The Working Waterfront

Who’s next—bringing in new community leaders

Island communities struggle to pass the torch

Kate Tagai
Posted 2022-01-11
Last Modified 2022-01-11

Chebeague Island’s Donna Damon started the October meeting of the Maine Islands Coalition by asking the 30 assembled members and guests an important question: “Who are community leaders?”

Her second question may have been more important and telling: “Who will take your place?”

The questions were at the heart of the gathering, which centered on planning for community leadership succession. Damon, who chairs her island town’s select board, and Sarah Brake, who serves on Frenchboro’s select board, were asked to share their personal experience as leaders.

Having a strong female mentor was key to helping her succeed in her role.

The coalition was formed by the Island Institute, publisher of The Working Waterfront, to bring representatives from the 15 year-round island communities together quarterly to address common problems and share solutions.

Damon joined the Cumberland budget committee (before Chebeague seceded from that town) when she was just 21 and has been serving on community boards and committees ever since, giving her more than 40 years of experience.

Brake was elected to the Frenchboro board in 2015 and has been serving her community since, though she is still in her 20s. For several years, Frenchboro had the youngest select board in the state when all three members were younger than 30. Each stepped up out of community necessity and learned as they did the work.

Brake shared the challenges of being a young leader and navigating different expectations between generations, often being underestimated because of her age. She also learned how to set boundaries when community members showed up at her door at all hours with complaints.
Having a strong female mentor, Brake said, was key to helping her succeed in her role.

For many small communities, those who step up to lead do so because it is necessary to keep the town, school, or community organization running, not because they identify themselves as leaders. People can stay in their roles for decades, either because there is no one else who steps up, or because they become comfortable.

But when a long-term leader steps down or dies, it can cause turmoil. Recording and acknowledging their experiences is important, as is planning for the transition with job shadowing or a job description that accurately outlines the expectations and time commitment.

Brake advised members to share the entire story of their positions with new leaders, so they have the context for what they are stepping up to. The goal is not to scare them away, but to offer a sense of the history that guide decisions.

A common question among island representatives at the meeting was how to encourage younger residents to seek leadership roles. Brake suggested simply asking someone to be involved and telling them why.

Another strategy, suggested by Bill Chamberlin, a seasonal resident of Isle au Haut, was to engage younger members even if they are unable to commit entirely. Finding tasks and smaller responsibilities allow them to learn and contribute to the committee while also preparing them for and building their interest in formal roles.

Damon talked about how she learned Robert’s Rules of Order while running meetings as a young person and that it is important to pass along the knowledge of how systems work even before new leaders are asked to step up.

Gabe McPhail of Vinalhaven said that watching streamed meetings, job shadowing, identifying a mentor, and attending formal trainings can all help new and aspiring leaders learn the systems so when they step up, they are better prepared to lead and veteran leaders can step away knowing the organization, town, or committee is in good hands.

Kate Tagai is a senior community development officer with the Island Institute, publisher of The Working Waterfront. She works on the Institute’s leadership and education programming.