The third annual Martha’s Vineyard Living Local and Harvest Festival just ended. It began with a Friday night forum called Opportunities and Challenges – a Panel Discussion with Next Generation Island Leaders.
Having just turned 60, I am acutely aware of the role of young people (in their 20’s and 30’s) in my work life and civic life. At work they are a constant theme and a growing force. There is a great transition in process at South Mountain Company – from first generation leadership to the next. It’s a long, gradual journey, sometimes a bit frightening but mostly thrilling, and it’s gathering steam.
In Vineyard politics and civic affairs the young are quieter. Those of us in our fifties and sixties have been active, but we’re graying. Sometimes, in the rooms where policies are being shaped that will shape our future, there’s very little representation from the next generation. What does that mean? I know they’re here – it’s not like some places where the young have jumped ship – and I know they’re active and vital, but where are they? What are they doing? What are they thinking?
The forum was an attempt to find out by putting four of them up on the stage in a public setting and asking the following questions:
• How could your age group be more engaged in next generation leadership and governance of the Island?
• In considering our Island’s future, what do you care about the most that’s not being done now, or could be done better?
• What’s your one or two sentence dream for the island in 25 years?
And one other, a beauty that came from one of the panelists, Jeanette Vanderhoop, a member of the Wampanoag Tribe of Aquinnah:
• How do we keep the young and idealistic still idealistic when they’re no longer young?
And, of course, how do we keep them here? My friend Tom Chase, who grew up here, says that his father once told him that the Vineyard has two exports: fish and brains. As he tells it, his dad told him that just after Tom told him he’d decided to stay on the Vineyard (hmmm). Re-localization is about keeping our fish AND our brains right here where we’ve raised them. And doing more to do what we can within our local economy.
It was a lively evening. Besides the diverse panelists, we had two born-and-raised “elder” questioners and an engaged audience. I was the moderator. The panel consisted of a farmer, a boatbuilder, a Wampanoag environmentalist, and a mother of two with many civic responsibilities. Three of them were born and raised here; the fourth summered here and then married into an old island family. They all seemed a bit nervous, but they spoke beautifully, from the heart.
Each of the four individuals is so different that I hesitate to lump them together, but themes developed quickly: the appreciation each has for their many mentors and the community that has nurtured them; their love for the island and the delicate mix of their attachment to the “way it was” and their pragmatic sense that change must come; their understanding that sufficient affordable housing, meaningful work, and limits to growth are all keys to the future; their shared certainty that the time has come for them to take the ball and run with it.
It became a celebration of a way of life that they want to preserve, renew, and re-make. But not only a celebration. They also stirred the pot, and were clear that when we talk about the wonders of this place we also have to talk about the painful parts – the homelessness, the alcoholism, the fractiousness. Jeanette said “I always read the court report in the paper to remind me.” And they subscribed to the belief that you “can’t complain unless you’re willing to change it.”
The most poignant moment for me was when one of the panelists, Myles Thurlow, who described himself as “more interested in boats than school” when he was growing up, fielded a question. The question, from an audience member, was “How do you feel about Wind?”
Big question. There’s no hotter topic on the Vineyard right now. I will say more in a future post about this, but this piece isn’t about the topic, or the content of the response (although I will mention that all basically responded that “we gotta get real; this is an important, necessary, and desirable part of our future”).
It’s about what happened when Myles answered. As I listened to him, speaking off the cuff, I heard a compelling, coherent, elegantly worded statement. And I saw something in his face. It appeared to me that he was saying to himself “I said that? Wow.” And I sensed that he was feeling the stirring empowerment that comes from expressing yourself well, in public, about a controversial topic that you feel deeply about.
I was glad for him, and glad for us. In these perilous times, when these young men and women will be facing and contending with global climate destabilization and its monumental effects, they gave us Hope.
Thank you Chris Fischer, and Katie Carroll, and Myles Thurlow, and Jeanette Vanderhoop. We’ll have to do this again. You guys want to organize the next one? I’ll be glad to help.