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Bringing it home

Kaila Binney returned to the Island to share her working knowledge of sustainability practices in farming and beyond. A special Vineyard educational fellowship made this financially possible.
BY ALEXANDRA BULLEN
Kaila Binney farming

For many college students, the decision to move home after graduation can be a complicated one. But for Vineyarders, returning to the Island poses an even greater challenge. While the Island pull is powerful and real – as anyone who has ever visited (again and again) can attest – it can be difficult to combine career interests and academic pursuits with the Island’s seasonal and geographical limitations.

The Martha’s Vineyard Vision Fellowship aims to ease this transition by helping a new generation of Island scholars pursue advanced studies while staying involved in the community here. Funded by the Philip Evans Scholarship Foundation (created by Jerome Kohlberg Jr., who owns Martha’s Vineyard Magazine and the Vineyard Gazette with his wife, Nancy), the fellowship has provided Vineyard scholarships since 2006 to qualified residents, to encourage Vineyarders to study and implement sustainability practices here on-Island.

Kaila Binney, a twenty-seven-year-old Chilmark resident, credits the Vision Fellowship with allowing her to find her post-college path. While staying connected to her life on Martha’s Vineyard and with financial support from the fellowship, Kaila earned a master’s degree in sustainable education. Along the way, she has become an integral part of several Vineyard farms and organizations, from Chilmark’s Allen Farm, where she lives and works, to Island Grown Schools (a program of the nonprofit Island Grown Initiative) and Edgartown’s FARM Institute.

Here, she talks with Alexandra Bullen about her studies, the fellowship, and the work she has begun and plans to continue on Martha’s Vineyard, her home.

How did you come to live on the Vineyard?

I was born in Northampton and grew up coming to the Vineyard to visit my aunt and uncle. They owned Café Luna in Oak Bluffs.

When I turned one, my family moved to India for three years. My parents were teaching at the American Embassy School in New Delhi. I don’t know if I have actual memories of being there, but I remember a feeling about living in India. There are things that transport me back, like music. I feel like part of me is always there.

Years later, we were visiting the Vineyard again and my mom noticed that there was an opening for a reading specialist at the West Tisbury School. She applied, spontaneously. We moved here when I was nine.

So you grew up as an Island kid, and then went off to college. Where did you go, and what did you study?

I went to Vassar [College] in Poughkeepsie, New York, and majored in international studies. My junior year abroad I went to Senegal, with a program called Living Routes. Rather than going to a university, we were living with families and also paired with Senegalese students. We traveled to different communities doing service-learning projects. It was the first real semester they were leading in Senegal, but they had programs in India, Scotland, and in the US. They were all ecovillage-based, with more of a focus on field study versus classroom education. And it was all about sustainability.

What do you mean by sustainability, and what is an ecovillage?

There’s an official definition of sustainability from the 1980s. It has to do with meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. I would just say it is a philosophy based on understanding the interconnectedness of life’s systems, and living in harmony with natural patterns. An ecovillage is essentially any community that is trying to be self-sustaining, at any level.

Did you have any specific plans for after college?

plastic bottles grey water system
Plastic bottles line an earthen enclosure, part of Kaila’s work on a gray-water system at India’s Kodaikanal Earthship.

Before I graduated I applied for project-based fellowships, where they give you a stipend for a year and you have a partnering organization and a mentor. I ended up getting a grant from an organization called the Global Ecovillage Network and spent ten months in ecovillages in Senegal, India, Israel, and Scotland.

What was the most inspiring part of that time abroad?

At the end of the ten months, I traveled to Findhorn, the most well-known ecovillage in the world. It was started in the sixties, in the northeast part of Scotland, with just a few families living in what used to be a trailer park. A whole community grew around them, and now it’s very resource-rich, with wind turbines and solar panels and a waste management system that’s totally green.

They lead workshops, and people visit and live full time. I was there to present at the Positive Energy Conference, which looked at creative community responses to climate change. I got to stay in a house with a bunch of other presenters. One of these was Joanna Macy, who is now my hero and mentor. She is a Buddhist eco-philosopher, and is world-renowned for her philosophy and approach to the state of the world and where we are now. She really inspired me to continue on this path.

Tell us about your return to the Vineyard.

I came back to the Island in 2008, and there was a guy teaching a permaculture course at the youth hostel. Permaculture is the study of how to create a totally sustainable human settlement, from housing to energy use to food. While I was in each of the ecovillages, I was exposed to permaculture design courses.

It was crazy. It was the first time the course was being offered, and I’d just gotten back from a year of being in sustainable communities founded on the principles of permaculture. I was the only Islander in the course.

It was a good course, mostly because the Island naturally presents so many brilliant models of permaculture. I was surprised that there wasn’t somebody from the Island teaching it. So I went and got my teacher’s training at Esalen in Big Sur, California. That’s really the first time I ever thought seriously about teaching. Both of my parents are in education, and I wasn’t against it, but I never felt pulled towards it either. I felt like I would eventually work for a nonprofit, even though I had no idea what that meant.

How did you get into teaching?

