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Black outdoorspeople discuss how to make Adirondacks more inviting to people of color

Black outdoorspeople have spoken about the fear and danger that stands in the way of more people of color coming to recreate and reconnect with nature in the Adirondacks, but they have also shared their thoughts on how to improve inclusion in the wilderness.

Aaron Mair, a former president of the Sierra Club and a frequent visitor to the Adirondacks, said Black people have to feel welcome here.

“Who the hell would take their family somewhere and put themselves at risk?” Mair asked.

Speaking Thursday, Mair said he is not sure there is a clear path forward and was uncertain if change is possible in the foreseeable future, given the country’s contentious and violent present. He said protests like the ones in local towns and around the country, made of mostly white people, are a “strong sign.” However, he said they are not a positive sign but a distress signal.

“The conversation has not even begun,” Mair said, adding that change will be slow.

In an Aug. 6 forum on recreation, part of the “Black Experience in the Adirondacks” series hosted by the Adirondack Experience museum and Adirondack Diversity Initiative, four outdoorspeople of color, including Mair, discussed potential improvements.

“Images matter”

Benita Law-Diao, a licensed dietitian/nutritionist and avid hiker, said positive messages from the community help create a more inviting atmosphere.

She said people flying Confederate flags hurt their community and discourage Black people from visiting. She also talked about driving into a hotel in Tupper Lake with her granddaughter this summer and seeing a Black Lives Matter sign on someone’s lawn. She said this was comforting for her and her granddaughter.

All the panelists said they would like to see more people of color represented in Adirondack environmental groups, backcountry staff and tourism advertisements.

“Images matter,” said Chris Fernando, a voracious hiker who has summitted the 46 High Peaks in both summer and winter.

He said people need to see themselves in an activity to feel like they can participate in it.

Clifton Harcum, a diversity coordinator for SUNY Potsdam, said the younger someone gets involved in hiking, the more comfortable they can become with it.

He said he would like to see more Black forest rangers and summit stewards, saying he has not met any yet.

Law-Diao said when she brings friends or family on hikes, it takes a while to gain their trust. Several other speakers said this as well, adding that they were introduced to the wilderness by fellow recreators of color.

Michael DeJesus, an adventurous outdoorsman whose wife works for the state Department of Conservation, said he has created opportunities for youths in disadvantaged communities to experience the outdoors. He said Fernando introduced him to the Adirondacks. Fernando, in turn, said he was introduced to hiking by other people of color.

“Active allies”

DeJesus said Black people need more than funding in the fight against racism.

“People can’t just donate,” he said. “We need active allies.”

Fernando said this can be applied on the trail. He said if you have an opportunity to be welcoming, take it.

“Smile, eye contact and being genuine go a long way,” Fernando said.

Mair said one should be a peer and not a “white savior,” who is self-serving or condescending.

He said this could include calling out racism among friends when it is difficult.

Mair said he believes the national tone of discussing racism is very tense and divided now, citing President Donald Trump as the reason.

“What he’s done is say it is permissible for you to flaunt your cancer of hate,” Mair said. “The cancer was always there.”

Mair said when the president tries to protect a 17-year-old who allegedly shot and killed two Black Lives Matter protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin, or white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, it creates a dangerous environment for Black people, in which violent anti-Black vigilantes are hailed as “heroes.”

Law-Diao said she is concerned by racism the young generation sees on the news, citing an incident with an off-duty Cohoes police officer in Elizabethtown and racist graffiti in Saranac Lake, both of which happened this summer.

Reality and retaliation

Harcum said Black people need to be able to speak up about their experiences of racism and feelings about the wilderness without facing retaliation.

He said when you speak up as a “super-minority” member of a community and face retaliation every time, it may make that place undesirable to live in.

Harcum said he has seen this himself. He has been quoted in past Enterprise articles and said he sees what people say about him on social media. He said because of the color of his skin, some of these people will not believe what he has to say, will draw conclusions about him or treat him with animosity.

This was evident in responses to a Saturday article on recreating while Black in the Adirondacks. Commenters on that article dismissed the experiences of these outdoorspeople of color as “complaining,” denied racism exists and said these outdoorspeople were “stirring the pot.” Some brought up a racist myth of “white genocide,” and many complained about hearing Black people talk about racism. The topic has been prevalent this summer, amid nationwide Black Lives Matter protests over the filmed killings of several Black people by police officers.

Harcum said he fears this same attitude would be applied in a wilderness emergency situation, and that he would be found “guilty until proven innocent.”

“The culture of the mountains and hiking is very welcoming,” said Harcum, who has summitted 21 mountains since he moved here in the spring. However, he said, for him, the fear of human violence exceeds the fear of dangerous encounters with wildlife.

(This is the second part of a two-part series that began Saturday with “Love and fear in the wilderness:People of color, underrepresented in Adirondack backcountry, speak of beauty tainted by racism.”)

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