As the COVID storm continues to roil our coast, my thoughts return to the image of Monhegan’s Matt Weber easing his lobster boat against a large tanker, both vessels in motion, as a Penobscot Bay pilot leaps from the smaller boat to a ladder hanging from the ship, where he will then guide the ship to safe harbor.
That precise, yet nimble maneuver—made possible by the trust and skill of both captains—is what we at the Island Institute hoped would be the way that our organization and island and coastal communities responded to the pandemic. We believe it has been.
In those early days, we summoned the organization’s strength to reposition our work and resources to meet the needs unfolding before our eyes. We started where we always do—by listening. In doing so, it became clear that our colleagues, our neighbors, and our friends were in crisis.
Seeing communities in distress unleashed a tremendous drive, out-of-the-box thinking…
Our work at the Island Institute is rooted in relationships and a commitment to helping communities along the coast thrive. For our staff, seeing communities in distress unleashed a tremendous drive, out-of-the-box thinking, and highly efficient teamwork. The resources we had at our disposal—sometimes simply in terms of hours in the day, access to better internet, and an ability to make quick connections—meant that we could help close gaps and lighten the load. It was time to show up.
In an effort to balance precision and speed, we developed a set of “crisis response teams” to bring a clear focus to our work: expanding access to high-speed internet, primarily by supporting passage of Maine’s $15 million broadband bond; increasing support to small businesses, particularly those “too critical to fail;” and helping to mobilize and support community leaders.
These efforts have yielded important wins for the coast and the state. We raised the funds and built a cross-sector coalition of more than 100 organizations for the “Yes on 1 for Better Internet in Maine” campaign. The bond question was approved in July with the support of 75 percent of voters; a big win for communities seeking broadband connectivity.
We also worked alongside the National Digital Equity Center and the Maine Department of Education to deploy 100 hotspot-enabled tablets to students and teachers without reliable internet in 21 rural Maine communities, including nine islands.
We stepped up for small businesses to help them pivot product lines or sales models and leverage technology to help place them on surer footing—in the wake of COVID-19 and after. Through the Tom Glenn Community Impact Fund, we developed business resilience grants, distributing 67 awards to date to support island and coastal small businesses, artists and makers, and working waterfronts. We were also the first call for many small businesses seeking support in accessing federal and state funding.
We leaned into supporting community leaders by connecting them to the best information, the most useful networks, and the highest quality technical support. We rallied elected officials and a host of organizations from across the state to bring focused support to the members of the Maine Islands Coalition and its crisis management efforts. We convened ferry operators, educators, and municipal leaders to identify pressing needs and share solutions.
As 2020 winds to a close, we continue to invest in efforts to help the coast respond to the pandemic while preparing for future disruptions. Our staff is heavily involved in supporting the ConnectMaine Authority to rapidly accelerate the build out of broadband across the state. We are also preparing for the coast to engage in and benefit from the ambitious Maine Climate Action Plan.
We stand ready to pitch in on logistical issues like our recent efforts to help deliver rapid response coronavirus tests to the islands. As one island resident recently commented, we’re approaching the pandemic with our “feet on the ground and our eyes on the horizon.” Our work is not done.
In showing up for each other, and using care to catalyze action, we’ve seen trust and connections across the coast grow. We have been buoyed by the thoughtful reflection, wise counsel, and even joy that we are finding in our relationships as we work together to find our way through these challenging times. Navigating a big ship through unseen hazards takes skill, but we’re not going it alone.
Suzanne MacDonald is chief community development officer for the Island Institute, publisher of The Working Waterfront.