The new president of the 40-year-old nonprofit Island Institute comes into her role at a time when there is, as she puts it, “no shortage of issues facing island and coastal communities”: dearths of affordable housing, a warming and rising ocean, fewer opportunities for fishing and traditional waterfront jobs. In the face of these things, to hear Kim Hamilton tell it, her organization isn’t out to shield island lifestyles from change but to facilitate adaptation. “I think we tend to think of our islands and coastal communities in a nostalgic way, as sort of preserved in amber,” she says, “but islands are actually these incredible examples of change and rebirth, something they’ve been doing for centuries.”
Generational memory stretching across those centuries, she says, is part of what makes island communities special. Eight generations of her own family have lived and worked on Chebeague Island, in Casco Bay, fishing and lobstering, quarrying granite, running a general store, and more. “Just drawing on all of their resources,” Hamilton says, “emblematic of what it takes to live on an island.” Her father, a dockworker, moved to the mainland as an adult, and Hamilton grew up in North Yarmouth, visiting her grandparents on Chebeague in the summer. “We’d spend a few weeks and just run all around the island,” she remembers. “One of the wonderful things about being young on an island is that you really can’t get lost.”
When she headed off to college, in Oregon, in the 1980s, she didn’t envision returning to Maine. She got a graduate degree at Johns Hopkins and a doctorate at Brown and went to work for a series of humanitarian and development organizations, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Then, a few years ago, she felt Chebeague’s pull. “It was just time,” Hamilton says. “I think people just fall in love with island communities, and there’s this deep connection to place. When we moved there, I felt it at a cellular level.”
These days, she lives in what had been her grandmother’s house, along a dirt road, a short walk from forested trails at the Littlefield Woods preserve, where she played as a kid. “I get this sense of deep history there,” Hamilton says. “These are the same paths that my father and generations of island folks have walked on. To me, it’s almost a sacred place.”
Headshot courtesy of the Island Institute
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