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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OH good god…….
Hmmm. Anonymous racism in the Adirondacks. How predictable. Try to do better.
To adkresident- ditto.
Valerie Pawlewicz says
Thank you for writing so honestly about your experience. For many it is a wake-up call for what, for you, is right in front of all our faces. Which is our “face”. How the world sees us, might treat us, and might make decisions based on purely what they see. I am sorry that it takes courage to state the obvious, but it absolutely does, so thank you for showing courage just to be you and to feel safe. We are all tasked in this endeavor, so point taken. We all have a job to change, shift, reflect and act. I appreciate your writing this piece and doing your study.
Todd Jameson says
“She reinvigorated my drive to keep exploring and I studied hate crime data in the park.” If you’re lucky, you can me the Adirondacks as welcoming and inclusive as Baltimore City: http://chamspage.blogspot.com
Vanessa B says
Thank you for writing this, Tamara! Can’t have been easy. Your words carry further than you know – hope to see your writing again here in the future :). In the meantime, happy trails, I hope to meet you out in the mountains!
Balian the Cat says
It’s been my observation over the years that articles like this elicit one of two reactions from people. The Pearl Clutchers who fall all over themselves to assure the author, the world, and the writer that they think it’s wonderful to express such things and offer assurances that the ADKs are not like that and thank you thank you thank you. The Closet Klukers then respond with outrage that the subject has even been brought up. That such things are unnecessary and insulting. They offer that they most assuredly aren’t the things being described and what about Detroit or the South Bronx, etc.
I assume that most of us either read it or don’t read it and agree or disagree. Perhaps we have conversations at home or probably we simply move on to another article, not driven to assuage or inflame.
If a recipe for blueberry pie was published, nobody would go on about the great need to canonize the blueberry nor would they revolt and state that even though blueberries make them sick, they definitely aren’t anti blueberry.
Simplistic, perhaps – but the reactions never waver.
Vanessa B says
Balian, I thanked Tamara because I can relate to this article! I also have mapped communities in the ADK according to where I think it would be ok for my multiracial family to live versus not. Maybe we’re all just commenting to reflect our genuine reactions…
I have often said that our experience in terms of NoCo folks being welcoming has been mixed, often wonderful, but for sure wonderful mixed with some sketchy stuff. And I’ve been frequenting the region my whole shortish adult life, since 2005-2006.
It is really helpful to hear from other folks who are in similar (yet also quite different from my own) situations. I appreciate the Explorer publishing and Tamara’s writing genuinely. And that’s literally my whole motivation to comment.
Balian the Cat says
Vanessa – I concluded that my statement was simplistic. I absolutely believe that there are kind and welcoming/accepting people in the world, I was merely pointing out that commenters seem to fall into two general camps where this sort of story is concerned. That it is “controversial” at all tells you everything you need to know.
Vanessa B says
I have been unable to reply until now and want to say that I get you, and it’s all good. the article shouldn’t be a controversial take, I agree. Anyway, hope all is well with you Balian!
I think it is time we all move on from viewing the world through a lens of racism, and instead view it through a lens of characterism.
John J. Warren says
I think the article was honest, heartfelt and terrific! Confronting our past and the continuing subtle and not so subtle racism that carries forward to this day is uncomfortable, sometimes devastating, and very necessary. A true reckoning with our history is critical to shaping a better future on behalf of everyone. It is important that we not shrug off the experience and feelings of people of color anywhere in our nation. Viewing through the lens of character is a laudable goal but we cannot get there until we accept and acknowledge what has been our heritage, enhance our awareness of how racism affects us all today and begin to learn how to undo it in our future.