Adirondack Diversity Initiative works to create a more inclusive park
By Gwendolyn Craig
Matt Hughey was at work in the North Country when a police officer pulled a gun on him. Hughey, a 29-year-old Black man raised in the Plattsburgh area, was about 19 at the time, working near his company truck and wearing a company uniform. A police officer approached him and asked Hughey for his identification.
There was no reason for the request, but Hughey obliged. He was about 300 feet away from his truck, and he told the officer it was in the vehicle. The officer pulled his car next to the company truck, opened his door, pulled out a firearm and pointed it at Hughey.
His white coworkers would take the same work route and had never had anything like that happen to them, Hughey said. The encounter ended without any physical harm done, but it’s a moment he will never forget.
“I feared for my life,” Hughey said.
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The Adirondack Diversity Initiative aims to rewrite future stories like Hughey’s. The state-sponsored regional inclusion effort, in partnership with the Adirondack North Country Association, has begun a regional Antiracism Mobilization and Education Campaign.
Supporters hope to create a more welcoming environment in the state’s largest park and its rural communities. Five of the six counties where most Adirondack Park residents live were at least 90 percent white, non-Hispanic, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2019 population estimates.
Franklin County, which includes Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake but extends outside the park to the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation, was 82 percent white. The United States was 60 percent white, non-Hispanic; New York, 55 percent.
Hughey was one of four Black men to tell some of their stories this summer during the Adirondack Diversity Initiative’s second installment of “Driving While Black,” a webinar series sponsored by the Adirondack Experience museum.
There had been more panelists signed up to speak. A bout of racist acts in the North Country, and the community’s reaction to them, caused some to opt out, “out of fear of retaliation,” said Clifton Harcum, the panel’s moderator and a diversity coordinator at the State University of New York at Potsdam. “This is the part of the reality of being Black that many people don’t understand,” Harcum said. “People have jobs, kids and mortgages.”
Nicole Hylton-Patterson, director of the Adirondack Diversity Initiative, has experienced the retaliation firsthand. At the end of June, Hylton-Patterson, who is a Black woman, was on her regular running route when she saw a racist message, “Go back to Africa,” spray-painted on a bridge in Saranac Lake. Days went by and Hylton-Patterson did not hear a word of outrage from the business community or local government.
As one of few Black people in the village, she no longer felt safe and chose to move elsewhere in the region. She remains in her director role, telling the Adirondack Explorer, “I’m not going anywhere.”
“I had one person tell me—someone I thought who understood—(that) I’ve made it worse for Black people in the Adirondacks by speaking out,” Hylton-Patterson said. “My speaking out was very revealing, very revealing of what people really think.”
Some Adirondackers rallied around Hylton -Patterson, and many in the community support the Adirondack Diversity Initiative. Village leaders and businesses ultimately voiced their support. Banners calling racism a public health crisis lined downtown sidewalks this summer. But there are racists in the Adirondacks, as well as people who don’t believe there are racists in the Adirondacks. The ADI is working on reaching both groups, asking them to “lean in.” There is a cognitive dissonance, Hylton-Patterson said, or an incredulity about the Black person’s experience.
“All struggles against racism and discrimination in this country have been met with the same line of reasoning,” said Donathan Brown, an ADI member and assistant provost and assistant vice president for faculty diversity and recruitment at the Rochester Institute of Technology. “Voting rights, civil rights, marriage equality and women’s rights, for example, were all viewed by dissenters as ‘unnecessary’ or otherwise ‘divisive,’” Brown continued. “Ask those same individuals, and they too argued that such issues did not exist, and were not problems at all.”
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With a $250,000 commitment from the state, Hylton-Patterson and the Adirondack Diversity Initiative are working on a plan focused on making the park more inclusive, diverse and equitable in the areas of policy, economics, education and recreation. The work has become more urgent, Hylton-Patterson said, in light of George Floyd’s grisly killing in Minneapolis police custody on May 25, and the subsequent surge of the Black Lives Matter movement nationwide.
