May 14, 2021 | NEWS | By Lily Weaver | Photo courtesy of Kat Miller-Stevens

Professor Katrina Miller-Stevens is a part of the Department of Economics and Business at Colorado College, specializing in social entrepreneurship, nonprofit organizations, and collaboration. Professor Miller-Stevens has direct experience working in the nonprofit sector, acting as a budget coordinator, grants manager, and program evaluator for 10 years. She examines the similarities and differences between benefit corporations and nonprofit organizations, as well as the impacts of government regulations on nonprofit lobbying expenditures and governance practices in her academic research. 

The Catalyst had the opportunity to engage with Professor Miller-Stevens about her work in the Department of Economics and Business at CC, the creation of the new business, economics, and society major, and her contributions to the State of the Rockies Project. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

When did you first develop a passion for economics and business? Was this the path you always thought you would follow?

I’m in the economics and business department, but I’m on the business side. So my background is not economics. It’s definitely business, and especially nonprofit management related. I did know that I would go into something related to business. But my emphasis and focus is social enterprises and nonprofit management, which is kind of a subset of business. And since I was a kid, I wanted to be involved in some way in nonprofit organizations. And I remember thinking about that really young, and not understanding, of course at that time, what a nonprofit was, but knowing I wanted to work in the sector that is working with other people closely and helping other people. I’m also really passionate about public policy. And I kept thinking, just as I was going through school and my jobs, and how could I kind of link public policy and business, the nonprofit aspect and teaching just seemed like a natural fit for that. And then volunteering in the nonprofit sector while I’m teaching. So that’s kind of the path that led me here. And a lot of nonprofit work, especially as it relates to teaching, you find those programs and all kinds of different departments, like public affairs, public administration, business, and economics. 

What nonprofits around the Springs would you recommend people getting involved with? What are some of your favorites? And why are they some of your favorites?

That’s a hard question to answer because there are so many good nonprofits. But what I would recommend is that if someone is interested in volunteering for a nonprofit organization, that they look up the Colorado Nonprofit Association and find volunteer opportunities starting there, because it really is a central hub of volunteer opportunities that aren’t available through the CCE and CC-oriented programs. Because if you’re interested in something, almost guaranteed, there’s a nonprofit that’s doing something with that. The Colorado Nonprofit Association is really neat because it’s set up so that they’re an umbrella organization in the state that represents nonprofit organizations, and they offer all kinds of services. But one of the things they offer is that you can post your volunteer opportunities there. But it’s neat, because it’s like a search engine where you could just type in what you’re interested in, and things will come up.

How have your multiple passions from the nonprofit sector impacted your work at CC? What’s interesting now, at CC, my passion is helping kids. I’m interested in kids and access to education, young kids, elementary school. I do all those things in my free time now. So I volunteer at organizations and serve on their nonprofit boards of directors to impact the community in that way, and then I bring those experiences and examples into the classroom. And separately, my research that I do is not all nonprofit related. A lot of it, except for my new projects with the State of the Rockies and the nonprofit work and research, is mostly related to boards of directors. So I’ve sort of taken my younger volunteer experiences and have moved into new roles with nonprofits as time passes.

What is the State of the Rockies Project, and how did it start? 

So one of the things I’m really interested in with nonprofit organizations is how they influence public policy because nonprofit organizations play a role in policymaking through advocacy efforts. They organize marches, maybe that’s a grassroots effort, or they’ve just participated in larger collaborations that advocate for an issue. I was interested in how nonprofit organizations impact the oil and gas industry in the Rocky Mountain West and specifically fracking. And for the Rockies project, we wanted to narrow in on kind of a specific topic. And so what could we address in the fracking industry that has not already been extensively researched? And the answer was the abandoned wells. So a corporation comes in, they have their little setup, and then either they run out of money, or they just change location, and they just abandon these wells. But the wells are sitting there, no one buys them. And so how is that impacting the communities, the economic impacts and the environmental impacts? And how are nonprofits and grassroots organizations leading the movements around abandoned fracking and the companies that are associated with the wells? I was thinking and having a conversation with a colleague that I mentioned on the Rockies website, Jonathan Pierce, we were just talking one day about who the nonprofits really are. And what are they? How are they using their voice? And how are they creating different social movements, whether it’s through media or various events? And will this be a great project for the State of the Rockies? I think that was sort of the impetus of how it all came about.

