw Valley, certainly helped bring in the crowds.

“We would like to make the Squaw Valley Institute more relevant and special for all generations and a multitude of demographics in the Tahoe Region,” says Koijane. “We want to reach out to more families, bring in more relevant topics for the community.” While Tahoe will continue to be known for the beauty of it’s natural surroundings, Koijane believes, “We have to work on a cultural, artistic place to live as well. My hope is SVI can meet that challenge.”

The Squaw Valley Institute is a non-profit organization formed in 2002 by a group of North Tahoe and Squaw Valley people who wanted to bring speakers and events to the Tahoe region. Their focus in creating the SVI was for it to be “an incubator for critical thought.” The renowned speakers they hire, however, don’t come cheap. The money for fees and the organization’s bare bones overhead come from memberships, grants and various levels of sponsorships. Since Koijane has come on board there has been a new interest in revitalizing the organization, and part of that effort has led to a doubling of memberships over the past year and a half. For a $100 annual fee, members get invitations to members-only events, preferred seating, and a tax deduction. But Koijane says that many members join simply because they “really want this organization to continue to exist.” They understand that organizations such as SVI “make sure that mountain towns are cool places to live.”

In addition to members, Koijane is working on attracting sponsorships.

“I would love to find a sponsor for each event,” she says.

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Sponsors get publicity and marketing and can help people attend the event that otherwise wouldn’t be there. For example, a sponsor can provide tickets for one hundred kids that would otherwise not get to see the show. Two of their largest sponsors are Squaw Valley USA and the Queen of Hearts Fund, a group of Tahoe-Truckee women who have joined together to provide funding for a number of organizations in the region. Several area hotels have provided venues for events without charge, including the Resort at Squaw Creek and Plumb Jacks in Squaw Valley and The Cedar House Sport Hotel in Truckee.

While bringing high quality speakers to the mountains is an expensive endeavor, Koijane says Tahoe has one major advantage: Speakers love the opportunity to visit Lake Tahoe, and some are willing to discount their fees for the chance to do so. When Bethany Hamilton came to speak, she allotted extra time to jump on a snowboard and do a little surfing on the snow.

Koijane says that “whatever speaker we bring I want to be a leader in the field, the forefront of a conversation and discussion, and relevant to the community.”

Coming attractions:

April 4

Kiva-Philanthropy and Microfinancing

Julie Hanna, chair of the board of Kiva, considered one of the “hottest non-profits on the planet,” will speak about how Kiva has become the world’s largest micro-lending marketplace. They have delivered over $350 million to over 80,000 small scale entrepreneurs in 62 countries. Micro-lending has been found an effective means of reducing poverty and increasing jobs in developing countries. An example of a micro-loan might be providing the money for a sewing machine for a seamstress or a tractor for a rural coffee farmer.

June 27

The Western States with Diane Van Deren

Two days before the grueling 100 mile long Western States Run from Squaw Valley to Auburn, Diane Van Deren, one of the world’s best ultra runners will discuss the challenges of her own running career. Van Deren suffered from frequent, debilitating seizures until she had brain surgery. The surgery eliminated the seizures, but changed her ability to judge the passing of time, or where she is going. She can now run for days on end with no desire for sleep, but sometimes she gets lost on the trail.