By Gwendolyn Craig
Local officials who helped found the Adirondack Diversity Initiative said they were embarrassed and disappointed with racist graffiti that was spray-painted on a bridge in Saranac Lake in late June.
Nicole Hylton-Patterson, the inaugural director of the Adirondack Diversity Initiative, also confirmed Thursday she is moving away from her village residence due to safety concerns but will remain in her position.
“I’m not going anywhere. The Adirondacks is now my home,” she said. “I’m actually doubling down. This highlights the critical need for the work that I’m doing in my community. … This is my community.”
Hylton-Patterson, who is Black, had said she regularly jogs by the bridge where the racial slurs were painted.
The village’s police department is receiving help with its investigation from the State Police Hate Crimes Task Force, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced Wednesday night. James Joyce, the village police department’s chief, said he had a preliminary meeting with task force members Thursday morning.
“It’s a high-priority investigation,” Joyce said. “We’re looking forward to bringing a resolution.”
The Adirondack Diversity Initiative, which is focused on addressing inclusion, equity and diversity in the Adirondacks, is funded with $250,000 from the state’s Environmental Protection Fund. Hylton-Patterson became its first employee and director at the end of 2019.
The initiative’s work has ramped up recently. Its members have been hosting webinars and educational sessions on racial issues in the Adirondacks. A webinar focused on the white founders of the initiative Thursday night addressed the graffiti incident several times, though Hylton-Patterson was not part of the panel.
“At times, I’m tempted to think as a group we’ve done good things over the years,” Willie Janeway, executive director of the Adirondack Council, said in preference to comments on the graffiti incident. “I feel somewhat embarrassed that we have accomplished so little.”
At a previous webinar on July 2, Hylton-Patterson said she was affected by the lack of reaction to the graffiti from local leaders and businesses.
“Your silence is death,” she said.
Chris Morris, ADI core team member and Saranac Lake resident, weighed in with this commentary on the Adirondack Almanack.
Since then, a number of groups and village officials have spoken publicly in support of Hylton-Patterson. They also condemned the graffiti.
Paul Hai, a professor at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry’s Newcomb campus, said one of the ways the initiative will know it is successful is through a decrease in the incidents like the one in Saranac Lake.
“At the same time, when they do arise, we see a stronger and even more vocal resistance to those activities,” Hai said.
Other participants on the panel Thursday included Pete Nelson, a professor at North Country Community College and member of Adirondack Wilderness Advocates, and Martha Swan, executive director of the activist group John Brown Lives.
“What’s happened to Nicky in Saranac Lake has been happening, we have no idea how many (times),” Swan said. “It has been happening all the time for generations. Now we have a way to stand up and shine a light on that. We have a way to bring people together.”
The panelists talked about the importance of education. On July 2, Hylton-Patterson had talked about the well-meaning attitudes she encounters in the Adirondack Park, but how they are sometimes paired with ignorance and cognitive dissonance.
During Thursday night’s webinar, panelists encouraged listeners to take part in the initiative’s auditing service, where Hylton-Patterson will provide feedback on where businesses, local governments and other entities can make improvements.
The local discussion came shortly after Basil Seggos, commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, on Wednesday condemned the graffiti on Twitter.
“This is terrible and unacceptable,” Seggos wrote. “My condolences go out to Ms. Hylton-Patterson. NYSDEC is a proud partner with the Adirondack Diversity Initiative — we provide $250,000 per year from the EPF (Environmental Protection Fund) for their work — which is more important than ever.”
Soon after, Cuomo released a statement saying he was “disgusted to learn of racist slurs spray-painted in Saranac Lake recently. This despicable act goes against our values and we will do whatever it takes to help ensure that people feel safe and welcome in their own communities.”
In a phone interview Thursday night, Hylton-Patterson thanked the governor and Seggos for their support.
Joyce said anyone with information about the graffiti should contact the department at (518) 891-4422.
To learn more about the Adirondack Diversity Initiative, go to diversityadk.org.