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Fighting exclusion, part II

This view of the Adirondacks from across Lake Champlain can be the source of comfort for many visitors and locals, but some have a different, less pleasant experience of the region. (Provided photo — Zack Floss)

It has been 22 days since George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police officers. Since then, as protests and demonstrations have erupted in every state in the country over police violence and systemic racism, many who had never paused to consider these daunting issues are now confronting them for the first time. The same can be said of our communities in the Adirondacks. Fortunately, the groundwork had already been laid to confront them here.

This week, I spoke with the Director of the Adirondack Diversity Initiative, Nicky Hylton-Patterson, to learn more about the work being done to address diversity and inclusion in the Adirondacks. The ADI began 6 years ago with a group of white allies and activists in the community who were frustrated by the experiences of friends and colleagues of theirs; people of color who lived in and visited the Adirondacks but did not feel welcomed by the community. This is an experience Nicky echoed. She described the life-long connection she’s had with wilderness; her experiences with it from her youth in Jamaica to her time in Norway and then the Adirondacks. The lakes and mountains that surround us inspire a sense of awe for her but are not, yet, inclusive places.

“…the wilderness is beautiful and wonderful but for black people and people of color, the wilderness has never been a safe place.”

If you’ve never had to before, pause to think about the feeling of solace, freedom and healing that you may get from wild spaces. Now consider her words. Imagine taking a hike on your favorite mountain, but instead of being able to let your mind wander as you absorb the beauty around you, you feel alone, unsafe, or unwelcome. Try to grasp how it would feel if this wasn’t just a thought experiment, but your experience every time you went out in the woods. This is the experience that has been described in detail by more than a few of our neighbors and community members.

Thankfully, there are organizations and individuals in our communities that seek to change this reality and create a more welcoming and inclusive Adirondacks. More and more of them have come forth in the last few weeks to learn, grow and express their support.

That doesn’t always mean that they are ready for change, however. To ensure that would-be clients and students are serious about their commitment to creating a culture of change, the ADI asks that they first look inward to confront their own biases. For organizations and institutions, this takes the form of a “welcome-ness audit.” The results are not always positive. Nicky says, “Some people in leadership positions in the community don’t want to work with me because they think I’m ‘an angry, black woman’… this is a racial dog-whistle.”

In the last two weeks, though, even some of these individuals have decided to try to be better allies. In Nicky’s estimation, much of the surge in focus on creating a more diverse and inclusive Adirondacks comes from white members of the community feeling guilt about what is happening across the country, for realizing that they participate in and benefit from a system that intentionally excludes and marginalizes people of color.

“White guilt is causing people to turn up at protests. It’s causing people to feel now and really, really listen. But we need you to move from white guilt, so you can be OK with being uncomfortable, to do the internal work that needs to happen.”

The real challenge will be to keep the momentum behind this movement. As Nicky put it, “I think that the protests will die down, I think that the overt focus on anti-racist action will be defused … What we have to do as activists, as communities doing anti-racism work, is to create sustainable programs so people can continue learning after it has died down.”

Nicky and the ADI are working overtime to address the new desire for change. As of now, seminars, cultural competence courses, anti-racism discussions, listen-in’s and teach-in’s are happening every week to help spread more awareness and create a lasting framework for learning in our communities. (Visit the ADI web page to learn more at diversityadk.org)

Some of the most hopeful projects being pursued by the ADI and other organizations, however, involve young people and the wilderness here inside the Blue Line.

Nicky described an adventure planned through Girls Inc. for a group of girls of color, aged 12-17, who came and stayed with girls of the same age in Keene. Their time in the Adirondacks included many activities, experiences in nature, and together as a group but in the end, the girls said that one of the most rewarding aspect of their trip was the time they got to spend with the girls in Keene.

Another initiative was led by Clifton Harcum, Diversity Officer and Program Coordinator in the Division of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at SUNY Potsdam. This Alternative Spring Break program brought students, primarily young women of color from the New York Metro Area, to the Tri-Lakes region to learn more about the history, nature, and communities here. Highlights mentioned by the students in their summaries included visiting Whiteface, trying out ice fishing (with notable success), spending quality time together away from technology, and experiencing a local community that was friendlier than they expected.

In Clifton’s words, this experience was great for the community here as well, “for people who had issues with or stereotypes of black, young people coming to their town, it showed them that people are people.” This is the kind of work that will be most important when it comes to establishing lasting change.

In describing the value of these initiatives, Nicky put it best; “We’re creating an entire generation of Americans where we’re disrupting their ideas about racism. We’re giving them knew knowledges, we’re exposing them to ‘the other,’ so when they get to your age and mine, they don’t have to struggle with some of the things we’re struggling with.”

By creating a framework in which young people can see people of color and people who look different from them, who come from different cultures, as individuals, peers and equals, rather than as “outsiders” or “others,” we can target the roots of prejudice and bias. As we do so, however, we need to stay engaged with the work at hand. If you are reading this and you do have the privilege to choose to ignore these issues, please consider doing the work to improve our communities instead.

For those of you reading this who don’t have that privilege, I am planning to follow up this week’s column with another next week intended to share the experiences of people in our community who recreate in the outdoors and have felt unwelcome, alone, or “othered.” If you care to participate in a short interview to share your stories, please email me at zack.floss@gmail.com.

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