Local Heroes: Honoring Island Changemakers

For the past few years, Bluedot Living has highlighted some outstanding Islanders who have worked tirelessly in their respective corners of the community. These activists, conservationists, students, teachers, nonprofit leaders, and more, are moving us all in the direction of sustainability and reverence for our natural environment. From a small group of West Tisbury School students spearheading an Islandwide plastic bottle ban with Plastic Free MV, to Rick Karney, who followed his passion for shellfish and aquaculture and eventually created the first-ever solar-powered shellfish hatchery — the enduring work of local changemakers is what allows Martha’s Vineyard to lead the way in preserving and conserving our little blue dot for future generations.

Plastic Free MV

“Did you know that plastic doesn’t biodegrade? One hundred percent of the fish in the deepest part of the ocean have plastic in them. We are looking to you to make a better future for us all.”

group of kids with climate change signs
Plastic Free MV kids take on Tisbury town hall. From left, Runar Finn Robinson, Emma Bena, Quinlan Slavin, Elliot Stead, and Odin Robinson. – Photo by Lexi Pline

It all began when a group of kids at the West Tisbury School, led by teacher Annemarie Ralph, convinced many Island stores to stop offering plastic straws with their Straw Free MV campaign. But they wanted to make a bigger impact. Since then, Plastic Free MV (PFMV) has succeeded in getting nonbinding resolutions passed in five Island towns that ban the sale of plastic water and soda bottles under 34 ounces. 

Noli Taylor

“The community work I do is just seeing what is happening and finding a place where I can be helpful in getting people together to make a change. The work I do in Aquinnah is on all these different levels, starting at our own house and trying to move toward being a fossil-fuel-free home.”

noli taylor outside on farm
Noli Taylor, co-director of Island Grown Initiative. – Photo by Jeremy Driesen

Since Island Grown Initiative was established in 2006, Noli Taylor has been an integral part of this local nonprofit that connects Islanders with essential resources and education related to food, food production, and food waste. Now a co-director of IGI, Noli is leading the charge (alongside a number of other essential groups) on the Vineyard in getting people to understand and appreciate the value of healthy, affordable, and accessible food.

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Liz Durkee

“Our coastline is changing in ways that are going to affect the reasons people come to visit here — it all comes back to the fact that the land and the water are what keep us alive, and if we don’t protect these resources, what do we have?”

liz durkee on boardwalk in oak bluffs
Martha's Vineyard has been important to Liz Durkee her entire life. Now she's working to plan for its biggest threat — climate change. – Photo by Jeremy Driesen

Martha’s Vineyard Commission Climate Change Coordinator Liz Durkee has loved Martha’s Vineyard from the moment she first visited as a child. Over the years, Durkee has seen her Island home change a lot. And with inevitable environmental changes on the horizon, she is working with the regional planning agency to proactively address issues such as receding salt marshes and increasing storm intensity and frequency. For Durkee, maintaining our beaches, open spaces, and woodlands is essential to the fabric of life here on the Vineyard.

Jonah Maidoff

“I think if we’re going to maintain the health of the planet, we need to learn to love it.”

jonah maidoff outside with students
Jonah Maidoff with students at the charter school. – Photo by Jeremy Driesen

It’s been 25 years since Jonah Maidoff joined the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School in its inaugural year. The Charter School has always promoted experiential learning, but Maidoff has been instrumental in making sure environmental education and nature appreciation were a part of that experience. With Maidoff’s zeal, and a little help from the Martha’s Vineyard Vision Fellowship, Charter School students have paddled the West Branch Penobscot River, hiked the Appalachian Trail through the White Mountains, monitored permafrost in Alaska, and studied sustainable farming in Cuba. That’s not even to mention the impactful work they’ve done right here on the Island.

Julie Pringle

“There was one school vacation where I went home, I went for a walk on the beach and I realized that this is what I want to do. I want to have a career where I can be outside and not limited to doing lab work every single day.”

person on a boat on body of water
Julie Pringle is the Scientific Program Director at the Great Pond Foundation. – Photo courtesy of Julie Pringle

Julie Pringle is passionate about water, and what our local water bodies bring to the table for people, plants, and animals. She serves as the Scientific Program Director at the Great Pond Foundation, where she runs the ecosystem monitoring program, and is also the Deputy Shellfish Constable in Edgartown. Her mission is to connect indicators of water quality to the wellbeing of the creatures and people that depend on the Edgartown Great Pond, and other Island ponds. 

Tess Bramhall and Pam Goff

“My dream is that everybody should be able to step outside their house and find a beautiful place to walk.” – Pam Goff

“I’m not so sure about heroes. Maybe something more like movers and shakers.” – Tess Bramhall

Land stewards Pam Goff and Tess Bramhall. – Photo by Sam Fleming

For Tess Bramhall and Pam Goff, overdevelopment is an unrelenting threat to the Island — it diminishes our natural landscapes, fragments our forests and farms, and impacts our streams and ponds. The Land Protection Fund and the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank, which Bramhall and Goff helped establish, conserves land by traditional means, such as purchasing undeveloped land outright in collaboration with Island conservation organizations, as well as supporting creative initiatives such as Village and Wilderness, which helps community-based organizations create innovative conservation solutions.

