Honoring island women for Women’s History Month

Making Block Island a better place to live
Thu, 03/05/2020 - 5:15pm

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, beginning this week. 

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?


Cindy Pappas: Chair of the Housing Board; owner of Sullivan Real Estate

My husband and I came in 1975, when he took the position of Minister for the Harbor Church. We had never been here before, and we just truly fell in love with Block Island.

Professionally, when we came here, I actually commuted from here to finish my college degree; I ended up with a degree in sociology. Back in the ‘70s, there were not many job opportunities if you didn’t have a teaching background. My first job on the island was secretary of the Zoning Board, and Director of the Recreation Center. Barbara Hall and I spent many years with the Recreation Center. From there, I did secretary work with Sullivan Real Estate for Dorothy Sullivan, a wonderful friend and mentor. We worked together for nine to ten years. I got my sales license as a sales agent working with her. She encouraged me to get my broker’s license. I wasn’t really interested in the brokers license, I was happy in my role and loved working with her. She died in 1983, and it was devastating for me. I found out she had filled out all the paperwork for me for the brokers license, and I ended up buying the business in 1983. She was a really dynamic and wonderful person.

I have been involved with Sullivan Real Estate since the early 70s, and it mostly has been a fellowship of women who are great in this office, and it has been a wonderful focus. It was noticeable when we moved in the 70s, that women were the backbone of this community. There are women long gone, that shaped and influenced me, arriving here as a young person. I think back to Edrie Dodge, Barbara Milner, Lulu Pennington, Amy Dodge, and Mary Donnelly to name a few. These women were mentors and role models, who volunteered in community life and had families. They helped make Block Island the place that it is.

This is a place for strong women to strive and grow. I think that one of the things that has always been important to me on Block Island is that one person can truly make a difference. I have seen it so many times. Your passion and time, you invest in it. You can make things change. There’s a long history of women that have shaped Block Island. You really can make a difference and impact in others’ lives.

I think that my personal faith and connection to the Harbor Church has been a guiding force in my life and values on how I live on Block Island. Many of the things that the faith community has out here have supported and brought satisfaction to me. My personal faith and the extended faith community are something I have been involved in, and care deeply about. After that, my first 20 years here were focused in land conservation. I had the great privilege and pleasure of working with people like Keith Lewis, Keith Lang, and Nancy Greenaway, to make a big difference in the shape and direction of Block Island. The Block Island Land Trust was a real and important commitment to me. I received the Bayberry Wreath award in 1993, and the Chevron Conservation award in 1994. The first partnership was with Beacon Hill Lane – a great example of local land trust empowerment. The recent last 20 years, I have focused on affordable housing. I see affordable housing as one of the most important issues facing this community, and our success in that is going to determine if we are to remain a vibrant year round community.

This is a wonderful place to raise a family – another illustration of how women are supportive of each other. You have the support of the schools and the teachers, and the other families. You weren’t alone in the process. To raise a family and to have been blessed, one of the wonderful things of my life. We are able to achieve our full potential here.

Find your passion, invest yourself in the causes that matter to you! Part of the magic of Block Island is that one person can really make a difference and that is truly empowering.

Clair Stover Comings: Executive Director, Block Island Conservancy

Growing up I spent most of my summers on Block Island with my family. After graduating from college, I came out for “one last summer” to work for The Nature Conservancy as an education and stewardship assistant. That job transitioned into a full-time job with The Nature Conservancy in Rhode Island, which allowed me to continue to spend time on the island. In 2018, I began working for the Block Island Conservancy and moved here.

I work for the Block Island Conservancy, a grassroots conservation organization that works to protect the island’s natural heritage, rural character, and access to its resources. Working for the BIC is truly my dream job — I get to work to protect my favorite place in the world.

I think living on Block Island provides us all with a unique opportunity to have a real impact on the people and place. It’s small enough that what you do truly matters and can benefit the people and natural world around you. It’s a wonderful place to be because most people who are here have chosen to be and I think that engenders a lot of care for the island and the people who live here

I am really proud to do what I do with the Block Island Conservancy and our partners. Seeing people out enjoying the places we’ve protected or participating in our new composting program brings me a lot of satisfaction. I’m also really proud to be a member of the Rescue Squad. It’s an incredibly caring and generous group of people and I feel so lucky to be a part of it

I think participating as an active member of a community and supporting the people around you is the best way to confront those feelings and affect real change.

