Soundings: Telling our story

This summer’s new publication from the Martha’s Vineyard Donors Collaborative (MVDC) could hardly have a more ambitious title: “Understanding the Vineyard.” It represents the fruits of a herculean effort to categorize and catalog the nonprofit organizations — more than 150 of them — at work sustaining those qualities of Vineyard life which we cherish most.

Simply perusing the list of nonprofits — from such massive enterprises as Community Services and the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital to such quirkily individual exercises in life-enrichment as the Vineyard Sinfonietta, Martha’s Vineyard Skate Park and Polly Hill Arboretum — is enough to make you want to jump in, pick a nonprofit and become a supporter. By this measure, “Understanding the Vineyard” is a thumping success for the Donors Collaborative, whose stated mission is “to sustain the Vineyard by expanding philanthropy and strengthening Island nonprofit organizations.”

And yet, I’m afraid that even as this report advances the MVDC’s mission, it falls short of fulfilling the promise of its title.

“The greatest challenge we face,” declares the report on its opening page, “is to figure out how to manage growth and development so we can continue to be enriched by all the Vineyard has to offer while ensuring our children, and their children, can enjoy the same experience.”

This opening is a familiar version of the conventional wisdom that has become the way many of us talk about the Vineyard. But to identify growth and development today as the central issue — after all we’ve accomplished on this front over the past three decades, and despite all the evidence that the Vineyard’s boom years are ending — is to frame the challenges of the future in the language of the past.

“Understanding the Vineyard” presents a grand tour of the nonprofit landscape, beginning with the conservation groups at work on “the greatest challenge” — protecting the Island’s scenic beauty and historic charm. It continues with a spread devoted to the Island’s cultural and recreational organizations. Finally, inside the back cover, it ends with a list of organizations at work in the arena of health and safety, housing, and human services.

Surely the donor who supports any one of these organizations is doing something positive for the quality of Vineyard life. But just as surely, I’d argue, the battlefront has shifted, and the area the MVDC chose to address last in this summer’s report now represents the most important front in the battle for the future of Martha’s Vineyard.

This question of priorities and perspectives is not trivial. The way we tell our community’s story — the way we identify the central issues before us — profoundly shapes the decisions we make about our future.

Imagine if the MVDC had opened “Understanding the Vineyard” by declaring, “The greatest challenge we face today is to the human ecology of our Island community. After nearly four decades of battles over growth and development, we have a rich set of regulatory tools, a Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank with its own guaranteed funding stream, and a robust family of conservation and historic preservation agencies. Now, ironically, the Vineyard’s very success at preserving itself as an attractive place is driving up the cost of life here, endangering this community’s middle class and threatening to make the Island a monoculture of millionaires.” Perhaps if we started from this perspective, the issue of housing might not have been relegated to the back of the book, lumped together with health care and human services.

In the closing credits of “Understanding the Vineyard,” the MVDC acknowledges that its greatest single source is “The Island Plan,” published early last year by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission. This helps greatly to explain the publication’s perspective.

The most preposterous claim in “Understanding the Vineyard” is this, lifted almost directly from the MVC document: “With current zoning and available land the number of houses on Island could increase 70%, from 17,100 to 29,000.”

“The Island Plan” laid out three growth scenarios for the future of Martha’s Vineyard. In the first (you might want to call it Jim Athearn’s Happiest Dream), not a single new structure is ever constructed here. The second (the Doomsday Scenario) described what might happen if every Island conservation group, including the Land Bank, suddenly announced that they will never accept another parcel of conservation land — and if every square inch of Island property zoned for development were developed to the absolute limit allowed by the law.

The third scenario laid out by the “Island Plan” was a mathematical artifact: the arithmetic midpoint between these two impossible extremes.

If you accept these premises for what they were — purely hypothetical starting points — you might find some value in all the graphs and color-coded maps that the MVC spun out from the resulting numbers. The problem is that just one year later, these premises that allowed the authors of “The Island Plan” to discuss a 70 percent increase in houses on the Island without sounding like crazy people have been forgotten, but the memory of the statistic remains.

The Vineyard has a thriving infrastructure of organizations that benefit from a “sky-is-falling” narrative that places growth and development at the center of our story, as the single most urgent issue we now face. The challenge for all of us is to keep on supporting the groups at work in this important arena, while discerning how this community’s story is changing, how new challenges are emerging and how we must adjust to meet them.

Now that would be a huge step toward understanding the Vineyard.