By BEN WESTCOTT
For many people, building a more inclusive and diverse Adirondack Park seems like a challenge.
For Nicole Hylton-Patterson, the Adirondack Diversity Initiative’s new director, it’s all a matter of perspective.
Born in Jamaica into abject poverty, she did not sleep on a mattress until she was 10 years old. Her father died when she was young because the family couldn’t afford the insulin he needed to live. Because of the difficulties she has already overcome, Hylton-Patterson is not daunted by the obstacles she will face in her new role as the ADI’s director.
“To be poor is a challenge,” Hylton-Patterson said. “To be destitute is a challenge. To not have food is a challenge.
“This isn’t a challenge.”
For the past two years, the Adirondack Diversity Initiative has run on a volunteer basis with people who also worked full-time jobs. “ADI is the birth child of a group of amazingly talented, connected people,” said Hylton-Patterson. “Pretty much any one of them could do this job.”
But after hiring Hylton-Patterson, who began working on Dec. 2 in the Adirondack North Country Association’s downtown office in Saranac Lake, the ADI has an expanded capacity to make change in the Adirondack region.
“What I’m able to do is mobilize and facilitate all of the programs that they had written down, because they didn’t have the staff to do it,” Hylton-Patterson said. “They didn’t have the staff to do the networking to organize the programs, to reach out to the community.”
New York State allocated $250,000 from its Environmental Protection Fund to staff the project and promote a more welcoming park for all New Yorkers. When the funding was announced last spring, Adirondack Council Executive Director Willie Janeway praised it as a worthy investment. The Adirondacks are protected for the benefit of all New Yorkers, he said, and, “Everyone should feel like they belong here and see this park as part of their legacy.”
It is Hylton-Patterson’s upbringing that first inspired her to fight for justice and work to promote diversity. She was involved in social justice campaigns from an early age, and remembers protesting with her father when she was only 5. “My father taught me about justice, based on the Rastafarian way. Justice around being black and being poor. Justice around speaking truth to power and requiring that capitalism is accountable to its citizens.”
Her home life as a young girl gave her an early introduction into how people can manage relationships amidst diverse ideologies and viewpoints. Her father was Rastafarian and her mother was Pentecostal.
“This was my intro into learning to negotiate across differences,” she said.
Then, with the help of a gifted child program that sent her to Norway for her formative years, Hylton-Patterson, the youngest of several siblings, was able to break the cycle of poverty and illiteracy in her family. She has been working to promote diversity and justice ever since.
Hylton-Patterson has taught courses on race, gender and sexuality at Syracuse University and Arizona State University. She served as the program coordinator at the Center for Inclusion at Manhattanville College, in Purchase, and as acting director for the college’s Sister Mary T. Clark Center for Religion and Social Justice. She has 20 years of experience leading programs that advance diversity, equity and inclusion.
She holds a master’s degree in pan-African studies from Syracuse University; a master’s degree in industrial and organizational psychology from the Chicago School of Professional Psychology; and a bachelor’s degree in African and African American studies and philosophy from Mount Holyoke College. She is currently pursuing a doctorate in Afro-LGBTQI+ justice with Arizona State University.
Hylton-Patterson knows from personal experience what it’s like to be ignorant about certain groups of people, and to move past that ignorance. She first came to the U.S. when she was 22.
“I came to this country with a lot of my own implicit biases about Americans and people of color that were filled with myths and stereotypes,” she said. Everything she knew about America came from MTV and other media outlets. “Everything was filtered through exaggeration, and they showed you the worst,” she said. “But I had all of those stereotypes shattered within the first few weeks of being in this country. That experience underscored that I had to make my own path in terms of articulating justice for myself and for others.”
Hylton-Patterson views the Adirondacks as a welcoming place and recognizes the diversity already present in the park. “The idea that because somewhere is racially homogenous and isolated, then it is naturally going to be unwelcoming and not diverse, is a myth. It’s actually a myth that we need to break. This myth prevents us from acknowledging the diversity that’s already here,” she said.
Part of her job will be working to create diversity training programs that can be used by local businesses. This programming will train the staff of “customer-facing” companies to expand their ideas of diversity and welcoming.
The diversity training programs are important because the demographics of New York State are shifting radically. While New York City is getting an influx of people and becoming more and more diverse, the population in the North Country is declining and becoming older, according to Hylton-Patterson. Much of the Adirondack Park’s economy is dependent on tourism, and many of those tourists come from New York City and the surrounding areas, a metropolis that is already one of the most diverse places in the country. According to Hylton-Patterson, 800 languages are spoken in New York City. If tourists to the Adirondacks are becoming increasingly diverse, it is important that local businesses are prepared to productively interact with these diverse populations.
“If you are depending on that diversity, then you have to prepare our people to support and sustain that diversity in whatever way it comes,” Hylton-Patterson said. “That is an easy way of looking at this heavy lifting that has to happen.”
Hylton-Patterson’s primary strategy for promoting inclusive culture in the Adirondacks is to get to know local residents, hearing from them firsthand.
“First and foremost it’s about speaking to the community members,” she said. “I want to go to the living rooms and the meth rehab clinics, and talk to veterans affairs, and get outside to farmers and people who live in tents in the park. These are the people who are going to capture the reality for me.”
After her first week on the job, she said that the warmth with which she has been received by the community has surpassed her expectations. “I have found a lot of welcome,” she said. “It has been wonderful.”
Another part of Hylton-Patterson’s economy-related work will be speaking with relocation experts in New York City to figure out ways to attract businesses to the park, particularly “businesses that serve everyone from LGBT folks to people who identify as trans,” she said.
Hylton-Patterson also hopes to make an impact in the education sector, working with local colleges and universities and partnering with school districts in an effort to make educators more skilled in teaching students about diversity and inclusion. “My job is to really enrich your life, using diversity, equity and inclusion in as many ways as possible, and to infuse your life economically, educationally, and recreationally.”