LEADING LADY

Written By: Robert Cocuzzo | Photography By: Kit Noble

Newly elected Select Board member Melissa Murphy discusses the future of Nantucket.

Well before she was elected to the Select Board this June, Melissa Murphy had contributed extensively to the community. A graduate of Nantucket High School who went on to study at Eugene Lang College, Murphy has served in several key leadership roles over the years, from being on the Nantucket School Committee for nearly a decade, to overseeing the reopening of the Dreamland as the theater’s executive director, to serving as the Town’s Culture and Tourism director. Most recently, Murphy co-founded WE CAN (Women Engaged in Civic Action on Nantucket) and led an island-wide book club designed to empower women on the island. Now in her new role on the Select Board, Murphy is addressing a whole new host of issues facing the community, which N Magazine had an opportunity to ask her about earlier this summer.

N MAGAZINE: What are some of the positives we can take away from this summer?

MURPHY: I think that there is a lot for Nantucket to be collectively proud of. First and foremost, the rate of infection and spread of COVID-19 has remained relatively low compared to other Massachusetts towns. Second, our community has quickly adapted to this new reality, thus giving our community members and businesses a better chance for success. Residents and visitors alike have been able to enjoy all the wonderful things Nantucket has to offer, including dining al fresco, while keeping safety at the forefront.

N MAGAZINE: Could you see this new outdoor seating remaining in place after the pandemic?

MURPHY: The Town looks so beautiful and I am so happy that people are enjoying themselves safely while supporting our local restaurants. I can see supporting that going forward, especially as I believe we are going to be living with the virus for some time, especially until the governor’s Phase 4—when there is a vaccine and/or effective treatment.

N MAGAZINE: While some segments of the economy such as real estate have thrived this season, others are hanging on for dear life. How can the Town help those businesses recover?

MURPHY: The Town can continue to create policies that support businesses’ creative adaptions. The outside dining is a perfect example of that collaboration between the Town and business owners to support their success.

N MAGAZINE: Along with small businesses, the local nonprofit community has struggled to fundraise amid this new normal. Could we also see a dramatic shift in the nonprofit community in the availability of critical services they provide?

MURPHY: Along with the rest of the local business community, the local nonprofit community has had to pivot. A great example is how the Community Foundation of Nantucket quickly established the Emergency Relief Fund and was able to direct funds to certain organizations who have direct community impact.

N MAGAZINE: Based on new waiting lists at Nantucket’s private schools, more people from Boston and New York are presumably planning on living on the island this offseason. What will this increased population mean for the community?

MURPHY: Many of the folk who are contemplating staying beyond the summer are likely already woven into the fabric of the community in some way. I would say to them the same thing that I say to long-time residents: Find ways to get involved, buy local when possible and enjoy all the great things Nantucket has to offer in the offseason. Nantucket is always growing and transitioning, and frankly, such growth can bring vitality and energy to a community. A wonderful education option for new and old residents is the Nantucket Public School system. It is a welcoming environment full of strong teachers and terrific students. That being said, this year is going to be challenging for all schools and educators as we all continue to learn to live with this virus.

N MAGAZINE: As with the rest of the country, the killing of George Floyd and the demonstrations that followed have prompted the island community to reexamine issues of systemic racism on Nantucket. What are some key pressure points we need to be focusing on to create a more just and equitable Nantucket for all residents?

MURPHY: I am grateful that we are talking about the broad issues of racial inequality and systemic racism and taking affirmative steps to combat them. It is the mission of the Nantucket Equity Advocates to work with the Town and other stakeholders to make sure that “systems of power become truly representative of all members of the community.” This mission is being supported by the Town’s hiring of an equity and diversity officer. It is vitally important for all of us to take the steps to ensure that resources and opportunities are available to everyone in our community and represent all of our Nantucket residents.

N MAGAZINE: Policing is a key topic amid this nationwide discussion we’re having on race. What role can the Nantucket Police Department play in helping root out systemic racism on Nantucket?

MURPHY: The NPD must be transparent and communicate the steps that it is taking to evaluate its own systems, remove internal biases and have a department that represents and serves the entire community. Police departments, in general, must create an environment of trust within their community in order to be able to truly serve it.

N MAGAZINE: How do you think Nantucket has been a leader in managing the COVID-19 crisis?

MURPHY: From the beginning, our Town’s leadership has taken the affirmative steps necessary to protect the health and safety of our community— often making unpopular decisions that were stricter than the state’s. And the proof is in the results: The Boston Globe reported that Nantucket had the best community COVID-19 rates in the commonwealth. The simple fact is that we are different than the rest of the state in many ways, and our Town leaders recognized that and took action quickly to protect the community. And a great deal of credit belongs to our community members who have done the work to protect our community.

N MAGAZINE: You started a hugely popular book group on Nantucket. Can you tell us about it and how people can join?

MURPHY: The book club is an extension of my interest in leadership and personal growth. I run a personal coaching business, True Reach, where I empower my clients to reach their own personal, leadership and business goals. Also, with Jennifer Cohen, we started WE CAN, where we support women in leadership roles on Nantucket, whether it be personal, professional or municipal engagement.

The book group started in January with Dare to Lead [by Brené Brown] and attracted a dynamic group of women who wanted to continue when the pandemic hit. So I moved the book group online where we did another Dare to Lead session, along with Reshma Saujani’s Brave Not Perfect, The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer, Untamed by Glennon Doyle, Becoming by Michelle Obama and Lead from the Outside by Stacey Abrams.

All of the women who participate have reported feeling a better sense of connection, growth and inspiration from the group—what’s better than that!? We meet Thursday nights at 7:30 via Zoom and we’d love to welcome new members. The only rules are to keep our shared stories confidential and to never apologize for being late or not reading enough of the book. In this way we foster trust, growth and acceptance. It’s truly a gift.

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