Executive Director: More staff needed to support
police reform, diversity training and educational work
By Gwendolyn Craig
Budget negotiations for 2022 are underway and within Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposal is additional funding for the Adirondack Diversity Initiative. Its executive director, however, wants more.
Police reform, diversity and inclusion training, educational seminars, organizational audits, immersion programs between schools and more are on ADI’s docket this year.
Nicole Hylton-Patterson has been in her executive director role for just over a year spearheading the initiative through a $250,000 grant from the state Environmental Protection Fund. But with one other full-time staff member and a part-time assistant, the work capacity is a challenge.
“I can’t do this alone,” Hylton-Patterson said in a phone interview on Tuesday. “I need a robust staff to do work over 6-point-something million acres.”
It appears Cuomo and state legislators plan to renew $250,000 for 2022, but Hylton-Patterson would like to double that. The state is facing a nearly $15 billion deficit–the biggest in its history–but the executive director is hoping federal funding comes through and her request will be granted, she said.
Last month Cuomo presented two different versions of a budget proposal, one anticipating more aid from the federal government, and one anticipating less. The 2022 budget is due and should be passed by April 1.
In the worst-case scenario, Cuomo said to make up the gap “would require everything that you could do. You’d need to raise revenue, cut expenses and borrow funding.”
“It would hurt New York dramatically,” the governor had said.
State Sen. Dan Stec, R-Queensbury, wasn’t keen that ADI would get more funding, based on the state’s multibillion, multi-year deficit and the funding needed to address the coronavirus pandemic.
ADI was created with a mission to make the entire Adirondack Park more welcoming and inclusive. In May 2019, the state budgeted $250,000 and Hylton-Patterson, who was born in Jamaica and hailed from the Bronx, moved up to the North Country to be the organization’s first executive director.
Work picked up for Hylton-Patterson after people across the nation watched video of George Floyd’s death in police custody in Minnesota. The image of a Black man struggling under an officer’s knee before dying precipitated protests across the country and calls for police reform. Hylton-Patterson said she had over 100 requests from businesses, organizations and municipalities across the Adirondacks for her cultural competency training.
That work will expand this year. ADI is preparing to launch a community policing initiative aimed at strengthening the relationships between law enforcement and local communities. The focus will be on “eliminating racial disparities that disproportionately harm Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) and other marginalized residents and visitors,” according to a planning document.
Hylton-Patterson said the policing initiative ties in with Cuomo’s executive order on police reform and reinvention. The idea is to pair local law enforcement with policing liaisons to help them address underlying problems in communities. State Police in the Adirondacks have already signed on to the program, Hylton-Patterson said.
ADI has contracted with RENZ Consulting, a firm that specializes in police-community relations. The firm was founded by Lorenzo Boyd, a former law enforcement officer, current professor and nationally known consultant on police and community relations and criminal justice. Hylton-Patterson said ADI has fundraised to support the work, and the training will involve reviewing hiring practices, reviewing opportunities for diversifying staff, providing cultural consciousness trainings, cultural sensitivity trainings and real-time advice.
This work bounces off of ADI’s “Driving While Black” webinar series in 2020. During some of those sessions, Black residents shared their experiences living in the Adirondacks. One man described a time when a police officer pulled a gun on him while he was working, wearing a company uniform and driving a company truck. Hylton-Patterson has also experienced racism here in the Adirondacks. On her regular running route, teens had vandalized a bridge in Saranac Lake with racial slurs.
The subsequent delayed reactions from the community had struck Hylton-Patterson. Eventually, the Village of Saranac Lake posted banners downtown that read, “Racism is a public health crisis.”
Fish has seen the Adirondack Park community shift to realizing not only the moral implications of becoming a more diverse and inclusive place, but also the risks to its economy.
“I think the economic future of the region is in jeopardy,” Fish said, if the Adirondacks doesn’t broaden its reach and inclusivity.
Ranger school pipeline
ADI is also working with state agencies, including the Department of Environmental Conservation, on how they can diversify staff.
This year ADI has plans to pilot a new program with the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry to create a school pipeline to the state’s forest ranger academy and other outdoors and environmental careers. Hylton-Patterson said it is part of an overall initiative called the “Young Adirondack Stewards Program.”
“It’s one thing to say that you want to increase diversity in a region, especially visitors or people relocating, but it’s another thing to make the place and center the place of equity and make belonging a central focus,” Hylton-Patterson said. “A part of that is doing multiple things robustly.”
Students from the New York City area, from kindergarten up to 12th grade, will be making field trips to the North Country to learn about the Adirondacks and the career opportunities available. Depending on how the pandemic goes this summer, Hylton-Patterson hopes to get a class of high school juniors from DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx up to SUNY ESF.
Other projects in the pipeline
ADI’s second full-time staff member, David Yisrael Epstein HaLevi, is working with area colleges on creating a social justice minor. Hylton-Patterson said that minor will be a requirement for interns of ADI.
And that brings up another new program ADI is working on this year. ADI will have 34 interns across the Adirondacks, with the first five coming from Clarkson University. Hylton-Patterson said they will helping with a number of projects including collecting survey data on Black and people of color’s perceptions of visiting or moving to the Adirondacks.
ADI is also recruiting volunteers to become qualified trainers so Hylton-Patterson is not the only one conducting diversity and cultural consciousness trainings with businesses and organizations around the park.
“Capacity, capacity,” she said. “We can’t do it all.”