First, I went back to Auroville [an international experimental community] in India. They were hoping to offer their first Permaculture Design Certificate [PDC] course and asked me to come back and teach it. I also traveled to Malaysia and taught a PDC course there. That was really my first teaching experience.

But I felt like I needed to contribute to something, somewhere, that I was deeply connected to and invested in for a long period of my life. The summer of 2009, I assisted the same permaculture class I had taken the year before. As I was helping the teacher with that course, I found out about the Martha’s Vineyard Vision Fellowship, which propelled me into going to graduate school.

Another thing that happened was that I reconnected with Sidney Morris, the education director at the FARM Institute, who had been my advisor at the [Martha’s Vineyard Public] Charter School when I was twelve. He suggested I apply for the Vision Fellowship, and I ended up working with the FARM Institute as my mentor organization.

I knew I needed a lot more training in education, and I started looking up graduate programs in sustainability education. The one I chose – the only one of its kind – was an [Educating for Sustainability] master’s at Antioch University New England.

The way that these two programs – Antioch and the Vision Fellowship – have worked together has been the most amazing thing that’s ever happened to me. The goal of the fellowship is that you’re making relationships with your mentor organization, gleaning what you can from your educational experience, and bringing it back to the Island.

How is the Antioch program structured? Did you have any reservations about doing a low-residency, online program?

The program is six semesters, and I did it in two years, graduating this past May. We started in July of 2010, when we met in Keene, New Hampshire, and lived in the dorms for two weeks, with classes and workshops every day, all day.

In the fall and spring semesters we had two online classes. We communicated through an online discussion forum, with readings and a syllabus. But the difference [from other online programs] was that we knew our professors and we knew each other, since we’d all been together for two weeks. It was the opposite of what I expected from an online experience.

In addition to the course work, we’d have group projects twice a month. It’s so important because after a few months, people get busy. You’re not as engaged and easily discouraged. But then you’d have these projects, where you’d talk to your classmates on the phone, or on Skype, and feel connected again.

The next summer, we went back to Antioch for another residency. It was so dreamy. It sounds cheesy, but there’s so much love and support in that group that it’s exactly what we needed, to be together again and remember why we’re doing this.

students malaysia kaila binney
Permaculture students in Batu Arang, Malaysia, listen as Kaila discusses soil composition and how to amend and improve their soil.

How have your studies impacted the work you’re doing here?

Last summer, I hired five teenagers to work at the FARM Institute to grow, harvest, and distribute fresh produce to people in need around the Island. It’s a program I started based on the Food Project in Boston. Their mission is to engage and empower teenagers through issues of food justice, and allow them to take leadership roles in the community.

The program was made possible by a stipend from the Vision Fellowship, and the design for the curriculum came out of one of my courses at Antioch. It also fulfilled the Vision Fellowship requirement to have a summer internship with my mentor organization.

My grad program required that I have a practicum, and that’s where Island Grown Schools comes in. I started as a volunteer with IGS, and then became the school coordinator for Oak Bluffs and the high school. I create a curriculum and work with teachers to integrate their curricula into garden- and farm-based education, and I help bring local food into school cafeterias. Primarily, it gives students the opportunity to know where their food comes from, and to have hands-on experiences engaging them in that learning process.

Why was it so important for you to stay on the Island?

I love the Island and I knew that eventually I wanted to be here, but there were two big challenges for me. The first was not feeling ashamed about coming back after college. I feel like Islanders, especially of my generation, sometimes feel this level of shame, when we should feel proud. The Vision Fellowship allowed me to feel proud to want to be here.

And secondly, the Island is so quiet in the winter, and sometimes it can feel stifling. Between the fellowship and going to school, I can still have intellectual stimulation and engage with the outside world.

I think my initial reasons for wanting to be here were to stay close to my family, my boyfriend Nathaniel [Allen-Posin, of Chilmark’s Allen Farm], and the ocean. But I also think that the fact that we’re on an island makes the issues I’m interested in much more present.

The sustainability movement that is happening here now is largely due to the fact that we are constantly reminded of our limited resources as an island. It’s as simple as thinking about things like: If the boat stopped running tomorrow, what would we do? This is something I ask my students all the time.

We are forced into being a community as an island, I think. And it creates these unspoken connections that make living and working together really easy, and fulfilling.

Do you have a vision for your work here in the coming years?

I hope to continue to develop as an educator and work with Island Grown Schools. I have so much freedom in my role in the schools. The more that I learn – it’s like I have a blank slate. I can approach teachers and students with curriculum ideas, and the organization is so supportive.

The Allen Farm is also incredibly inspiring, and offers me so much freedom and support to explore and dive into different roles. During the school year I bring students to the farm – it’s always my favorite field trip because it’s my home, and because almost every student wants to be a farmer after visiting the Allen Farm.

It has been exciting to talk through ideas for the future of the farm with Nathaniel, and we both feel that education will be a big part of it. I learn more here than anywhere else, and I see people’s worlds change when they come here. Mine did. u


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(Originally published in the September-October 2012 edition of Martha's Vineyard Magazine)

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