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In Keene, racism controversy sparked change

KEENE VALLEY — Saranac Lake isn’t the first Adirondack community to grapple with the effects of an act of racism.

Just two years ago, a white 18-year-old from Keene posted a photo of herself on Snapchat with a banner that read “Lynching n*****s tonight.” The incident shocked the town’s small community, sparked widespread controversy, and set into motion a series of events that would change the way the community approaches education.

Maria Gates’ Snapchat message to her friends in January 2018 was screenshotted and shared publicly. Within hours, the image sparked an uproar on campus at SUNY Plattsburgh, where she was a freshman at the time.

In the city of Plattsburgh, hundreds of students banded together for sit-ins, rallies and marches against racism. Students demanded Gates be expelled, and that college administrators who didn’t immediately expel her be fired.

Gates later left SUNY Plattsburgh and publicly apologized for her message.

In her hometown, the controversy set in motion a series of discussions that ignited a sort of cultural shift within the small community.

Naj Wikoff, a Keene Valley resident and longtime columnist for the Lake Placid News, was there.

That someone from Keene would be at the center of a racist controversy shocked the community, he said. Some families pulled their children out of Keene Central School because they were concerned about racism. Nextdoor, a social media platform used by many Keene residents, lit up with messages about the controversy.

“People in Keene pride themselves in being welcoming,” he said.

Residents of the town organized a series of community meetings that February and March to give residents an opportunity to talk about what happened, what changes they could make to ensure it didn’t happen again, and what they could to do educate themselves about race, Wikoff said.

One of Gates’ friends, a Black teen named Carrie Anne Stoner, attended one of the sessions. She spoke up in Gates’ defense, but she also shared instances of racism she’d experienced while growing up in Keene and attending Keene Central School.

In response, KCS administrators brought in a diversity mentor, Rebecca Haslam, and opened up the school’s auditorium for Stoner and another student, Miles Warner, to share their stories in April 2018.

At the event, the students incorporated video messages from two Asian students who graduated from KCS before them, Grace Sturges and Austin Brown, who shared their own experiences of racism, according to Wikoff’s report at the time.

“The auditorium was full,” Wikoff said. “They told their story, and offered what they felt were solutions going forward.”

In the years after that, the school district and other Keene-based organizations have taken steps to become more inclusive and combat racism. The school has incorporated race and inclusion education into its programming for every grade level, according to Superintendent Dan Mayberry. Wikoff said the Keene Valley Congregational Church has worked to become more welcoming, including to those in the LGBTQ-plus community.

Though the Adirondack Diversity Initiative had already been operating for some time, Wikoff believes the controversy in Keene sparked interest from the state in helping to fund an executive director position at ADI — the position Nicky Hylton-Patterson has held since late 2019. ADI now receives $250,000 a year from the state Environmental Protection Fund.

In the years since the controversy, the Keene community has healed for the most part, according to Wikoff. But Gates’ message, and the students’ presentation at the school, showed the community that residents “need to pay closer attention,” he said.

“Some things may not be obvious, but it doesn’t mean they’re not happening,” Wikoff said. “We have a ways to go. We can’t do anything about visitors (being unwelcoming) but we can do something about ourselves. These kids really opened people’s eyes, there’s no question about that.

“To me, I think every town, every school should start talking to their kids. I think there’s a need for ideally all of these communities to start having conversations so they can find out what the reality is.”

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