The women regularly working to make a difference in their community “don’t always make the news,” but Jennelle Gadowski sure did.
A 23-year-old Martha’s Vineyard activist and third-generation West Tisbury resident, Gadowski was announced as one of 121 women recognized as a Commonwealth Heroine by the Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women, an award that celebrates individuals who “perform unheralded acts on a daily basis that make our homes, neighborhoods, cities, and towns better places to live,” according to the commission website. The 19th annual cohort of Commonwealth Heroines was celebrated on Wednesday, June 22, at the Venezia Hotel in Dorchester, with remarks from commission chairwoman Denella Clark and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito.
“It was such a beautiful show of support, and a testament to what a single individual can do that can impact and lead the change on a bigger scale,” Gadowski said.
Gadowski was nominated as a Commonwealth Heroine by state Rep. Dylan Fernandes, D-Falmouth.
“Jennelle has consistently stood up for civil rights on Martha’s Vineyard, and worked tirelessly to
make the Island a more welcoming and accepting place for everyone,” Fernandes said in a press release. “Her leadership is an example we can all follow, and I cannot think of a more deserving individual to receive the Commonwealth Heroine Award this year.”
The recommendation was a surprise to Gadowski, since she primarily works behind the scenes.
“I was just so taken aback. I thought it was a mistake or something. But, no, it seemed like a great honor and a privilege, and I was so grateful to have been even nominated or considered,” she said.
Gadowski is a busy woman on the Island. She is the chair of the NAACP Martha’s Vineyard branch’s LGBTQ committee, where she pushed for Island select boards to fly the Progress Pride flag on town flagpoles. She is also a part of several other civic engagement and activist groups, such as the Young Activists for Social Justice Martha’s Vineyard, Black Lives Matter, the League of Women Voters of Martha’s Vineyard, and others. Gadowski really ramped up her volunteerism and activism to help others around January 2020.
“It’s to help people and give back to the community. It’s really important,” she said. “I have a lot of love for the Island and this community here … they made a big part into shaping who I am.”
Gadowski shared a part of what drove her activism on the Island. “I feel we get so wrapped up in what we do in our day-to-day and our things, but I try to give the bigger scope, the bigger picture in terms of, like, ‘OK, that was a bad day, but things are so much worse for other people. This situation is not as bad as other things that may be happening,’” she said. “How are you going to change that? How are you going to make that into action? I use that every day to try to be a better person and better outlook and expand my knowledge. I think that’s the best we can be to support each other and learn and grow.”
Working to make the Island a better place has always been something Gadowski strived for, even volunteering at the veterans’ shelter during middle school.
“This is just like, a buildup of just wanting to make the world a better place. It sounds so cliché,” she said with a chuckle. “Personally, I’ve been through a lot, and I’ve been hurt a lot. I just never want someone to feel or go through those things. If I can make things better for the next person, that would be for the best.”
Gadowski told The Times she wants to continue meeting new people and learning new subjects to be able to better apply what she knows toward helping others and raising awareness of important issues on Martha’s Vineyard, such as augmenting the voices of Black and indigenous Islanders and Islanders who are a part of the LGBTQ community. There were times when working for a cause made a stir among Island residents, such as when the NAACP of Martha’s Vineyard was trying to fly the Progress Pride flag in Oak Bluffs during Pride Month. Gadowski said the pushback was unexpected, but it also allowed for a discourse to evolve.
Despite the various types of efforts that bore fruit over time, such as women’s suffrage and minority rights, there are still barriers to overcome. A recent example occurred on Friday when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, which opened the floodgates for multiple states to place restrictions on or ban abortions.
“We’ve come so far,” Gadowski said. “Yes, there’re many roadblocks in the way, there will be derailments on our journey of progress, but that’s why it’s so important to break those down and to keep pushing forward. As you learned [on Friday], we can think we have certain protections or certain rights, but at any point, that can be ripped away. It has been and will be, and that’s why it’s so important for everyone to do their own personal work. But also, to be aware of what’s going on, and take action.”
The program book with short bios of each Commonwealth Heroine is available on the commission website for public viewing.