Catching Up with the Fellows Who Dreamed Up the Island Institute Fellows Program

Philip Conkling and Peter Ralston look back at the early days of island fellowships.

Island Institute founders Peter Ralston and Philip Conkling skipping along next to a herring seiner in Penobscot Bay.
Island Institute founders Peter Ralston (left) and Philip Conkling skipping along next to a herring seiner in Penobscot Bay.
By Nora Saks
Photos courtesy of Island Institute
From our June 2024 issue

The way Philip Conkling and Peter Ralston riff on each other’s stories and finish each other’s sentences brings to mind an old married couple, and in their work at the Island Institute, they were indeed partnered up for a long time. The duo founded the nonprofit in 1983 and led it for the next 30 years. Early on, though, they remember they had some convincing to do to get it off the ground. “Because here we are, both from away and, even worse, off island. So there’s five strikes to begin with,” Ralston says. “We’re working out of Rockland, and the islanders were like, ‘You’re here to help us? Yeah, right.’” But Ralston, a photographer originally from Pennsylvania, and Conkling, a forester (now a writer and environmental consultant) originally from New Jersey, kept showing up, in fair weather and foul, and the dynamics eventually began to shift.

The introduction of the Island Institute Fellows program, in 1999, helped cement the organization’s reputation. “We didn’t invent this model,” Conkling notes, “but we knew what kind of fellow would work in which community, and we were good at matching them, and we were good at identifying future leaders.” Soon, communities up and down the coast were reaching out to the Island Institute to request fellows of their own for help with local projects. “There’s a wicked-tight network out there, and the coconut wireless is pretty effective,” Ralston adds. “People started coming to us for all sorts of things.” Recently, the old pals and colleagues met up at Ralston’s photography gallery, in Rockport, to reflect more on the long run of the fellowship program.

Where did the idea for the fellowships first come from?

Conkling: The backstory is that in the 1990s there was a lot of cognitive dissonance about what was happening to the lobster fishery in Penobscot Bay. The federal scientists who make the regulations were saying the fishery was on the verge of collapse and the industry needed to be cut back by 50 percent, but fishermen were saying the population was booming. The government was basing their decision off landings data, but some other crucial population statistics were missing. So, in 1998, we got a big federal grant to study lobster dynamics in Penobscot Bay. The only way to collect that missing data was to station graduate students on lobsterboats, which required the trust and participation of fishermen, which is what we brought to the table. We thought if we got a dozen boats to participate in this sea-sampling project, that would be a win. But that first summer, we got on 78 lobsterboats, which was a complete revelation. The insight on a larger scale was that the grad students were young, they didn’t pretend like they knew everything, and they were meeting the lobstermen on their home territory. 

Ralston: And they were smart and eager. 

Conkling: So we decided to expand this into a bigger program. 

What was the next step?

Conkling: We knew we needed winter data to populate the lobster model, and we wanted to work with fishermen who lived on the islands. So, in 1999, we piloted a year-round Island Fellows program, with one young marine ecologist splitting her time between Chebeague and Monhegan. We trained her on how to integrate into the community: If you sing, join a singing group. Go to potluck suppers. Etcetera. And she was great, because she wasn’t just a scientist but also became a member of the community. That was our idea, and it worked. 

Ralston: The response from the community was, “It’s great that you’re doing this for the fishermen, but what about our library? Or the school? Or historical society? Our greatest need is . . . fill in the blank.” 

Conkling: And that’s where the concept of a two-year fellowship, where someone makes a commitment to live in and be part of the community, came from. The next year, in 2000, we scaled way up, thanks to a big donation from Charlie Cawley, who had founded the credit-card company MBNA, and that got the fellows program up and running. 

Are there highlights — or lowlights — that stand out from those early days?

Conkling: During our time, about 10 fellows married islanders, and they started what we jokingly call the “junior fellows” program. The community embraced them, and they fell in love with the community, and this is where they wanted to have families. Some have become real island leaders today. And, yes, there was one famous train wreck. I’m not going to name names, but one community needed someone to start a music program, so we found a woman who could play and teach every instrument, and then she created a sustainability fund so the island could buy instruments after her fellowship was over. But in the second year, she took the money and ran. It was heartbreaking. After we investigated, we learned she had some tragedies in her past. And instead of being bitter, the islanders said, “We forgive her.” You know, it’s kind of like the recognition of human frailty. And when you’re on an island, you see it up close. 

Ralston: Yeah, you’re out there, on the edge all the time, and shit happens all the time. 

Did communities’ needs evolve much over the years? 

Conkling: Some of the earliest projects were using GIS to create tax maps, because the skill set to do that just didn’t exist on the islands. Another priority was mapping sensitive areas for natural resources, because some island populations were growing and development pressure was building. There was even a fellow who designed and implemented a program of storm-window replacements, to reduce heating bills. These are the things that came in the door. 

Ralston: We never said, “We don’t do windows.” 

Conkling: We said, “If you can convince us that you can manage this project, we’ll do it.” 

Ralston: The islanders have always known what needs to be done, but the most limiting resource is people to do it. And that’s where we can help. That hasn’t really changed. 

Conkling: It was a success from the get-go, because we had fellows working for the island community. 

Ralston: It was their fellow, not our fellow. 

Conkling: And host communities don’t forget their fellows. It changes lives on both sides of the equation. 

Read more about the Island Institute, including the program’s local impacts, notable alumni, and more in our June 2024 issue.

May 2024, Down East Magazine

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