To make things grow, you need water, sun and lots of love. Noli Taylor found all three on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. And what grew from there was a family and an idea to help change the world one garden at a time.
“Millions of people are devoting their lives to finding innovative ways to pave a new and better path forward. My hope is to be part of these change-makers and find solutions to some of our global challenges in the place I live.”
Changing the world is in Noli’s blood. She comes from a long line of social change activists, starting with her great great grandparents who smuggled books to Jewish children in Ukraine so they could learn to read. Her great grandparents believed in the sacredness of all life and so became vegetarians long before it was trendy. In the next generation, her grandfather was blacklisted in the McCarthy era for being a labor union organizer and communist sympathizer. As a result, Noli’s mother and her sisters were ostracized by their classmates, which only deepened their commitment to social justice.
“Sometimes their work for change landed them in jail for organizing protests, participating in civil rights sit-ins, for civil disobedience against nuclear proliferation,” says Noli. “But this was not a source of shame, but of pride for having stood up for what was right.”
So it’s not surprising that, early on, Noli was also an activist, marching alongside California farm workers protesting for better working conditions and against the use of toxic chemicals in the fields they harvested.
“Going to rallies and parades and marches with leagues of people trying to make positive change in the world and in their lives, was an important part of how my sister and I were raised, and I never really imagined that I would do anything other than work like that when I grew up.”
Which brings us back to Hawaii where the seeds of Noli’s future and her field of dreams would take root.
‘Some people are really good at thinking about solutions on a larger scale, but for me, I can figure things out best in the local community I’m a part of.'
It was in Hawaii that Noli met her future husband and moved to his gem of an island, Martha’s Vineyard off the coast of Massachusetts, a community where Noli recognized an area where she could make a difference.
“So many of the global challenges we face today coalesce around how we grow and eat food. Childhood obesity, hunger among children and families, climate change, water pollution, air pollution…they are all intricately tied to our modern food system, which is not serving people or the environment."
Building on that conviction, Noli launched Island Grown Schools in 2007, designed to empower a new generation of children to make healthy eating choices, learn to grow food and connect to local farms.
“We bring garden-based learning, healthy, locally grown food, and hands-on farm experiences to almost every school-aged child in our community,” says Noli.
“Studies show that when a child participates in a school garden program, their entire family ends up eating more fruits and vegetables.”
Noli believes that every school subject can be taught through the lens of food and agriculture. So the program collaborated with teachers to identify curriculum connections, and developed an integrated, standards-based curriculum toolkit for preschool through high school, available for free on their website.
“We see our gardens as outdoor classrooms, where students not only have the opportunity to learn their school subjects, but where they are also able to deepen their connection to nature, and understand the roots of their food system.”
And teachers have discovered an added benefit.
“Students with different learning styles, who do not necessarily thrive in a traditional classroom environment, often shine in hands-on lessons in the school gardens.”
From its beginning, IGS has expanded to include all of the island’s schools, serving 2,300 students from 2-to-18 years old, installing 15 school gardens and leading classroom lessons and field trips during the academic year.
And Noli is working to branch out from the island to the mainland.
“We provide individual support for communities that contact us from across the country and collaborate with the Massachusetts Farm to School Project, helping spread this important work beyond our shores.”
Like her family members before her, Noli is committed to making the world a better place, starting in her own backyard.
“The wonderful, good-hearted people willing to be part of making positive change I have gotten to know have taught me so many lessons that have shaped who I am and who inform who I hope to become.
The ripple effect of successful community work is a lovely thing to see, and makes me want to keep at it as long as I can.”
Noli graduated from Haverford College with a degree in urban studies and environmental science. Since then, she has done environmental and agricultural advocacy and organizing work with non-profits and community groups from Philadelphia to Seattle, Albuquerque to Kauai. She is also a mother of two young children and lives and gardens with them in school and at home.