“The work is just a drop in the bucket,” said Aaron Mair, 57th president (and the first Black one) of the national Sierra Club, referring to New York’s funding of the Adirondack program. “There’s a hell of a lot to do in the North Country. There’s a hell of a lot to do in New York State.” Part of Hylton-Patterson’s work is collecting oral histories on the Black experience in the Adirondacks.
When a white person tells her that racism isn’t a problem here, Hylton-Patterson can say she has 55 Black people and 34 people of color who disagree.
In her collection of histories, whether from a 20-year-old or an 80-year-old, Hylton-Patterson said, none would walk in the wilderness without a white person. “The outdoors is precarious,” she said, “a precarious space for the Black body.”
Everyday experiences, fears
Gretchen Sorin, historian and author of the book, “Driving While Black,” spoke with Hylton-Patterson during a webinar on July 23 about some of her interviews with people of color.
“One of the people we interviewed said he didn’t like being near trees because trees are where Black people got lynched,” Sorin said. “Some of the lynched were in the middle of the town square, but most of them were lynched in rural, private areas where nobody could see.”
Besides police officers, Hughey said, he has had four people draw guns on him in the North Country. “Like I said, me and my family have lived here most of all my life,” Hughey said. “Unfortunately, there’s still some prejudice out there.”
Harcum moved to the North Country from the Baltimore area. He took his then 7-year-old son camping. Harcum watched him playing with several white children on a playground. There was an RV nearby, flying a Confederate flag.
“My son came over and he was in tears,” Harcum recalled. “He said the little boy said that he doesn’t like him because he’s Black. My son broke down into tears, and he couldn’t understand why someone would say something like that.”
It was the first time Harcum had to explain racism to his son. It was the first time he had to affirm there was nothing wrong with his skin color.
“I wanted to cry,” Harcum said.
Mair has experienced this ugliness in the Adirondacks, too. During a photo shoot with Adirondack Life magazine in 2016, two intoxicated white men on tubes floated down the Schroon River in Newcomb past Mair. They called the female photographer a whore and a slut and they called Mair the N-word.
Mair said he was ready to take the men on if they had come near him or the photographer, but, he said, he would have been a dead man.
“They believe in white supremacy,” Mair said. “If this is what we’re seeing, we have a problem.”
Forces for change
The ADI was created by a group of white people, mostly leaders of nonprofit organizations, who saw the writing on the wall.
“This park should be welcoming to all. It should be inclusive to all,” said Pete Nelson, one of the ADI founders and an environmental advocate in the park.
Through New York’s Environmental Protection Fund, the state Department of Environmental Conservation allocated $250,000 for this fiscal year to the ADI. The DEC said “funding needs will be evaluated as part of the 2021-22 budget process.” Some of the money went to hiring Hylton-Patterson, but she is a one-person staff. The rest of her support comes from volunteers and nonprofit organizations, and that bothers Mair.
Mair thinks it’s telling that other state agencies focusing on economic development and agriculture don’t contribute to the ADI. He also thinks it’s a problem that nonprofits are leading the cause, and not local chambers of commerce.
“The drop-in-the-bucket funding right now is an insult, given the day and time that we are in,” Mair said. “I’m not taking away from the ADI, but the burden is not on them.”
The cause demands leadership from Albany and Washington, he said, including from the governor’s office and the congressional delegation.
“The damage is institutional.” Brown agreed that more systemic change needs to happen. “Where public policy exists, there are also consequences for falling outside of those predefined areas and terms,” he said. “From my perspective, it looks at recruitment, it looks at retention, it looks at school curricula, …access to affordable housing, healthcare, clean air and clean water.”
Diversifying the workplace
As ADI expands its reach, Brown and Hylton-Patterson said, more groups are jumping on the bandwagon. The North Country Chamber of Commerce, for example, has held a number of webinars focused on supporting Black employees and addressing what businesses can do to diversify the workplace. Garry Douglas, president and CEO of the chamber, said his organization has welcomed “the invigoration of efforts to reexamine attitudes” to root out bigotry and discrimination.
