A central part of the Island Institute’s mission since its inception twenty years ago has been to help improve communication and information sharing among members of island and coastal communities, researchers and policy makers. Towards this end, one of the Institute’s most important functions is also, in many ways, the most basic: we convene and facilitate meetings. They range in duration from three hours, (March’s gathering of island fire departments) to two days (last fall’s Island Teacher Conference). Some are one-time forums (the 2002 Affordable Coast Meeting) and some are recurring (the Casco Bay Forum, held every other month). Meetings in this past year have covered island topics such as education, affordable housing, libraries, and information management technology. Putting these meetings together isn’t very glamorous stuff – stuffing envelopes, making phone calls, ordering lunch, taking notes – but they have proved valuable in a number of ways.

The primary purpose is obvious – islanders who are often isolated from one another can come together and compare notes on important issues, share successes and struggles, explore similarities and differences, and avoid “reinventing the wheel” as each community develops its own approach. Depending on the nature of the request, these forums can also provide islanders with the opportunity to share their perspectives with state policy makers and researchers.

If asked, Institute staff members are always glad to record and distribute meeting minutes and participant contact information. By making a record of the discussion available to the public, we can help ensure that the meeting is useful even to those unable to attend. Combined, documentation of these meetings serves as a historical record of islander issues.

A secondary, though no less important, benefit of these meetings is that they generally support a network of island leaders and activists, and enhance the sense of community and camaraderie among a group of islands which are all, if you will, “similarly unique.” While there is never any one approach to, for example, affordable housing, that will fit all islands, there are often useful elements that can be gleaned from the work of others. And often just discovering the ways island communities aren’t alike is important in its own right.

Finally, hosting these meetings helps keep the Island Institute on track. No matter what the topic on the agenda, these discussions also serve to keep the other areas of the Institute’s work grounded in important community issues, showing us where the resources we have to offer can be best directed. In this respect, we’re particularly excited about the recent formation of the Maine Islands Coalition (see related story), a group of representatives appointed by their island communities that will meet regularly to discuss common issues and advocate for policy respectful of the realities of island living. This group can become a powerful force in shaping the future of Maine’s coast. We’re committed to doing what we can to supporting its work, and looking forward to taking direction from the Maine Islands Coalition when necessary.

Meetings for island eldercare efforts and historical societies are in the works. If you have a suggestion for an islander meeting, get in touch with me at 594-9209 or nmichaud@islandinstitute.org.

Nathan Michaud is Programs Department Director at the Island Institute.