State spends on making Adirondacks more diverse

$250,000 in Environmental Protection Fund will go to ANCA to hire staff for Adirondack Diversity Initiative

A quarter-million dollars in funding was allocated in the 2019-20 state budget’s Environmental Protection Fund to help increase the diversity of Adirondack people.

On Monday, $250,000 of the Department of Environmental Conservation’s $300 million EPF was set aside for new funding for the Adirondack Diversity Initiative, a volunteer-run, organization-funded coalition of organizations and individuals representing those organizations that has been around since 2015.

The ADI’s goal is to make the Adirondacks more comfortable for people of different ethnicities, cultures and backgrounds to visit and live.

The funding will actually go to the Adirondack North Country Association, which will hire a coordinator to expand outreach and programming. Organizers said they will seek an applicant in the next few months, after they receive the money and develop a plan.

“We should be able to start investing in this program effort almost immediately,” Adirondack Council Executive Director William Janeway said.

The Council is one of the groups behind the Adirondack Diversity Initiative.

Caitlin Wargo, communications director for ANCA, said the organization will hire a coordinator and then get reimbursed by the EPF.

Though the EPF’s budget is primarily a capital project program that is prohibited from spending money on state staffing and other operations, the a DEC spokeswoman confirmed Janeway’s explanation that it can pay for private agency staff such as those ANCA might hire for this program.

Janeway said he expects this to be an annual funding stream.

This funding brings the initiative into what Janeway called its third phase. It started as a group of Adirondack organizations, including the Council, which got together, held a conference and determined there was a need for increased diversity in the park.

Adirondack Council Director of Communications John Sheehan said it was revealed back then that minority groups said they felt less than welcome in some parts of the park.

“We had so little experience dealing with one another that we had some unintended biases that we hadn’t even noticed,” Sheehan said. “A lot of this was sort of self-discovery and awareness, and trying to figure out how we help others reach the same conclusions without hitting people over the head with the idea that they’re somehow being racist every day and not even realizing it.”

They spent the next couple years partnering with more organizations and “filling the void” of employee training.

“Thanks to the groundwork laid by ADI, we continue to find and are contacted by various organizations who are interested in diversifying their talent pools, staff, donors, board members, and clientele,” Adirondack Diversity Solutions co-founders Donathan Brown and Cindy Rodriguez wrote in an email. Adirondack Diversity Solutions is a diversity consulting group based in Lake Placid that has worked with the Adirondack Diversity Initiative.

The initiative has also been guided by two women of color: Alice Green, executive director of the Center for Law and Justice, an Albany-based civil rights organization she founded in 1985, and Brenda Valentine, president of the Indian Lake Community Development Corporation.

Janeway said state Sen. Jose Serrano, D-Harlem, introduced the funding request in this year’s budget, with support from North Country representatives Sen. Betty Little, R-Queensbury, Assemblyman Dan Stec, R-Queensbury, and Assemblyman Billy Jones, D-Chateaugay.

Little said there had been an effort to get this funding last year, but it did not work out.

“ADI knows that a more inclusive Adirondack Park will benefit everyone,” Janeway wrote in a press release. “The park was created for the benefit of all New Yorkers. Everyone should feel like they belong here and see this park as part of their legacy.”

The problem

Sheehan recalled seeing a “Saturday Night Live” skit last year titled “Neo-Confederate Meeting,” where a group of white nationalists are trying to find a “white paradise.” One member, played by Adam Driver, suggests Vermont, describing it as a place where white people go to farmers markets, dress up dogs in bandanas and drive around in old cars waving to people eating breakfast on porches.

The skit focused on a lack of diversity in Vermont, but Sheehan pointed out, “You could have said almost all those things that were said in that skit about the Adirondacks.

“I’m sorry to say that I’ve occasionally been in a place around the fringes of the park where I’ve seen a Klan membership framed behind a bar or a service counter,” Sheehan said. “The goal is for people of all backgrounds to feel that they and their children are safe in the Adirondacks and that they should feel that they belong here.”

He said all 12 Adirondack counties have populations that are 90% white or more, with the exception of Franklin County, which is slightly less than 90%. The majority of non-white residents, he said, are concentrated in large communities or state prisons, such as the four in northern Franklin County, north of the Adirondacks.

“That’s got to leave a bad taste in your mouth, regardless of how beautiful the place is,” Sheehan said.

Stec said the goal is to have all of the state’s population feel comfortable in the Adirondacks, not just a portion of its residents.

“There’s been a couple of negative experiences written about in recent years up there,” Stec said. “Anecdotal. So I like to think it’s not systemic.”

One well-published example involved the president of the Sierra Club, Aaron Mair, who had whitewater rafters yell racial slurs at him while on a trip to the Adirondacks being covered by Adirondack Life magazine. Another is a Saranac Lake man who was convicted in 2013 of attacking, screaming racial slurs at and making threats toward a black man outside Romano’s Saranac Lanes.

The solution

Organizers at Adirondack Diversity Solutions said the initiative has already made differences and they hope to see more with its new funding.

“Since the formation of ADI … conversations about diversity and inclusion are occurring among and between both individuals and communities throughout the park,” they wrote in an email. “ADI continues to make a great impact in this area, especially pertaining to how we discuss and respond to acts of bias.”

Janeway said the initiative plans to bring tourist groups from New York City and Albany to the Adirondacks next year.

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