One Sunday in November 2016, nearly 300 Islanders of all ages gathered at sunset in Dennis Alley Park, Oak Bluffs. They gathered to sing songs, listen to speakers, and show their resolve to stand together in support of basic human values. The event was arranged by Vineyard community members, many of whom did not know one another, but all of whom were concerned about the hate speech and rhetoric heard during the campaign, and the nationwide uptick in hate crimes. They coordinated via email, and one meeting, spreading the word about the event they named “We Stand Together,” and translated into Portuguese, “Estamos Todos Juntos.”
“It was very much a collaborative effort,” says Irene Bright-Dumm. “It was a beautiful moment for the community, to see the candles lit, to see Islanders come together to say we reject this kind of rhetoric, we reject hate speech, we stand with our community, we stand with communities all across the country.” Ms. Bright-Dumm is a reproductive health counselor, and recipient of a Martha’s Vineyard Vision Fellowship for her work bringing yoga therapy to recovery coaches at Martha’s Vineyard Community Services and the Lyme Center. She is also press liaison for the local nonpartisan community organizing group We Stand Together/Estamos Todos Juntos (WST/ETJ) that grew from that event.
“We didn’t know what this group was going to be,” says Laura Silber. Ms. Silber works as a chef and furniture maker, but her WST/ETJ involvement is informed by her advocacy efforts chairing the Island Parents Advisory Council on Special Education and many years of volunteering with nonprofit youth organizations. “We just knew there were people with concerns and there was no outlet on the Island for these concerns. There were individual specific groups with specific missions, but this was more of a broad, beyond-partisan type of group. We wanted to see where this would go.”
People began gathering weekly at the West Tisbury library, dividing into small groups, sharing concerns, personal experiences, and goals. “Then we brought it all together as a big group again,” Irene continues. “We wrote it all down, mapping out the concerns we share, the concerns we can really work on, the areas where we can really be productive.” The group began forming individual committees with specific focuses.
We Stand Together/Estamos Todos Juntos has since become a quiet but effective grassroots force with diverse membership and an impressive list of accomplishments. An early endeavor, through their women’s priorities and perspectives committee, organized Islanders to attend the January 2017 Women’s March in Washington, D.C., and a local sister rally at Five Corners. Committee leader Holly Mackenzie, Tisbury resident and mother of two, says she is “happy to be fighting the good fight every day.” The group has worked on legislation banning child marriage, and issues including reproductive rights and women’s health.
Soon after, President Trump announced his Executive Order on Border Security and immigration Enforcement Improvements. Uneasy about what effects this might have locally in terms of immigration and social justice, people were also concerned local police departments might be requested to do certain things that would then inflate town budgets, perhaps stretching them over their capacity. WST/ETJ formed Ombro a Ombro/Shoulder to Shoulder. Comprised of many participants, including Meiroka Nunes, chaplain with the International Union of Pastor and Volunteer Chaplains, owner of Quick & Easy Cleaning, and mother of three, and Jill De La Hunt, a former practicing attorney who currently is a hospice and bereavement therapist and volunteer chaplain — this committee worked building relationships among immigrant and nonimmigrant communities, and with organizations such as Island Clergy Association and Martha’s Vineyard Social Justice Leadership Foundation to collect and distribute information and host bilingual forums on immigrant rights. They developed a petition for a 2017 town warrant article limiting use of town funds and resources to enforce federal immigration laws, except in specific circumstances involving arrests for criminal offenses, and formalized current practices of community policing that respect the rights of all Islanders. In collaboration with Island law enforcement, WST/ETJ representatives presented the warrant article jointly with chiefs of police at town meetings, where it was overwhelmingly adopted by all six towns.
“A lot of citizens who were concerned about sweeping deportations didn’t fully understand the mechanisms by which that would be enacted,” explains Ms. Bright-Dumm. “So we put that conversation in the public in a way that gave people the tools to understand if our community votes on this in town meeting, here’s what it means in the larger context.” This highlights one key objective of the group — community organizing.
“We began to realize what [WST/ETJ] was best suited for was community organizing, not necessarily activism. Those are two different things,” Ms. Silber says. “What a community organizing group does is prep the community to then take larger actions, to take public-facing actions, to engage on a state level, to engage on a national level. But until you have that platform that joins all these disparate groups and brings these conversations into the public forum, it’s much more difficult to take that step to engage on a state and national level.”
Ms. Silber and Ms. Bright-Dumm first met at the November 2016 gathering where, by chance, they ended up lighting candles together for the entire crowd. Now they bounce sentences back and forth. “It’s really about accessing the institutions of democracy … the nitty-gritty work of community organizing is not glamorous, it’s not public-facing, it’s not just standing on street corners. It’s mostly having conversations with community members and leaders in a very patient way, moving conversations forward, educating, sharing information, and listening.”
The group maintains a “horizontal structure.” Diverse people make things happen. Two moving forces within the environmental/climate change/agriculture committee are research scientist Nicola Blake, native of England with a Ph.D. in atmospheric chemistry, and Keith Chatinover, a 17-year-old high school senior who recently advocated for legislation on Beacon Hill. Keith had been working on resistance to Eversource’s spraying of toxic herbicides to control vegetation underneath their power lines, culminating with a “stand out” in front of the Eversource building in Oak Bluffs. Keith invited State Representative Dylan Fernandes to attend.
“During this back and forth, Dylan brought up recent legislation he had filed to allow individual municipalities to ban chemicals as they see fit. It would allow our towns to vote to forbid Eversource from conducting their dangerous spraying. I think that I was asked to testify because I was one of the leaders of the grassroots effort that had brought together Democrats, Republicans, and independents in unified opposition,” Keith says. In another example of community organizing, the WST/ETJ education committee was recently instrumental in assisting the Martha’s Vineyard Public Schools’ efforts to undertake a district-wide evaluation of all health and wellness programing, including substance use prevention. Other stakeholders included Break the Silence MV and Dukes County commissioners.
“We had multiple conversations with different stakeholders. We figured out where the intersection was, and where the differences were.” Ms. Silber says. By helping the various parties identify goals, researching best-practice policies, and drawing on the expertise of Joy Robinson-Lynch, consultant to schools and social service agencies on adolescent sexual health, they reframed the conversation between stakeholders, and moved things forward.
WST/ETJ ‘s Facebook page is thanks to Jean Cabonce, a social media and email point person. “I do this work because standing on the sidelines is no longer an option, while our rights, democracy, fellow citizens, community members including immigrants and nondocumented residents, friends, families, and the protections of nature are threatened and negatively impacted,” says Ms. Cabonce, who grew up on the Big Island of Hawaii. “I’m a wash-ashore from the West Coast, not new to activism. My experience draws from protesting against the World Trade Organization in the ‘Battle of Seattle,’ along with San Francisco’s Global Exchange, to serving as an administrative director for Center for Judicial Excellence, which served as a proponent for family court reform. Along with my IT/tech and organizational skills, I hope to serve my community locally toward a more progressive, sustainable, and just home for all inhabitants, and in the bigger picture, the rest of humanity.”
“This is a difficult time in our country right now,” Ms. Silber concludes. “There’s a lot of division. There’s a lot of fear. There are actions that can be taken to change things, to minimize that fear, and to transform situations. Every citizen has the ability to engage with this democracy and to move change forward. Democracy is not a spectator sport. In order to have a vibrant and living democracy that continues, we all have to engage. It’s not as hard as you think.”
WST/ETJ is a nonpartisan community organizing group dedicated to civic engagement, supporting our democracy, rights, and planet through collaboration and education. For more information, email email@example.com.