Honoring island women for Women’s History Month

Making Block Island a better place to live
Thu, 03/12/2020 - 6:45pm

March is Women’s History Month, a time to honor and celebrate the contributions of women in society.

Block Island is benefited every day by the work of a diverse and hard-working group of women: the majority of high-level island positions are held by women. The Block Island Times will be honoring the contributions of these women with a month-long series, which began last week with women involved with conservation and land stewardship. This week’s edition will be focused on women in the arts and education departments.

We asked the following questions: 1) What brought you to the island? 2) What is your background? 3) What does it mean to be a woman on Block Island? 4) What has been your proudest achievement? 5) What words of encouragement would you give to other women?

Kim Gaffett: Naturalist for The Nature Conservancy

I’ve been here since the beginning of my life. My father was born here and my mother spent every summer here of her life. They moved here full time after she married my father, received her degree and had two kids. I went to school and graduated here. I left and went to college, and was gone for about eight years. I started at Franklin Pierce College, and then transferred to University of Puget Sound. I got a bachelor of science in biology in environmental science in 1980, and I spent one year there and came back to the island in 1982, and have been here since.

When I came back to the island, my first job was to co-manage The Barn, which is now the Spring Street Gallery. Around 1983, I had the Mid-Ocean Press building. I drove the school bus (for 21 years), helped with bird banding and assisted Hank Lemoine in the summer, who was leading nature walks for the Department of Environmental Management. Similar to today, you had to have about three or four jobs to keep yourself going. I got into the Planning Board, and from there into Town Council and town government work. Around the year 2000, Josie Merck contacted me with starting the Ocean View Foundation. At first it was very part-time, and in 2017, she merged the program with The Nature Conservancy – she endowed the OVF program at the TNC on Block Island.

For me, I think, what does it mean to be a person on Block Island? I never felt I was limited as a woman, but I moved forward. For me, the most important thing is to participate, and it’s important to know what is going on with island life and aspects of the community. I just feel, to be a person on Block Island, is to participate in more than just your employment. I think it is important to be a role model, and you can contribute in different ways. Women still are more likely to be treated unfairly and with a double standard. You get judged for having emotional and passionate feelings in a way that men are not. I believe it exists and it exists on Block Island, but it has not stopped me from anything.

I have been really lucky to be out here on the island. I have been able to do things I like to do. Right now, I am doing exactly what I studied. I would have never dreamed of being in the naturalist position that I am currently in. I started with Elise Lapham on bird banding and that has evolved into a larger program. There has been continuous bird banding at Clay Head since 1967. I am proud to carry on that tradition, and to have learned from her, and she learned from other previous people - Elizabeth Dickens, Elise Lapham, and Merrill Slate to name a few.

Try to find what you really love, and try to pursue it. Do what you love, because life is too short. Try to stay open to change and be willing to recognize you may move onto something else, and that’s okay. We may change, and we change what is important and that’s okay. Be willing to see that within yourself and other people.

Lisa Robb: Art Teacher at the Block Island School 

I was born and raised on Block Island, so I’m as local as you get. I’ve lived here for most of my life other than going to college and a little exploring after.

I have been the Block Island School art teacher for the past seven years. I live on the island with my husband, Chris, and my daughter, Macy. I’m very lucky to have my parents here on the island as well.

I think we are very fortunate to be considered equals here on Block Island. I never feel that I am excluded or judged based upon my gender.  We have some incredibly powerful, hard working and determined women out here that are highly respected. The women of this community are extremely active and involved citizens. I love being part of a community like that. It motivates and inspires me.

I don’t think that I have one specific achievement, but many small ones.  When I have a former student talk about their successes and things they are working on, I’m so proud of them but also of me.  I know that I was a small part of their achievement.  When a community member or colleague asks me to be a part of a board or a discussion, I know that my opinion is respected.  It’s important to remember that the little things are equally as important as the big things.

You are important and you are valued.

Paige Gaffett: Coordinator at Spring Street Gallery

I was born here, and after I finished college I decided to continue to stay.

Growing up on the island, I remember taking art classes with Teri McCombe as a kid. Jessie Edwards was a neighbor of ours, and she was interested in keeping us creative. As I grew older, I went from waitressing to delving into other jobs, including working at North Light Fibers for two and a half years when they opened. I was learning how to make the yarn. In the last year of my time at North Light Fibers, I was working on felting classes, weaving rugs, and wall hangings for the shop. When I left, I was going in my art direction, and opened HeartSpace as my own gallery for three years. I think that put my creative side out there. I started working at the Spring Street Gallery in November 2016 when they approached me. I was interested in the creative side of the world, and people approached me over the course of my life. I always take everything in as a learning process.

