The third annual Martha’s Vineyard Living Local and Harvest Festival just ended. For the second year, it began with a Friday night forum. This one was a panel discussion with the next generation of Island leaders.

It was about young people and their relationship with the Island and its future.

Having just turned 60, I am acutely aware of the role of young people (in their 20s and 30s) in both my work and civic life. At work they are a constant theme and a growing force.

In Vineyard politics and civic affairs, the young are quieter. Those of us in our fifties and sixties have been active, but we’re graying. Sometimes, in the rooms where policies are being shaped that will shape our future, there’s very little representation from the next generation. What does that mean? I know they’re here — it’s not like some places where the young have jumped ship — and I know they’re active and vital, but where are they? What are they doing? What are they thinking?

The forum was an attempt to find out by putting four of them up on the stage in a public setting. They were asked to consider some questions about leadership, governance and their dreams for the future of the Island.

When we met before the forum to consider the questions, one of the panelists, Janette Vanderhoop, a member of the Wampanoag Tribe of Aquinnah, added a beauty: “How do we keep the young and idealistic still idealistic when they’re no longer young?”

The underlying question, of course, is about our community — what will keep our youth here and keep them committed? My friend Tom Chase, who grew up here, says that his father once told him that the Vineyard has two exports: fish and brains. His dad told him that just after Tom told him he’d decided to stay on the Vineyard. Maybe the future is about keeping our fish and our brains right here where we raised them. And doing more within our local economy.

It was a lively evening. Besides the diverse panelists — a farmer, a boatbuilder, a Wampanoag environmentalist and a mother of two who wears many civic hats — we had two born-and-raised “elder” questioners — Kerry Scott and Steve Ewing — and an engaged audience. I was the moderator. Three of the panelists were born and raised here; the fourth summered here and then married into an old Island family. They all spoke beautifully and from the heart.

Themes developed quickly: the appreciation for their many mentors and the community that has nurtured them, their love for the Island and the delicate mix of their attachment to the “way it was” and their pragmatic sense that change must come, their understanding that sufficient affordable housing, meaningful work and limits to growth are all keys to the future, their shared certainty that the time has come for them to take the ball and run with it.

It was in part a celebration of a way of life that they want to preserve, renew and re-make. But not only that. They also stirred the pot, and made it clear that when we talk about the wonders of this place we also have to talk about the pain — the homelessness, the alcoholism, the fractiousness. Janette said she always reads the court report in the paper to remind her. And they subscribed to the belief that you can’t complain unless you’re willing to change it.

The most poignant moment for me was when one of the panelists, Myles Thurlow, who described himself as “more interested in boats than school” when he was growing up, fielded a question. The question, from an audience member, was “How do you feel about wind?”

Big question. There’s no hotter topic on the Vineyard right now. I could say more, of course, but this isn’t about the topic or the content of the response, except to mention that all basically responded that “We gotta get real; this is an important, necessary and desirable part of our future.”

As I listened to Myles answer, speaking off the cuff, I heard a compelling, coherent, elegantly worded statement. And I saw something in his face. I sensed that he was feeling the stirring empowerment that comes from expressing yourself well in public about a controversial issue that you feel deeply about.

I was glad for him and glad for us. In these perilous times, when these young men and women will be facing and contending with global climate destabilization and its monumental effects, they gave us, as Kerry said, hope.

Thank you Chris Fischer, Katie Carroll, Myles Thurlow and Janette Vanderhoop. We’ll have to do this again. You guys want to organize the next one? I’ll be glad to help.


John Abrams is president of South Mountain Company in West Tisbury and a member of the Island Plan steering committee.