Fragile social contract


We Vineyarders are a privileged lot. It’s not a matter of wealth, nor even of abundant natural treasures, and we’re no less subject to illness, distress, and the rest of life’s array of curveballs than mainlanders are. It’s that we’ve landed in a community which provides each of us with pretty wide personal latitude while also nourishing particular pride in how lavishly we care for one another.

Much of this social contract is unspoken and personal, made good and renewed with each ride offered, each meal train joined, holiday dinner shared, each loss taken as our own. It is self-generated and uncompromised, and almost always does its job. Some of the social contract, though — usually the expensive and resource-intensive parts — is entrusted to a web of private and public nonprofit institutions.

These organizations exist only to represent community interests and serve community needs. Board members must act as owners on behalf of the community. But it can get complicated for community nonprofits, because they also need to feed themselves and to self-actualize. And if they’re monopoly service organizations — frequently the case in a small Island community — the pressure is really on: They have to serve a very wide range of sometimes conflicting demands and needs while protecting their institutional prerogatives. The conflicts are best resolved when these organizations secure stakeholder compromise. It’s a tough part of nonprofit governance, but may be the most important. If their sense of mission gets divorced from our needs — well, then, who needs them? And some early warning bells have gone off these past couple of weeks.

The Wildflower Court unit at Windemere is a 13-bed unit serving residents in an independent living setting, soon to be shuttered. Within the complex set of elder care services it was intended to fill an important need, but apparently it was underutilized. The hospital has now determined that Wildflower Court can’t be saved, or doesn’t fit in its plans, and present residents will be relocated in the near future. Windemere and the hospital fall under the private nonprofit rubric — they need to look after their own security, of course, but they also need to meet our needs.

The hospital’s CEO says they’ve tried their best and just can’t reach volumes sufficient to make the Wildflower Court unit financially viable. That may be, but hospitals and long-term care facilities are of necessity made up of winners and losers — programs that thrive and programs that don’t, programs that pay overhead and contribute to the (nonprofit’s) bottom line, and those that don’t. In this case, at least some of the families received scant or no notice until the program’s end date was upon them. And Ken Chisholm, Windemere’s popular director, has disappeared without explanation, adding to the lack of ease Windemere families feel. Especially in a monopoly nonprofit community hospital, if you’re going to single out and kill a unique program and play the cost card, it’s best to share the calculus with the community first.

Trade Wind Fields Preserve is a 71-acre Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank (MVLB) property in the heart of Oak Bluffs. It is reportedly among the most heavily used Land Bank properties, likely because it is so convenient to use, and at least in part because it has been a magnet for a portion of the Vineyard dog-owning community for many years.

Dog owners have a long association with and great attachment to Trade Wind as a center of both canine and human social life. Dogs get to romp together on the fields safely and without bothering humans, a rare opportunity as beaches restrict access. And a caring and sharing set of perhaps 20 to 30 humans, mainly but not exclusively seniors grown extremely close to one another, has formed a self-tending and close-knit community which is impressive to witness, as this writer and his dog do from time to time.

Trade Wind Fields works for dog owners because dogs can be off-leash, chase tennis balls and each other, and generally let off steam and socialize. The problem is that there are conservation concerns, related to preserving sandplain grasses and the rare purple tiger beetle, cited by MVLB as sufficient to limit dog and owner use of the property to perimeter trails. The humans can accommodate this, but the whole point — dogs exercising off-leash — will be lost.

The Land Bank’s website says that dogs are not a danger to the grass or the beetles, but its new brochure says differently, and its newly published rules of use threaten offenders with an escalating series of punishments, ending with criminal-trespass charges. It’s not clear whether any other of the Land Bank’s 67 other properties bear such zealous protections. And this comes from the otherwise admired organization whose website homepage proudly asserts that “all constituents of the Land Bank … deserve to have some land set aside for their special needs.” The Land Bank has legitimate concerns and responsibilities, but those include doing the heavy lifting of crafting compromise. Doing something because you can doesn’t seem like a winning, community-supporting approach.

School bullying, a particularly insidious and nasty intrusion on a safe school environment, is reportedly taking on a new anti-immigrant dimension. It is especially critical to cut this down immediately as mindless and heartless Trumpian campaign promises are translated into enforcement orders.

As described in Juliana Germani’s “Saudade” MV Times column ( and a thoughtful essay by Bruce Nevin (“Immigration bullying in our schools,” this week, Vineyard schoolchildren are being spit on and taunted, and told to expect to be deported. News of this behavior, delivered at a Feb. 19 meeting of Brazilian parents and supporters at the Charter School, seems to have come as a surprise to school superintendent Matt D’Andrea. And that’s worrisome: There’s no margin for error here, and if despite best intentions and careful policy statements this odious behavior is occurring, and Mr. D’Andrea doesn’t know about it, there’s a serious reporting and management problem in the superintendent’s office. Mr. D’Andrea has made clear he understands that this kind of bullying and taunting needs to be stopped dead in its tracks. As Mr. Nevin’s essay argues, it takes more than policy manuals to get the job done.