There are some people on Martha’s Vineyard who carry the distinctive mark of our community on their shoulders wherever they go, constantly devoting their time and energy to making our Island home a better place to live. These folks are often the unsung heroes — working behind the scenes in various facets of everyday life to enrich the lives of all on-Island, without asking for anything in return.
The Martha’s Vineyard Medal is awarded by the Martha’s Vineyard Museum annually to leaders in the community to recognize their outstanding commitment to preserving the history, arts, and culture of Martha’s Vineyard.
Because, in essence, these three things (among others) are what make this place so special — they are what make the Vineyard the Vineyard.
But the people who live here are the ones who create that art, preserve that history, and exemplify the culture of togetherness and mindfulness we all share.
This year, Steve Bernier, Skip Finley, and Juliana Germani are being honored with the medal for their ongoing commitment to the environment, community engagement, and education of our youth.
Each of these folks have played integral roles in creating a better Martha’s Vineyard, and are intent on continuing this mission.
Steve Bernier, owner and operator of Cronig’s Market since 1985, has always been a community-oriented businessman and philanthropist. But when he moved to the Vineyard, he began to take on a new vision of an Island with less of an environmental footprint. He wasted no time in making change happen.
Over the years, Bernier has used Cronig’s not only as a way to get good, fresh food to folks, but also to inject his own environmentally conscious way of doing business into every aspect of his establishment.
Bernier stopped selling cigarettes, Styrofoam products, and eventually certain-size plastic bottles, despite the financial consequences.
Bernier installed solar panels in the parking lot of Cronig’s in order to reduce the environmental footprint the market would have, and created a program to give year-round Islanders 20 percent off at his stores. Bernier helped sponsor free Tuesday Nights at the Museum, allowing thousands of people access to the Martha’s Vineyard Museum who might otherwise not be able to visit.
Bernier told The Times that he didn’t know much about environmentalism and conservation until he came to Cronig’s, and saw potential. His immediate focus was the community, and the environment. And over the 35 years he has owned and operated Cronig’s, that dedication has played out in the choices he and his staff have made.
“I was a Cub Scout and a Boy Scout growing up. I was going to become a forest ranger. Then I walked into a grocery store, and never came out,” Bernier laughed.
Bernier said the Island has a special quality that seems to bring out the best in people. “Does the Island of Martha’s VIneyard bring out those things in us sometimes? I think it does,” Bernier said.
One motto of Bernier’s is, “Be a part of the solution, not the problem.” And he has operated not only his business, but his entire life under that phrase.
“It’s really lots of little decisions that you make over a long period of time, nothing monumental. Where does the need to do the right thing come from?” Bernier asked. “I think we need to do more things the right way.”
As of Wednesday, July 15, Cronigs went to a 10 percent charge for the use of paper bags in the store, now that reusable bags are being offered. He said that the charge isn’t to make the store more money, it is to drive forward positive change, and influence people’s decisions in a good way. This is just one example of how Bernier and Cronig’s have been at the forefront of environmental activism here on-Island.
When asked how he gives back to the Island community, Bernier said, “I give back by providing good food, good service, and a good way of doing business.”
“I think we should all just try to be a part of the solution, not the problem,” he said.
Skip Finley has been involved with more than 40 U.S. radio stations across the county. He created WYOB radio on the Vineyard to teach high school students all about broadcast media and the radio industry. Despite his repeated attempts at retirement since age 50, Finley continues to return to his role as a philanthropist, and is a dedicated member of his community.
Known for his work in marketing, and formerly the Oak Bluffs town columnist for the Vineyard Gazette, Finley’s mind is bursting with knowledge about Martha’s Vineyard.
His book, “Historic Tales of Oak Bluffs,” tells whimsical and fascinating stories about the town that are seldom known, even by some of the most seasoned Islanders.
He also is incredibly knowledgeable on whaling history, and authored a book, “Whaling Captains of Color: America’s First Meritocracy,” about the many black whaling captains throughout the U.S. and on the Island.
Finley told The Times he has wanted to be in media since he was 8 years old. Eventually, he got a job in Boston, and wound up working in radio.
Over the years, he spearheaded dozens of radio stations across the country, and eventually decided to retire to the Vineyard. But his retirement didn’t last long, and Finley started up his own radio station at the high school, WYOB.
“We started it out as a cool little club, and built basically a professional radio studio in a tiny room in the school,” Finley said.
Finley thought that a reggae format station might appeal to a younger audience, and not many people were doing it at the time (plus there is an age-old reggae history on the Island. Think Hot Tin Roof).
At the height of the radio station club, Finley said, around 70 kids were involved.
When asked why Finley got so involved in the history of Martha’s Vineyard, he said that most people who come here for the sun and fun don’t know much about the place they’re visiting. And even some locals have limited knowledge of Island history.
“Oak Bluffs is the first town on the Island to be built all at once, bet you didn’t know that. Oak Bluffs was built largely with whaling money, bet you didn’t know that either,” Finley laughed.
Finley said that he wanted to highlight the incredible African Americans on Martha’s Vineyard and their part in the Island’s history. “A lot of these history books have an African American section. But blacks have been involved in our Island for a long time, so I started recording all my research chronologically,” Finley said.
According to Finley, the Martha’s Vineyard Museum is the perfect place to highlight and preserve the milestone legacy of the Island, and lay out the history of it piece by piece.
“This place is so rich with history and culture. We already have all the jewels on the Island, and now we have the perfect box to show them off in,” Finley said.
Juliana Germani moved to the Island five years ago, and immediately realized that even though the Brazilian community on Martha’s Vineyard was growing and already substantial, there was little information about their historical presence or their current contributions.
She sought out a way to give voice to the many Brazilian people on-Island who have dedicated themselves to improving our way of life here. She found a medium in The Martha’s Vineyard Times by creating a bilingual column called “Saudade: News from and for the Brazilian community/Notícias de e para a comunidade brasileira.”
In addition to writing for The Times, Germani was also a teacher of Portuguese as a Heritage Language at the high school for three years, and was always finding new ways to bring people together across barriers. Germani told The Times that her work on Martha’s Vineyard started right here at the paper, writing her bilingual column. But her work for The Times wasn’t her first interest in newspapers; she said she has been interested in newspapers ever since she was a child growing up in Brazil.
But once she wrote her first column, Germani knew what an incredible opportunity she had.
“I realized that many Brazilian people on the Vineyard can’t read English, and many people don’t really have a voice or are being represented properly,” Germani said. “You would always see a Brazilian in the paper for doing something bad, but I knew how many positive roles the Brazilian community was playing. They have lived here and prospered, and opened businesses.”
But Germani said she doesn’t want to shy away from the difficulties and challenges within the Brazilian community either, although bringing those issues to the surface is not easy. “I really wanted to be able to open a door. If we are going to open this door, it needs to lead to a place where people come together, and everyone’s history is honored,” Germani said.
With the medium that she has created, Germani said, there is also great responsibility on her part to represent the true nature of the Brazilian community on the Vineyard — both the positives and the negatives.
“When you are one of the only voices representing a group of people, you have to ask the hard questions, you have to write the stories that might not be popular, because these are tough issues,” Germani said.
The ultimate goal of Germani’s advocacy is to create other advocates within the Brazilian community that can stand for themselves and their friends and neighbors. “Helping other people through the struggles that you have already experienced, that is what I am trying to accomplish,” she said.
The Martha’s Vineyard Museum introduced the Martha’s Vineyard Medal in 2009. The medal ceremony will be on July 27, at 5 pm, and will be held virtually on Zoom.