James Joyce, chief of police for the Village of Saranac Lake, said under new police reform legislation, the department is participating in training about systemic racial bias and racial justice. “It’s professional development,” Joyce said. “Training is good for everybody and professional development is good for everybody, probably especially for this area, which is predominantly white.”
The Adirondack Council and others are also working with the DEC on changes to the state hiring process. There are few people of color in forest ranger and environmental conservation officer positions in the Adirondacks, the Council has noted.
State Sen. Jose Serrano, D-South Bronx, chairs the Senate Committee on Cultural Affairs, Tourism, Parks & Recreation. He was an important advocate for the ADI, Hylton-Patterson said. Serrano agreed that a diverse workforce is important in any capacity.
“It does inspire confidence when you’re trying to encourage diverse communities to enjoy the Adirondacks,” Serrano said.
Council Executive Director Willie Janeway was a regional administrator for the DEC before he headed the environmental group. The civil service system, he said, “tends to codify the status quo.” About a decade ago during the recession, staff were let go.
“The staff who had to be let go were the last staff that were hired, and the amount of diversity in the newer staff hired was greater than the staff who had been hired 30 or 40 years ago,” Janeway said.
He and many others working with lawmakers want to see changes in the system.
A spokesperson for DEC wrote that the agency developed a diversity and inclusion plan in 2019 and “is actively conducting extensive recruitment of black, indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) and women to encourage qualified candidates to take the written civil service examination.”
In a statement to Adirondack Explorer, DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos commended his current forest rangers and environmental conservation officers. He added that “DEC can be a model for other law enforcement agencies, and I will lean on our officers to be a part of our initiative of continuous improvement.”
Creating a draw
Another way the ADI hopes to open up the Adirondacks is by drawing more children and young adults to the park. It’s a challenge when there’s very little public transportation in the North Country, especially during a pandemic.
Hylton-Patterson began the effort, pre-pandemic, through an alternative spring break with SUNY Potsdam. Ten students, many from New York City, spent their spring break traveling around the Adirondacks and staying at the Paul Smith’s College dorms.
Taliyah Wright, a recent SUNY Potsdam graduate from Brooklyn, said she chose the alternative break because she had never been anywhere around the North Country except Potsdam.
“There’s not much opportunity for us to get around the Adirondacks unless you have a car,” Wright said.
During one week in March she went ice fishing on Tupper Lake (“I’ve never even gone fishing”), hiked Titus Mountain, learned about the area’s role in tuberculosis treatment, and about the region’s abolitionist Underground Railroad history. She also enjoyed the views of Lower St. Regis Lake every day.
“I’ve never had an opportunity to do that in all four years of being in Potsdam,” Wright said.
Serrano, who grew up going to summer camp at Harriman State Park just north of New York City, wants to see more students have that experience. He spoke fondly of being in nature, of meeting diverse friends and getting exercise, all things he’d like to see more students experience in the Adirondacks.
“In the Latino community, in the African American community, one of the things coronavirus has exposed to the world is the issue we’ve been dealing with a long time, which is health disparities,” Serrano added. “Finding ways to get our community more active in some of these natural environments I think is a goal that can help bridge the gap.”
There are multiple programs between the state and schools that bring more students from diverse areas to the Adirondacks, but many have been working piecemeal and many are on hold due to the pandemic. The DEC, for example, runs a First Time Campers program and a Campership Diversity Program. The goal is to encourage more people of color to get outdoors. Adirondack locations include Camp Colby in Saranac Lake and Pack Forest in Warrensburg.
When the coronavirus is under control, Hylton-Patterson has plans to bring more than 50 students from New York City to the Adirondacks. A number of local businesses, museums and tourism destinations have agreed to be a part.
For the people of color who have experienced hate and racism in the Adirondacks, the drive to bring more people of color to the area, whether students, tourists or residents, seems daunting. ADI is working to change that.
“It’s an important thing to make people feel welcome,” Adirondack Council Deputy Director Rocci Aguirre said, “but you can’t make people feel welcome until people feel safe.”