Was there anything like that at CC beforehand? Is this the first time there has been something like this at CC, a project like this?

Well, Jean Lee, an environmental studies professor at CC, recently wrote a paper on collaboration around fracking and how organizations, whether they’re nonprofits or government agencies or private businesses, collaborate to influence policy around fracking in Colorado, which is super similar to what I’m interested in. But she and I have talked, and so my focus will be a little different than hers. But so far as I know, no one else on campus is doing this type of project. She’s doing something kind of an arm’s length away. And that’s great. I mean, I want to work with her and anyone else on campus who is interested in this topic. I’m hoping to find them.

How do students get involved in these efforts? And have they taken a role in contributing to this project so far?

Well, so I’ll be teaching one class every academic year on this topic. And in those classes, students can get involved by just learning about it. And then so much of the class focuses on advocacy, how can you get involved in advocacy and social movements, and so they can take that knowledge and kind of launch their own interests. But also, we have a fellowship program, where I have summer fellows working with me on this specific project, and I’ll be hiring fellows every summer. And they also participate in a few adjunct blocks with me. And so it’s kind of a long-term commitment. And that’s just direct involvement with the research itself. And hopefully, we’ll be presenting at a conference and expanding that knowledge further with the students is. My hope is that we can find many other projects that students can do as well. That’s the goal, but right now, you know, the thinking is limited because everything’s remote. 

How do you see this project expanding once all the work does not have to be remote? 

I want to go visit sites, the actual abandoned well sites, and if we can, interview people who work for nonprofit organizations that are involved in advocacy related to this issue, or people who have led social movements around this issue. So I know we can do all of that remote like we’re doing. But in person is so much better because so much of what I care about is the human element of public policy and the human element of how decisions affect people. And you gain so much more in an interview. Of course, in person, you learn so much more about a human being you’re speaking with. 

How did your focus on the human connection aspect of business contribute to your creation of the business, economics, and society major?

Well, on a personal level, so much of what I am interested in is impact, whether it’s on people, or on the environment, or how people impact others. We really wanted to think about a creative way to bring together the economic discipline, business, but also this element of society. And by society, we don’t just mean people, we mean the environment as well. So it’s all-encompassing. And that’s because that element is really important to me, it’s really important to Christina Rader, it’s important to other colleagues in my department. And in brainstorming, you know, we really wanted to do something with business, because we had Economics and Business Department, but we only had economics majors. I wanted to think about something we could do with business that’s interdisciplinary and really emphasizes that we care about society, people, the environment, but also how business impacts society and economics, and how the past impacts society, and then how society and the environment impacts business. These were just bigger discussions, you know, kind of big picture. If we could dream, what would it look like? My brain often goes to something I like to refer to as the social fabric of all of these things: policy, business, economics, impact. All of it in my brain is networked together and creating the social fabric, and I think the economics of this business and society major illustrates that really well. Because it is taking so many things and combining them together in the interdisciplinary nature of the major. Because the elements of the major are so well known and recognizable (economics and business, in the business and society piece), that means that employers from so many different places are going to see this major on people’s transcripts and think, “Oh, wow, I recognize all of those things,” and “What an interesting major.” I think doors will open to students. I just see it as a major that will open multiple doors instead of just one track. 

There are multiple ways to get involved in the State of the Rockies Project. They have photo contests, for example. Orange Skies encourages students to take photos of the fires in Rocky Mountain West. Additionally, the business, economics, and society major is new to the department as of Block 5 of this year. Students can petition to have classes from other departments count towards the business, economics, and society major.

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