Diandra Verbeyst: Nature Conservancy Great Salt Pond scientist

I came out to Block Island in June 2015 as a marine intern for The Nature Conservancy. What TNC coined as the GLOBE program (Growing Leaders on Behalf of the Environment), I was fortunate to be selected for this career-block internship opportunity to assist the B.I. marine team with field research and nature programs specific to the Great Salt Pond. GLOBE positions provide a unique opportunity to bridge the gap between academics and real-world conservation work with the intention to empower the next generation of conservation leaders and broaden the conservation workforce so that TNC’s larger network reflects diversity of people, skills and communities. As an intern with the B.I. team, I was matched with a mentor and supervisor, tasked with relevant projects and contributed to real-time research happening in the Great Salt Pond and greater B.I. summer program. TNC GLOBE changed the course of my life, career-wise and personally, and I’ve never been happier here because of TNC and what I like to call our conservation family.

My title, Great Salt Pond Scientist, reflects the work of a conservation practitioner. While my work is centered in science, fieldwork and nature education, I am constantly working with my colleagues across different departments and partnerships. One of my favorite aspects of my job with TNC are the “all other duties as assigned” tasks that inevitably come up when you work for a non-profit. As Scott [Comings] likes to say, ‘the intangibles,’ or strong work ethic and team camaraderie skills come through in order to accomplish whatever needs to get done outside of our core job description. Working for TNC has been an invaluable experience for me as a young professional (and woman in science) because together with my colleagues and our partners, we achieve results and do whatever it takes to run a successful non-profit from the local level all the way up to the global level. Despite growing up in Rhode Island, I had no B.I. ties prior to my internship with TNC. I am forever grateful to TNC and feel so honored to be able to participate in the conservation ethos instilled by the community. I still have to pinch myself when I think about my journey to B.I. and how unbelievably lucky I am to call this community my home.

Being a part of the community reinforces how much I appreciate and thrive in living in a small, tight-knit community. For me, being a woman on B.I. positively inspires and challenges me to continuously work hard, contribute wherever I can, and lead by example both in and outside of the various roles you may see me in around the island. I feel a greater sense of responsibility to follow a strong moral compass and exemplify these principles as best I can, particularly in view of the many roles I participate in as a young woman on the island. Between my career with TNC and the various side jobs I take on throughout the year, I am constantly around the community. Whether I am helping with a nature program, serving food to restaurant guests, helping out as a volunteer, whatever it is I am up to around the island, my many hats allow me to engage with people of all ages and backgrounds. With that being said, some days are awesome and some days are tough and my sunny side doesn’t shine through despite my stump speech to be positive. But overall, I really do believe in the power of positivity and how important it is for me as a possible role model for other women in our community, particularly youth; to actively live this practice and continue evolving as a person, to keep following true north on that moral compass. 

Broadly speaking, I am most proud of being a part of TNC, and even further, being a representative for young professionals and women in science. As I mentioned earlier, with this privilege comes an even greater set of responsibility. Especially since I am so young in my career and life on Block Island, my greatest challenge in life is finding balance. Finding balance between work and personal life is generally difficult for most of us, and then taking it to the next tier for me as a woman on B.I. and new member of this community, I am constantly teetering on both sides of the scale.

I owe it all to TNC and the support of my team and especially Scott Comings for always supporting me and believing in me as a young professional and community member. If it wasn’t for them, I would not have had my start here and I appreciate them so much because of it. I am also so lucky to be a part of my island family that has stemmed from my time living here. Strong women I look up to who have taken me under their wing have taught me so much about myself and what I want to be for other young women. No amount of words can describe how much I love this island and our community.

I think there are two practices you can use to empower the people around you. One of the ways I’ve been most empowered by individuals I trust and revere the most is I’ve been asked my opinion on the matter that is troubling me, and then I’ve been given the space, room, and resources to give it a go. In other words, identifying what may be causing this sense of loss and navigating possible ways to settle what is troubling me. Being asked: 1) What do you think? Do you have any ideas? What do you foresee or can design to address the topic at hand; and then:  2) What do you need in order to make that happen? These have been two practices I’ve witnessed and have been a part of that empowered me to work through some difficult situations. I think the core of these practices may be applicable to how we uplift and support women when all seems far gone.

