Second Acts: NaDaizja Bolling

After getting her master’s degree, she got a promotion and a raise. And she quit.


From as long as she can remember, NaDaizja Bolling spent her summers on Martha’s Vineyard. Raised near Boston, she went off to Syracuse University to study public health, but came back to the Vineyard in the summer. After college, she worked at the Harvard Business School, researching a book chronicling the careers of Black business graduates, but still spent her summers on the Vineyard. She moved to Washington, D.C., to work for the Carnegie Institution for Science, but of course, slipped away to the Vineyard each summer. She then made the big leap to the for-profit world with Quadrant Strategies, studying nights and weekends for her master’s of science degree in business analytics at the University of Virginia, but managed to steal time to be on the Vineyard in the summer. While earning her master’s, she was rewarded with a promotion to management at Quadrant, and a raise. And she quit.

Bolling retreated to her mother’s house in Massachusetts to sit and think about life, ponder what was important, to find “work that was more meaningful.” Maybe she should have known the answer. It would be on the Vineyard. Home. The one place that had been constant through all the moves and changes in her life. She didn’t call it her second act. She just called it her calling.

NaDaizja Bolling and her family have long had roots on Martha’s Vineyard. For years, her paternal grandfather’s family has had a summer home in Oak Bluffs. But her deepest, strongest, most entwined roots are on her mother’s side, where generations trace their Wampanoag heritage to Aquinnah. Her great-great-great-grandfather Edwin is a Vanderhoop, the name that has become almost synonymous with the tribe. “For me, that’s the place where my ancestors’ DNA is. When we say we are Aquinnah people, we’re saying our blood and bones are from this place.”

When Bolling sat at her mother’s and thought, trying to “figure out something, to find what feels fulfilling, I knew, in some way, it should be of direct service to my tribe.” She didn’t know exactly what that meant; she wasn’t actively looking for a specific position or job. But the job found her. “There was a vacancy at the Aquinnah Cultural Center, and their board of directors reached out to me, and it felt like it was a good fit, a perfect fit.”

NaDaizja Bolling was raised in a family that lived and breathed public service. Her father “always found himself in nonprofit roles, usually relating to youth and sports. He comes from a big public service and political family in Boston. His grandfather, Royal Bolling Sr., was a state senator; his uncle, Bruce Bolling, was a member of the Boston City Council, and another uncle, Royal Bolling Jr., was a state representative; they were all in office in Boston at one time or another.” Bolling herself worked at the Aquinnah Shop takeout counter “until I was old enough to work as a waitress.” Later, when she was in D.C. during COVID, she began to attend the tribal council meetings on Zoom. “That was the first time that I was paying attention to the political scene there — tribal politics — and things weren’t great. There was a small group of us, maybe 20, largely my generation, and we were supporting election ordinance changes proposed by tribal members, working to keep people engaged.” This was between her studies and her job, “at nighttime after my work at Quadrant, which were already long days, 12-hour days. But I needed to feel some sort of moral satisfaction and connection.”

So when Bolling was named director of the Aquinnah Cultural Center, it was the job she was in training for her whole life — especially summers — even if she didn’t know it.

The Aquinnah Cultural Center was born out of a need for the Wampanoag people “to tell their own history.” According to their mission statement, the center “aims to preserve, educate, and document the Aquinnah Wampanoag self-defined history, culture and contributions past, present, and future.” The mission defined and fulfilled, literally and figuratively, everything Bolling was raised to believe and live.

For a long time, the center was primarily concerned with educating the public about Wampanoag presence. There had always been some cultural programming, but in the view of many tribe members, there was a thirst for more. “When I came on, that was the area that I felt needed the most attention, a closing of the curtains so we could build up our tribal community stronger, to reintroduce more regular programming that folks can start to rely on.”

So, a little over a year ago, “we started cultural nights … evenings, informal gatherings of tribal families … with a different theme each week. It might be twining, which is a finger-weaving method, or dancing, or making rattles. What we’ve learned is that people value having a place to go where they can be with other tribal people. It started off small — five or six people — but now well over 20 or 30.”

Bolling is also encouraging more involvement in governance and community issues: “We’ve had very low voter turnout; about perhaps 15 to 20 percent of eligible tribal citizens actually vote. Some of our Wampanoag families felt left out.” In addition, there’s the museum (in the historical Vanderhoop Homestead), where they are working to expand audiences by making collections accessible online. “I don’t have a museum background, so I spend a lot of time in the off-season trying to learn on my own, receiving support from some folks I’ve networked with in this space.” Under Bolling’s leadership, the Aquinnah Cultural Center is living its mission, “past, present, and future.”

Did the Island of Martha’s Vineyard, its atmosphere, people, and ethos help fuel the nascent drive in Bolling to bring out her civic, nonprofit, culture-driven self? Or was it something that would’ve happened anyway, anywhere?

Bolling says, “Yes, it is part of the larger Island atmosphere. The Island has a unique makeup of people, space to explore passions and maintain self in the process, just because things move a bit slower. It lets you re-establish what balance means to you.”

Could her own self-discovery have happened someplace else? Not likely. Not the same way. Her trajectory is more than the “Island-ness.” It’s her roots; it’s Aquinnah; it’s home: “There’s a tethering here to our home … and the responsibility we have to it. We’re taught that you’re supposed to come back home and find ways to help your tribal community.” There is an inevitability to it, she says: “At some point I know that I would’ve found my way back.” Back home. Sometimes a first act is leaving home, and a second act is returning home.