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Courage and cowardice

I begin this commentary stating three facts: Black lives matter; systemic racism is real and deeply woven into every fabric of this country; and it is not safe for Black, African American and persons of color to navigate daily life in the Adirondacks and North Country. Whether it’s the very real possibility of being murdered at the hands of the police, or experiencing daily microaggressions and unconscious biases, life for non-white peoples is often precarious.

Since the death of George Floyd, and subsequent protests condemning and denouncing police brutality, I have sat with my thoughts, searching for something to put in words, carefully considering whether my voice is necessary or if it’s taking up space.

Over the weekend, I watched Saranac Lake High School Valedictorian Francine Newman stand in front of her peers, parents and teachers to deliver a thoughtful, forceful and deeply personal speech highlighting the racism she experienced growing up as an Asian American in Saranac Lake.

It was, I think, one of the more powerful statements I’ve heard or read since the brutal murder of George Floyd — penned by a young woman from this community. Newman stood resolutely and gracefully, calling out the students, parents and teachers who subjected her to blatant racism throughout her school years. That is real courage.

The same night that Newman showed what true bravery looks like, one or more cowards painted racist remarks along the train tracks near Pine Street, just far enough from the road to, perhaps, remain unseen by a passing pedestrian or motorist. As someone who uses words for a living, I try not to be repetitive, but this time I must insist: The individuals responsible are, unequivocally, racist cowards.

If you have been sitting on the sidelines, questioning or challenging the validity of protestors and activists, here in Saranac Lake or across the nation, I hope Francine Newman’s speech moves you, literally, to act.

I am not perfect and do not wish to project that I am. I have worked with the Adirondack Diversity Initiative for five years now, and have made many mistakes during the course of that work. I do not feel regret — only the desire to learn, grow, act and do better. The one thing I’ve hedged on is using my voice, but that is no longer an option. It is time for our community to reckon with the fact that racism exists here and it impacts our friends and neighbors. You have a choice: Look away, or face it head-on. If you choose the former, you are intentionally choosing to turn away from the lived experiences of people like Francine Newman and therefore cannot proclaim to love and celebrate EVERYONE who calls the Adirondacks home.

There are dozens of anti-racism and transformational justice organizations across the North Country and New York state. Learn, donate, volunteer, act — fight and fight again to uphold the freedoms we so often boast about. 

I close with a final note, speaking directly to my former peers in journalism: Consider the stories we tell. Keep pushing to tell stories like Francine Newman’s, those of citizens, students, elected officials and our very own chief of police — people who are intentionally leaning into the discomfort of this moment by speaking out and grappling with racism and how we can do better. I understand the struggles of working in the media business in 2020, but these voices must be heard.

Addendum: In the interest of full transparency, prior to George Floyd’s murder, I recorded an interview with North Country Public Radio about an organization I perform communications and marketing work for, the Northern Forest Canoe Trail. I acknowledge that my challenge to journalists could be viewed, fairly, as hypocritical. I stand by my words nonetheless.

Chris Morris is a member of the Adirondack Diversity Initiative’s Core Team. He was born and raised in Saranac Lake, and returned to live, work and volunteer here.

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