Annabelle Brothers

“Media coverage doesn’t highlight a lot of positive projects or events. I think a lot of students are already navigating so many other aspects of life, and they can become kind of lost on what to do regarding the climate crisis. I think creating a centralized space where students can learn from each other is really important. And I’m excited to be a part of it.”

Annabelle Brothers walking outside
Annabelle Brothers serves as a student advisor to the Bluedot Institute. – Photo courtesy of Annabelle Brothers

During her time at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, Annabelle Brothers influenced climate policy and elevated environmental awareness around the Island. She led the MVRHS Protect Your Environment Club, served as a subcommittee member of the Martha’s Vineyard Climate Action Plan, and continues to serve as a student advisor to the Bluedot Institute — Bluedot’s non-profit dedicated to inspiring and supporting young climate journalists. Brothers’ interest in environmental issues was piqued by the Plastic Free MV movement.

John Abrams

“Those lessons learned locally have a wider application. … Business is the most powerful force in the world — the one that has the potential to change the world most completely and quickly due to its lack of constraints. South Mountain demonstrates, as do other 6,500 B-Corps, how business can be, if it chooses to, a force for good in all those arenas.”

John Abrams came to the Vineyard in the 70s, and founded South Mountain Company with a friend in 1975.
John Abrams came to the Vineyard in the 70s, and founded South Mountain Company with a friend in 1975. — Photo courtesy of John Abrams

John Abrams, the recently retired founder of South Mountain Company, has been dedicated to sustainable housing and creating a cooperative corporate structure for his employees. For Abrams, his preservation-related focus lies in making sure the Island community can continue to thrive despite the economic impacts of climate change and environmental degradation. In particular, Abrams has been a stalwart supporter of a Martha’s Vineyard Housing Bank, and has advocated for sustainable building practices in his own company (a certified B-Corp), and in local regulatory processes.

Brendan O’Neill

“Seeing Martha’s Vineyard was a huge eye-opener — I saw what was possible in a place where people really care about the environment.”

Brendan O’Neill headshot
Brendan O’Neill has been at the helm of Vineyard Conservation Society for nearly 40 years. – Photo by Mya O'Neill

Over the decades, retired Vineyard Conservation Society Executive Director Brendan O’Neill has been an instrumental defender of natural spaces on-Island. O’Neill, who first visited the Vineyard with his family in 1971 and was struck by the rural character and unique landscapes here, has been involved in many high-profile land protection and designation matters during his time at VCS. His passion for preservation has guided the organization in helping create many of the open and wild spaces we enjoy today.

Rebecca Haag

“Food is more than just nutrition. It is also love, it is family, it is community, it is tradition and history.”

person in greenhouse with lettuce plants
Rebecca Haag in the greenhouse at Island Grown Initiative. – Photo by Jeremy Driesen

Retired Island Grown Initiative Executive Director Rebecca Haag came to the Island with an extensive background in social justice. During her time at IGI, she bolstered Martha’s Vineyard’s food security network through a merger with the Island Food Pantry, and established a composting program that also educates Islanders (of all ages, backgrounds, and economic circumstances) about composting and at-home agriculture. For Haag, mitigating food waste and maximizing access to healthy, locally-grown food is something she will continue to advocate for.

Jennifer Randolph

“How do we heal our communities and how do we preserve them so they can thrive? We need to restore our ways of sustainability, which is our food systems…”

Jennifer Randolph in the woods in Aquinnah
Jennifer Randolph in Aquinnah. – Photo by Sheny Leon

Jennifer Randolph is the founder and executive director of Kinship Heals, an organization that helps survivors of domestic and sexual violence in the Wampanoag community, while tackling the issues — poverty, inadequate housing, disrupted food systems, and more — that give rise to it. Restoring a healthy community, Randolph insists, creates a healthier world.

Rick Karney

“People go to Disneyland to see Mickey Mouse, and people used to come to the Vineyard because they could grab a rake or just a bucket and go get dinner.”

man standing with several fig trees
Rick Karney, Founder and Director Emeritus of the Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group, enjoys caring for his fig trees just as much as he enjoys aquaculture. – Photo by Sheny Leon

The wild shellfish industry was booming back in 1976 when Rick Karney washed ashore to take a job with the late Michael Wild, who at the time was serving as Coastal Planner for the Martha’s Vineyard Commission. Wild, a longtime conservationist, sought to bring together all the local shellfish constables, along with representatives from each Island town, to hire a dedicated shellfish biologist who would help establish a regional aquaculture program, and construct and oversee a public hatchery. Karney, who currently holds the title of Founder and Director Emeritus of the Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group, is wild about all things bivalves. He is currently assisting the shellfish group in occasional propagation, and is passionate about educating Island youth about aquaculture and the vital role shellfish play in our local ecosystem.

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