By Tamara Jolly
Finding a safe and inclusive place to live in this world has eluded me. I couldn’t find it in rural Pennsylvania. Perhaps a “safe place” for some, I felt anything but safe growing up there. I was excluded from birthday parties, labeled undateable, teased about my hair, and called racial slurs. It was often the smaller slights that hurt the most because they were said by those closest to me, with what they considered good intentions.
While I spent a lot of time playing outside as a kid, my true love of nature was cultivated in my twenties. I craved adventure and would often travel alone. The more time I spent in nature, the more I loved it. I learned quickly that many of those spaces did not love me back. Sure, I felt at peace in remote wilderness, but I needed a companion for safety, and not because I was scared of wildlife. As a biologist, I adore and appreciate the environment. As a diversity, equity, and inclusion consultant, I seek conversations around our cultural differences. As a school teacher, I realize the benefits of connecting young people to nature. My desire to increase this advocacy is what brought me to the Adirondacks.
I was fortunate to attend the ranger school last year while on a teaching sabbatical. I fell in love with the region, kayaking the Oswegatchie, bird watching and appreciating the views from a long hike to a high peak. However, after reading an article last fall about an interracial couple in Tupper Lake receiving hateful comments, I was reminded of the challenges I would face if I lived in the Adirondacks. My quest to find a diverse, welcoming place near nature seemed much more challenging.
Related: Watch Tamara talk about her Ranger School experiences
During second semester, I embraced the opportunity to explore this issue in a computer mapping project. I wanted to answer the question, “Where can I feel safe in the Adirondacks?” Specifically, I wanted to know if there was a diverse, inclusive, and equitable location where I might live and feel safe as a woman of color. I felt the project could be a great way to find my future paradise, or to know whether I could even find it. I never expected the impact this map would have on me.
I collected data and layered it on my map. I added information about safety, diversity and state land and tried to figure out how I would designate the parameters for being “safe and inclusive.” I was shocked and thrilled to find two small pockets that were labeled as having high diversity (68% chance that two random people would be from different racial or ethnic groups). I began focusing on these two regions but a thought arrived that ruined weeks of work and broke my heart. “Dannemora,” I uttered. The prison I’d read about in a news story—the remote, cold Clinton Correctional Facility. I held my breath as I typed in the name of that second area of high diversity—Ray Brook. I hoped my fears would be wrong, but no, the screen read Adirondack Correctional Facility.
I held back tears. The only two regions of high diversity were prisons. This realization then pushed me to think about the data’s validity. If based on the census, residents of the prison were counted as residents of that county. I checked the internet only to be more devastated. The imprisoned are counted in the census, albeit without the opportunity to vote.
New to the region, I was unaware of the prisons, and even my own teachers were shocked by the data. Vanessa Rojas, my professor, reviewed my new map with the prisons now labeled and we wondered what I should do next. She suggested I contact Nicky Hylton-Patterson at the Adirondack Diversity Initiative who told me about her experiences. She reinvigorated my drive to keep exploring and I studied hate crime data in the park. I realized the need to add qualitative stories to my map.
I wanted to give a voice to the local residents and display both the positive and negative events that occur around inclusivity. Interviews and news stories began to tell the tale of two Adirondacks. One was trying to evolve, and another was holding fast to the past. Reading the news story about Malone’s denial of racism in a draft police reform plan made me ill. The reference to Malone’s white heritage and of Black people as “transient” was upsetting. I sent the article to my professor, added the negative event to my map, and took a long walk to clear my head.
The research began to take its toll. While heading to Raquette River Brewing, I wondered if other patrons were those quoted in articles about Tupper Lake’s decision to allow displaying Confederate flags. Who here yelled at the sweet biracial couple? Would they sit quietly and watch if I were confronted? Would I ever feel safe in the Adirondacks alone? Would my worries dissipate? Would my home here be graffitied? Would my children feel the need to give a personal anti-racism speech like the 2020 valedictorian of Saranac Lake High School?
I evaluated my data on my map and found two options. I could live around Saranac Lake, which had more positive than negative events, or east of St. Regis Falls, which had no events of any category. I concluded that I could reside in a region with turmoil where people are working to become more welcoming. I also realize more research is necessary. Living in beautiful Wanakena while attending ranger school, I felt safe and loved in a small paradise on the Oswegatchie. There may be no perfect inclusive place in the Adirondacks. My research suggests there are towns throughout the region being forced to wrestle with their values and make decisions that will impact their futures for the better in a place that I hope to one day call home.
Tamara Jolly is a high school science teacher in Baltimore, Md., a graduate of the SUNY-ESF Ranger School in Wanakena and a fellow with the Adirondack Diversity Initiative.
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This commentary first appeared in the Jan/Feb 2022 issue of Adirondack Explorer magazine.
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