Sustainability has been a hot topic for most of the last decade and the Vineyard, in particular, has embraced the nationwide effort towards local reliance and conservation. More and more Islanders are getting involved on a local level in the green movement. But sustainability on a personal level can be challenging at times, particularly for those working in the nonprofit sector and even more so in the last few economically challenging years.
To encourage those who aspire to careers that advance sustainability on the Island, The Martha’s Vineyard Vision Fellowship was established in 2006 by the Kohlberg family. Jerome and Nancy Kohlberg, who have a seasonal home in Edgartown, recently purchased the Vineyard Gazette.
The fellowship provides financial assistance for further education and career enhancement for Islanders with a focus on fostering a sustainable Vineyard. Since its inception, 23 Islanders have either completed or are currently involved in a fellowship, including people involved in agriculture, fisheries, green building, and elder issues, among other interests. Two to four new fellows will be selected in 2011.
What do they all have in common besides a love for the Vineyard and an interest in its health and future? “They all know in their bones what it takes to keep the beauty and character of the Island alive,” said fellowship director Carolyn Champ of the current and former fellows. “They have a real vision of themselves and a plan to map out all the things they want to learn, and they want to create a life for themselves on the Vineyard.
“They should be engaged in the Island and really care about the future — and just have this absolute passion. One of the things we look for is somebody who’s already been involved in a nonprofit or progressive organization.”
Shelley Edmundson, 30, is a prime example of someone who has demonstrated the necessary commitment. A summer resident since childhood, she has volunteered year-round since 2008 with the Dukes County/Martha’s Vineyard Fishermen’s Association, the sponsoring organization for her fellowship. Sponsoring organizations also receive support from the Vineyard Vision Fellowship.
After receiving a masters in biological science, Ms. Edmundson realized that she wanted to continue her education with a focus on marine ecology, but didn’t have the means. She recalls, “When I was looking to go back to school my advisor suggested that I look into different scholarships. What I was doing was exactly in line with the fellowship’s mission and it was just a perfect fit.” In September, she started working towards a doctorate in zoology at the University of New Hampshire’s College of Life Sciences and Agriculture.
Inspired by her work here, Ms. Edmundson has chosen as her focus the biology, ecology, and fishery management of the channeled whelk, known familiarly as conch. She said, “I realized that there are so many biological gaps in knowledge on the species,” the largest component in the local fishery. While she is seeking grant money for conch research, she is also involved in an ongoing winter flounder project in local waters.
“Fishing is such a huge component of the Island in many ways,” Ms. Edmundson said. “I think as the world grows, and the oceans are overfished, and regulations are imposed, fishing communities are hit hard. We’re lucky because we’re a strong community and a lot of fisherman here are committed to sustainability. They’ve gotten a lot of negative play when, in fact, a lot of them are really aware.”
Fellowship alumna Noli Taylor and her former mentor Melinda DeFeo are both involved with the Island-Grown Initiative and the Island-Grown Schools farm-to-school program.
Ms. Taylor, who was instrumental in establishing the Island-Grown Schools program, completed her fellowship two years ago. To enhance the skill set acquired through her time with the IGI and her work with sustainable agriculture in Hawaii, she designed a two-year program to study nonprofit management, as well as community sustained agriculture. IGI sponsored Ms. Taylor in order to have her take over the managerial aspect of the organization. She took a number of short courses in nonprofit management and fundraising and made site visits to successful agriculture-based organizations off Island.
“Through the fellowship I was able to travel around and talk to people in other communities,” Ms. Taylor said. “That was so helpful, and the people I met are now my mentors, and I’m getting great advice. I was able to bring ideas back home and put them right to work.”
Ms. Taylor is a good example of what Ms. Champ refers to as “boundary spanners.”
“A lot of people who work on the Vineyard have to wear many hats,” she said, noting that many fellows are looking to stretch their utility within their sponsoring organizations. “They can really visualize how these different pieces come together to create sustainable communities.”
One of the founders of the IGI, Ms. DeFeo learned of the fellowship and the flexibility that it offers to mid-career people through her experience as a mentor. She has worked for a number of local nonprofits, including the Polly Hill Arboretum and The FARM Institute. She is currently the Island-Grown Schools enrichment coordinator and the garden coordinator for the Edgartown school where she is dedicated to agricultural education and awareness.
A native whose family has deep roots on the Island, Ms. DeFeo has had to juggle a number of part-time jobs, along with managing a small farming enterprise of her own and raising two foster children. “I probably wouldn’t have been able to take the time out and find the money to support the things I wanted to do,” she said.
Her two-year fellowship, which she started last spring, has enabled her to take online classes, attend a national conference on agriculture in the schools, and work with an urban youth garden project in Baltimore.
Ms. DeFeo plans to use the experience she will gain during her fellowship in effort to encourage teachers to include food education in their curriculum. “I’m hoping that I’m modeling, enabling them, and engaging them,” she said.
“Right now it’s an intense learning curve,” Ms. DeFeo said. “I don’t think I would have ever gotten the energy and the gumption to do all this. I’m 50 and I’ve got a lot of irons in the fire.”
Matt Coffey, 32, finished his two-year fellowship last spring. Like Ms. DeFeo and Ms. Taylor, he was a mid-career fellow, having worked for a number of years on the Island as an architect.
He says that after applying to the Vineyard Vision Fellows with a plan to pursue an online master’s degree, he was encouraged to consider a less traditional plan. “They challenged me a bit to come up with the biggest, most immersive experience that I could think of,” he said. “I developed a four-part program of my own that was tailored to my interests.”
That program included receiving certification for professional leadership in energy and environmental design through the Green Building Council. Mr. Coffey completed a semester at Ecosa Institute in Arizona in radical sustainable design. He also attended two extraordinary workshops, one with a Pritzker Prize-winning architect in Australia and the other on bio-mimicry in the jungles of Costa Rica, where he had the chance to indoctrinate himself in the natural sciences as part of the program. “They were exceptional opportunities that were really beyond anything that I would have pursued on my own,” he said.
The Fellowship also sponsored a project Mr. Coffey worked on for Habitat for Humanity. He is now a member of the design team for the South Mountain Company. “Through all the different experiences, I’ve gotten to learn enough about all the aspects of sustainability to have had the chance to see the poetic art that it can become, and to understand the deep-rooted nature that has to be involved,” he said.
One of the Vineyard Vision Fellowship’s goals is to create a society and brain trust among fellows, mentors, and alumni. In order to spur an exchange of ideas and to foster a cooperative effort among local organizations, they host a series of gatherings throughout the spring and summer, including a week-long initiation outing, to bring together the members of the Fellowship community. “Bringing all these different facets of sustainability together opened my eyes to what sustainability really is,” Mr. Coffey said.
Ms. Taylor said, “A lot of exciting connections get made that way. Collaborations get born. That’s a big part — a sense of goodwill among organizations on the Island.”
Ms. DeFeo agrees. “Its really the support of like-minded people who really care about this place,” she said. “People who are granted fellowships will return here to float all that education and energy back to the Island, and that really honors my Island.”