Being a woman on Block Island, for me, is to be a part of the community, my family, and to be around people in my life. It is amazing how everyone pulls together to support one another. Living and working out here, it’s so different than being on the mainland; there’s more fluidity. You can enjoy your jobs and enjoy your living, it’s a great support system and it’s beautiful here.

I was able to find and fall into jobs that fit into what I wanted to do. Being able to be out here, and to be able to do what I went to school for, and to be around the friends and family I grew up around.

Persevere and go after opportunities when presented in your life. I was able to explore a lot of different options, and I ended up doing what I wanted to do and love.

Susan Bush: Owner of Island Bound Bookstore

Like many people, I first came to Block Island on vacation and thought it would be a wonderful place to live. Changes in technology made it possible for me to live where I wanted and continue running my record company, so I made the decision to move here.

My beginnings of establishing a personal life on Block Island began with my participation in exercise classes, where I got to know a good number of women and it kind of went from there. I was a regular bookstore customer, worked on some Sundays at the library to keep it open in the winter, and got involved volunteering with other organizations. One thing led to another and it seems like there’s always something worthwhile to work on. Three years ago, my sister and I bought the bookstore from Cindy, and that now keeps me pretty busy. 

I’ve always said that there are many, many extraordinary women on Block Island and I feel it is a privilege to live here and know them. I like living around people who take their community responsibilities seriously. I’ve also noticed that there isn’t age segregation here. I believe it’s important for older women to be kept on their toes by younger women and younger women can learn a lot from interacting with their elders.

The most fun thing I’ve done was a mock trial I helped organize as a benefit for the Medical Center about six years ago. The Empire Theatre was standing room only and the mock trial, “Goldilocks and the Three Deer” was hilarious. It was such a high to have the theater packed and see everyone having a great time. I get a great deal of satisfaction from living in a place that offers almost everything anyone could want: beauty, semi-rural living, quiet, lots to do, and people who are interesting and stimulating.

I hope that younger women do not become complacent. There is so much work left to do to achieve equal rights for women — plus I think women will prove to be the leaders in confronting issues like climate change, hunger, poverty. When a young woman on Block Island can lead the charge for change with banning plastic bags here, I know we are in good hands.

Kristine Monje: Principal of the Block Island School

I came to Block Island for the first time during the spring of 1985. My boyfriend, Peter, who later turned out to be my husband, and I were both students at the University of Rhode Island. He had already summered on the island and was a bit older than I, so he had to do a lot of convincing of my parents to follow him out to work at the Seaside Market. I was just 18, and being a Rhode Islander from Cranston, Block Island was a foreign land to my parents! After a God-awful ride in April on the Manitou to interview, that first summer we lived in the tiniest room above the Market and shared a communal kitchen with a host of island characters. The Helterlines, and later Mary Jane Balser, were anchors that kept us here and supported us as we came back over multiple summers.

In 1988, when I graduated from University of Rhode Island with a double major in Communicative Disorders and Elementary Education, I applied for the master’s program in Speech Pathology at URI (as I had sworn off teaching after a not-so-fun student teaching experience). I was accepted into the winter term that year. That meant I had one semester off, so I chose to stay and work on the island that fall. Well, that did not last long. In November of that year, I was approached about an aide position that recently opened up at the school. In those days, if you had a teaching certificate and wanted to stay on Block Island you were a hot commodity.  Before I knew it, plans of graduate school went out the window and my relationship with the Block Island School began.

In 1990, I became the fourth grade teacher at the school. I was the youngest teacher in the building at the time, which is very funny to me now! I was mentored by Carol Brown, Barby Michel, Marlee Lacoste, and Bonnie Swienton. For roughly 30 years, those ladies and a host of others have supported me. They were there as I married, had children, (Debby Hart throws a mean baby shower), and later returned to school to finally get that master’s degree. My entire world has been wrapped up in the school, and I have been continually supported by many island women. We have planned weddings together, weathered loss, and celebrated retirements.  It continues to be an amazing adventure, as many of us are on our second generation of students. As an ode to their connection to lifelong learning and their desire to contribute and watch others grow, most teachers never say they are “going to work”, it is always just, “going to school”. However it is work though. After 24 years as a teacher and six years as principal, it is not always easy. We fight, cry, and make-up, just like a family! But at the end of the day, I’m very happy to be a woman who lives on Block Island.

My proudest achievements have to be my children first, but a close second is the accomplishments of our school and the generations of students who we have helped to be successful beyond our doors. Living in a remote part of the world sometimes makes you think that you are less than others who live in the big cities of the world, but I don’t think so. My faith in the strength of our community and the people who live here (both men and women) is validated by our traditions, volunteerism, and sense of place.

My advice to young women is to find mentors, cherish strong bonds with good friends, develop independence in order to take care of yourself, and find the time to be off of Block Island, because only then will you truly appreciate all the lessons and gifts a small community like Block Island has to offer you.