Battle in the Bluffs, the annual basketball clinic run by the nonprofit Connective, Inc., returned in full this year and concluded with a game between the participants of the program and players from the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) basketball team on Thursday evening at the high school. However, the clinic was accompanied with another program this year for the first time: the Fern Fund.
“It’s the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School team versus our Battle in the Bluffs high school team,” Connective founder Ian Thomas-Minor told The Times. “Ultimately, this is about the Vineyard, and so this year we wanted to shine a light on some of the kids who play here.”
The clinic was co-founded by Thomas-Minor and Arthur Andrews in 2012, teaching the young participants basketball fundamentals, developing them as individuals, and experiencing what Andrews called “the Vineyard spirit.”
Thomas-Minor told The Times the campers received care packages and masks during the program, recognizing that some people are immunocompromised while others felt unsafe about COVID.
“We just wanted to make sure we were responsible when we came back,” Thomas-Minor said. “This is the first year we’re not so heightened in fear about the virus, but we still took the same precautions.”
Those who worked the clock during the game and helped in other parts of Battle in the Bluffs were the inaugural Fern Fund interns, six high school graduates of School of the Future in New York City. Named in honor of Thomas-Minor’s mother, the late Queen Fern Thomas, the fund supported the paid internships for six recent high school graduates to come and experience what Martha’s Vineyard has to offer. The interns have been on the Island for almost a week now, according to Thomas-Minor.
“I think the opportunity to be on the Vineyard is life-changing,” Thomas-Minor said.
Whether it be the life-changing aspects or the unexpected situations, Thomas-Minor said preparation is needed for programs that have children and young adults participating.
The interns who talked with The Times agreed that the program has been beneficial to their development as young adults. They knew Thomas-Minor through Connective’s programming, such as doing a project about the criminal justice system in Atlanta, Ga., and helping homeless people, before joining the Fern Fund internship. School of the Future social worker La’Tish Thomas and safety agent Tyshia Brown accompanied the interns to the Island to act as chaperones.
“This is like the end of them being able to transition into after high school, and then being able to transition into giving back as adults,” Thomas said.
“It’s an eye-opener, that’s what I can say,” Brown said about coming to Martha’s Vineyard.
One aspect of the program that was impactful was the difference in culture between the urban New York City and the rural Martha’s Vineyard.
“[Thomas-Minor’s] mom came to Martha’s Vineyard when he was a kid because she wanted to give the youth in her community a different environment,” intern Maya Lemons said. “We’re all from New York City, and we don’t get to experience this quiet we have today.”
“Or this hospitality, or people actually being talkative to us, or being, like, nice. This is not normal for us, because we’re from New York. We’re used to people being rude, so we would have to be rude,” intern Natalyia Mathis said. “We’re used to locking our car doors, but people out here don’t. This is just different from us.”
“I feel safer here, too. It’s like a way to get away from the violence and stuff happening in New York,” intern Sasha Perez said.
Lemons said Thomas-Minor noticed how a lot of the programs, such as basketball, were centered around boys and young men, so the Fern Fund internship was a way “to flip that.”
“The women in his community, women in general, were kind of being left behind,” she said.
“We’re the first Black females he brought here,” Mathis said. “So, this is gonna be different. We want it to be different for other young Black girls that come in the future.”
The interns did a variety of activities besides work, for a rich experience on the Island, including yoga with alpacas at Island Alpaca, and catching and frying up fish, among other activities. A couple of the activities that stood out were visiting the Cousen Rose Gallery in Oak Bluffs and meeting author Nicole Ellis.
“We basically had this deep conversation. Because we’re all going to college next year, we were just asking what were the steps you took to own this art gallery or write this book. Nicole Ellis just published a book about Black women, Black transgender women, and Black athletes, just Black women in general who are making a change in the world,” Lemons said. “When we had this conversation with them, it kind of brought us to tears, because it was a session we needed for our journey to college, and that change and that next chapter in our life, and without Fern Fund we might have not gotten that, or we might have been still scared.”
Thomas’ legacy of helping the community’s youth led Thomas-Minor to create programs like Battle in the Bluffs and the Fern Fund internship, which he expects will be something to look forward to next year as well. He said this program also works to provide space for development for young people of color.
“The reality is, even on this Island, there’s not a lot of equitable spaces for people of color, specifically Black women, and my mother was very privy to that, and had to go through some of those systemic issues. So, it’s about empowering these young women, but it’s also about holding the culture on the Island’s foot to a fire to say this is something we need to continue to work on,” he said. Thomas-Minor said people who want to enact change need to have what he likes to call “equity endurance,” and a recognition it will be a long, continuous work. “if you don’t have that, you don’t want to be equitable. You want to be fashionable for the moment.”
Thomas-Minor told The Times that although his mother was an important figure, she also felt the squeeze of systemic issues.
“I know that my mother was big as life, but there were times walking through the world, she felt unseen, and I don’t want other young girls to feel that way. I want them to know they have a choice, it’s a choice. You can hold the system accountable, you can hold people accountable, and your voice is power,” Thomas-Minor said.
However, Thomas-Minor’s mother has left behind a legacy of positively impacting others.
“Ian’s mother’s not only an integral part of Battle in the Bluffs, she’s also an integral part of my life, me personally. [She] was like a second mother to me, my mom away from my mom when I wasn’t home,” Solomon Jones, who was a part of starting Battle in the Bluffs, said. “She had this graciousness about herself, this passion that was admirable. This passion not only resonated and spoke to me, it continued to Ian. The way you see Ian is, the way you see how he is with these kids, it’s a mirror of what his mom was.”
Thomas-Minor plans to continue this legacy for as long as he can. In particular, he wants to grow the Fern Fund program over the next 10 or so years.
“The legacy is twofold, as it pertains to bringing in young women and addressing the systemic issues that Black women specifically face, not just living on the Island but in America. That work will never be done, but I have the endurance to make sure, while I’m here, we’re gonna shift the paradigm and change the world,” Thomas-Minor told the Times.