Article published on October 6, 2021 in the MV Times.

By Lucas Thors

The Martha’s Vineyard Social Justice Leadership Foundation is continuing its commitment to educating the community on issues of race, immigration, and equal opportunity, and advocating for social justice in all forms on-Island.

For seven years, the grant-writing organization has been working in partnership with Island schools, police departments, and other social justice groups to create programming that benefits the social structure on Martha’s Vineyard, and allows people to be more informed and responsible citizens.

Currently, there are about eight people on the foundation board, and foundation treasurer Arnie Reisman said it consists of a mix of people that reflects the diversity of the Island community. “It’s totally integrated. There are not only people of color on the board, but also a Wampanoag representative and a Brazilian representative,” Reisman explained. “The organization began when this group of people decided that it needed to function as nothing more than to be a catalyst for social justice and solutions to racial issues on the Island.”

Before COVID, Reisman said, the group met with Principal Sara Dingledy and other administrators at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School to discuss programming for students.

According to Reisman, Dingledy was receptive, and the school ultimately ended up bringing on a program called Facing History and Ourselves, which fosters empathy and reflection to build safe and inclusive schools through learning about the historical experiences of other races.

“They came up with a program to teach American history in the high school system in a way that gives more of an understanding of what Black people have gone through in this country, what immigrants have gone through in this country, becoming citizens, and to essentially teach about racism and how to fight that and be a better citizen,” Reisman said.

The group has also used grant funds awarded through the Paul Newman Foundation to train educators at the high school in effective ways to teach students about race, equality, and all other aspects of social justice.

Reisman said the group has hired a designated trainer for this purpose, and has met with four or five teachers over the years to help them teach these difficult issues in sensitive and effective ways.

Another, more recent initiative of the foundation brought two public seminars to the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center and the Edgartown library, where police chiefs and immigration attorneys were invited to explain the immigration process to anyone interested.

“This is to try and help anyone on the Island understand what their rights are, so if ICE comes knocking on your door, you’ll know what legal rights you have, or what lawyers you can call,” Reisman explained.

Last May, in the wake of the George Floyd killing, all the Island police chiefs got together and hired a group out of Chicago to participate in diversity, equity, and inclusion training. Several groups, including the leadership foundation, helped fund the training.

“It was a very interesting and extensive couple of days, but that is another example of what we do and who we are,” Reisman said.

Several years ago, the foundation was responsible for bringing Sen. Elizabeth Warren to the Island, where she spoke to an overflow audience at the high school, and more recently, brought Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley to the Tabernacle in Oak Bluffs to speak to an audience of more than 600 people. “They both spoke on important social justice issues,” Reisman explained.

The group is continuing to work with Cape and Islands representatives like state Sen. Julian Cyr, D-Truro, and state Rep. Dylan Fernandes, D-Falmouth, on matters that are ongoing in the state legislature.

Reisman noted legislation that is currently being discussed at the state level that would allow undocumented immigrants to receive driver’s licenses if they can pass a driving test.

“That would help a lot, because we found that on the Island, that is the easiest way an undocumented immigrant can end up in trouble — by driving without a license,” Reisman said.

According to Reisman, his involvement with the group originates from his longstanding relationship with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in Boston, where he served on the board for six years.

For him, the leadership foundation on the Island serves almost as a “satellite group” of the ACLU, where central social justice issues and potential solutions are kept at the forefront of public policy and discourse.

As the organization looks to address social justice issues new and old, Reisman said, they are working on bringing more speakers to the Island, and are always considering new programs in partnership with Adult Continuing Education of Martha’s Vineyard, one of the group’s main collaborators.

“We have worked with ACE to teach court interpreters, because one of the things we found out with the county pre-COVID is that there were essentially no on-Island interpreters,” Reisman said. He explained that the county courthouse relies on interpreters provided by the commonwealth, “so one day a week, if we are lucky, we would get an interpreter.”

“We spoke with the clerk of courts, and we all came to the understanding that we need to train some more people. ACE MV said they would be happy to start offering classes,” Reisman said.

Going forward, Reisman suggested that anyone looking to get involved in these issues or establish a program should reach out to the foundation or submit an application for grant opportunities.

Application forms are now available on the foundation website for any individuals or entities that would like to take part in programs related to racism, immigration, or anything else related to social justice. People can also make donations and opt to serve as partners to the foundation in upcoming initiatives.

“We are basically out to make what the late Congressman John Lewis said is good trouble,” Reisman said. “Just to keep people aware that this is not all a pie-in-the-sky resort — we have problems here, we have issues we need to deal with.”

Photo courtesy Eunki Seonwoo/MV Times