The Working Waterfront

Why Islands? An important question for the world

Island Institute staff weigh in on what islands do to us, and for us

Rob Snyder
Posted 2019-09-26
Last Modified 2019-09-26

By Rob Snyder

Islands are the Island Institute’s North Star, and perhaps they should hold this place for all.

Islands captured my heart and mind so much so that I’ve dedicated the past 16 years to island community sustainability. They give me hope because they are places where equity, tolerance, and environmental awareness are first priorities.

When island communities solve problems, they seek equitable solutions. For example, if renewable energy on Monhegan Island were available only to those who could afford to put photovoltaics on their roofs, those residents on fixed or reduced incomes would be stuck with inefficient houses and higher energy costs, a fate no islander wants to see. When elder care programs are developed, they are conceived to be accessible to those of all income levels. The same is true for preschool programs. Broadband networks, too, must be built to bring their benefits to all.

These are the elements of a caring economy, something islanders understand, and they are worth paying attention to for what they can teach the world.

Islands are also some of the most tolerant places I’ve experienced, almost to a fault. Island communities operate like large families with the requisite levels of love, tolerance, and, yes, dysfunction. When newcomers arrive, the community works to integrate them. Importantly, islands rarely try to assimilate people; instead, they allow the new arrivals to retain their individualism, but join the island’s collective efforts.

Island life exists around the tides, the weather, and the physicality of the environment. Environmental awareness is high on islands out of necessity because the people who live in these places, by birth or by choice, become connected to the environment in a relationship described by Yvonne Thomas as analogous to the relationship between “blood and bone.”

Yvonne is the Island Institute’s education specialist, and we are grateful she has dedicated her life to Vinalhaven and its young people.

“On islands,” Yvonne says, “every single thing you do—or don’t do—matters in a way that is different from other places I’ve lived,” she says. “I love living and working on islands because I love making a difference and being able to see and feel it on a daily basis.” 

I asked others of the Island Institute staff, “Why islands?” Here are some of the responses. 

Sam Belknap, a native of Round Pond and an Island Institute community development officer, said he admires the spirit he finds on islands: “Regardless of personal beliefs and predilections, we are all in this together. Islands are both a microcosm of our larger society where challenges are magnified, and they are a crucible where creative solutions for common challenges can be forged to inform the rest of the world.”

Craig Olson of Islesboro and the strategist in our small business efforts put it simply: “Because if it’s 3 a.m. and you need help—not EMS or the fire department—someone will show up.”

Karen Burns, our chief talent officer, never left Vinalhaven after serving as an Island Fellow there 16 years ago. She loves the islands because: “Sometimes, the boats just don’t go,” she says, speaking of the ferry, “which is both the most terrifying and liberating version of reality there is. And because ‘having no options’ means that somehow, miraculously every option is feasible and worth exploring.”

Kate Tagai and her partner have deep island experience having come to Maine via the Pacific island of Vanuatu. Kate is the strategist on our leadership and education efforts.

She loves islands “because you have a better chance to understand individuals as whole people—not just as the guy who delivers the propane or the man who fixes your car. It is easier to like or at least tolerate people when you can see more facets of who they are, rather than just what they do or what they believe.”

Claire Donnelly shares similar sentiments. Claire lives on North Haven and started Fox Islands Print Works—and the punk-rock band Bait Bag—before coming to work at the Island Institute. As a critical member of our small business efforts, she highlights the implications of choosing to live on islands.

“The sheer act of forfeiting convenience and convention to live on an island creates bonds among those who make this decision,” she says. “These bonds form regardless of age, economic status, political views, and life experience. In this moment of political and cultural division, I value the North Haven community not only because it has a specific type of diversity, but also because of what this diversity does: build empathy and tolerance, qualities that you don’t see as often in large cities.”

Editor Tom Groening has been a keen observer and writer on the coast for much of his life. He notes, “I am frequently struck, during visits to islands, by the manner in which islanders take me under their wing. I’ve been offered the use of a car on a couple of islands. I borrowed cash on an island, when I learned, too late, that much of an island economy doesn’t use plastic. I’ve been given rides to and from ferry terminals and around islands, and sent off after one visit with a bag of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. I’ve been made to feel like a welcome guest.”

Our designer and storyteller Jack Sullivan has had similar experiences. Why islands? Jack’s answer is: “Because you show up to do an interview with an islander, and they have a bag lunch prepared for you (with homemade pickles) before they’ve even met you. True kindness… people who look out for other people seem to live on islands.”

It is critical that the Island Institute stays focused on our island communities. Yet islands don’t exist in isolation. Despite how we might conjure them in our minds eye as remote, disconnected places, in fact they are intimately linked to peninsulas, airstrips, ferry landings. In Maine, they are linked to and an integral component of the culture and economy of a diversity of mainland communities, some just as remote as the islands.

For this reason, the Island Institute is now focused on the islands and the 105 Maine coastal communities that are integrally linked in a shared future. Our islands are connected to one another, they are integral to Maine’s coast, and they are increasingly connected to the world. The Island Institute’s work reflects this reality.

Islands are connected to the world through those who care about them, those who grew up on-island and moved away, and those who travel to and from islands for work, for pleasure, or to visit friends. Islands are even connected to the world through those who read about and love them despite having never been. They appeal as places of rest to the global citizens who make the island their family gathering place, distinct from the cities and towns.

For those of us who will forever be “from away,” if we listen and learn to feel our surroundings while on island, we will return home changed. We will have been forced to grapple with a deep accountability to ourselves and to our neighbors, confronted with the physicality of lugging and tugging, of staying balanced while navigating roiling seas. 

The vision for the Island Institute, one that has been consistent since the organization’s founding, is that Maine’s island communities thrive and that through our organization, the world comes to understand that island leaders have much to teach the world about living with a sense of responsibility to future generations.

Rob Snyder is president of the Island Institute.