Communication, action planning, and working through next best steps to reach a common goal requires trust, which I think ultimately comes back to being open-minded, a positive thinker and a genuine person.

For me, the key to life is to work hard and be a good person. I know it’s trite and a bit cliché, but these words have helped get me to where I am today and will always share this message with those around me.

Dorrie Napoleone: President of the Block Island Conservancy

I first came to Block Island sailing with my husband Jim in 1987. We frequently summered on our sailboat in the Great Salt Pond and came often to Block Island in the off season. We were so struck by the natural beauty and unspoiled landscape of the island that we decided to make it our home and purchased a house in 1999 becoming year-round residents in 2001.

I am the current president of the Block Island Conservancy, having joined the board four years ago. I am humbled to follow in the footsteps of so many dedicated individuals who started the organization more than 45 years ago. So many people have worked tirelessly along with the other conservation organizations to preserve and protect Block Island’s natural beauty. It is our island’s homegrown conservation organization and I’m so proud to be a part of it. 

Conservation was not my background and I’ve been learning a lot since I joined the board. Until 2013, I worked in healthcare at a large medical center in New York, managing hundreds of people, but most of my co-workers were men. It was a challenging environment to work in. I find that here on Block Island, there are no constraints on the opportunities for women. It certainly is an environment that fosters creativity while also challenging one to be resourceful. 

I think my proudest achievement would be working in various aspects with the community and trying to be involved. I have served on many different boards on the island and served as the Farmers Market Coordinator for eight years. That was a wonderful opportunity to work with many young artists, crafts people, and farmers, giving them an opportunity to start up a small business.

It is important to get involved in something that is meaningful to you and where you feel your voice will be heard and you can make a difference. One of the reasons I joined the B.I. Conservancy board was I was upset by the contentious nature of the conversation in our country. I decided to focus my energy on something local, that I felt was important. Big issues like climate change can be overwhelming but by working to continue to preserve and protect Block Island from overdevelopment while starting projects like our composting pilot to educate people and make the island a more environmentally friendly place uplift me. I feel I am contributing to solving big issues at a local level.

Barbara MacMullan: Chair, Block Island Land Trust; B.I. Utility District

I first came to Block Island in the early eighties, sailing to the island while a grad student at URI.  I returned in the late eighties with my family, renting a house every year, a family tradition that continues.  Nearly 25 years ago, I married my husband, Henry duPont, and made the island my full time home. I was drawn to the beauty of the island and it’s quiet way of life, as well as to the sense of community here. Because we are a small community, it is possible to see the impact you can have on it.

In June of 1998 I was appointed to replace an open seat on the Block Island Land Trust.  In November 1998 I was elected to the Board and have served ever since. My background is in environmental science and economics,  which dovetailed nicely with the Land Trust mission.  It has been an honor to serve on that board, and work to protect open space on Block Island for all of these years.

Since January 2007, I have worked to turn the Block Island Power Company into a non-profit electric utility, with the goals of reduced costs and elimination of the use of diesel fuel to benefit both our economy and our environment. The latter goal was achieved in 2017 when Block Island was connected to the Block Island Wind Farm and the nonprofit was created in March of 2019 after many years of hard work by many people.

I am grateful that the Block Island Community does not distinguish between men and women when it comes to skills or abilities, or at least that has been my experience.

I think my role in creating the Block Island Utility District was both my greatest challenge and my proudest achievement. When this idea was first put forward there was a great deal of community skepticism that there would be benefits, and it was taking place on a parallel path with the development of the wind farm, which was controversial in its own right. We needed to overcome those community concerns as well as get through many logistical hurdles, such as passing legislation to allow the creation of a new nonprofit entity and obtaining financing for the purchase of the assets of the power company.

Women should be supported and feel valued in whatever work they choose to do, be it running a corporation or staying at home to raise children. My message would be to find your passion and follow it and have confidence in your own value (But I think that is advice I would give to anyone, regardless of gender.)