I have always believed that the initial step in addressing a deep and difficult issue – especially one that is controversial – is recognition: we must first understand that something matters; that it is real; that it affects people’s lives. Without recognition, without an embrace of the importance of an issue, we risk what will likely be at best a display of sturm und drang when we try to talk about it, signifying nothing but ego and personality. Yet despite the sometimes perfunctory dismalness of on-line comments, I am convinced by the experience of writing these columns that the issue of diversity in the park is headed for a substantive future, not just shouting and rhetoric.
I began the series with a poll because I was convinced that in fact the issue of socioeconomic and racial diversity did not have much recognition in the Adirondacks. The poll was not scientific but the response was big enough to be statistically significant and it confirmed my suspicions: the issue finished dead last out of ten listed. Since then, if the aggregate number of comments is any indication (over three hundred and fifty), the issue is clearly recognized by readers now, whatever views they might hold. The off-line discussions that have occurred are even richer and leave no doubt: there is momentum to address diversity from a regional perspective. So now we can move on to the next step: understanding and action.
In that vein the off-line conversations have led to a great result. In August there will be a symposium held at SUNY-ESF Newcomb, “Diversity and the Adirondacks,” to explore this issue further. We will hear from a broad spectrum of voices, most importantly from people who already devote energy and effort to addressing the lack of diversity in the park. We can learn a lot from them and from a deeper discussion that builds our understanding of the multiple dimensions this issue possesses. As this symposium takes shape I will be sharing details here in the Almanack.
In the meantime, some readers have been waiting to see what I propose to do about the lack of diversity in the park, what my agenda is. Sorry to disappoint but I have no agenda beyond wanting to get a deeper conversation started. The issue isn’t mine to wield with an agenda in the first place. With that said, there have been some common themes raised that at least suggest some possible strategies to address the diversity issue.
Oddly enough, just as I was writing this article out came the April issue of Adirondack Life with several of the themes represented back to back on four consecutive pages. You don’t get much more noncontroversial than Adirondack Life, yet with no obvious agenda their latest issue illustrated the relevance of diversity in clear terms.
On a page 7 “Box 410″ Letter to the Editor, Brian McNaught referred to a February 2014 article, Planning Your Adirondack Dream Wedding: “Your editors and advertisers made a mistake in selecting only straight white couples to pitch weddings in the Adirondacks. For a region that is struggling economically, it made no sense to limit your appeal to the nation’s fastest shrinking demographic… …we struggle to see ourselves in your otherwise fine magazine.”
This speaks to the theme of imagery. There is plenty of evidence that the perception of the Adirondack region by many segments of our ever-more diverse population is not what we would like. Some of it may reflect reality (yes the Adirondacks are overwhelmingly white, yes there are prisons in the North Country) and some may not reflect reality (the region is unwelcoming and there’s nothing to do). The frustration of some Adirondackers at being misperceived was made clear in several comments. But real or not, perception is obviously important. This leads to the question of image marketing. Carol Cain wrote about how so much of the marketing she sees offers nothing but reinforcement that the park is a good choice for white families that like skiing and camping. On the other hand she described how moved she was by an Ad Council spot she saw where a young black boy and his father gaze upon a redwood in awe.
Typically it is difficult for a predominately homogenous region to see how exclusive their imagery can be. Brian McNaught’s letter calls attention to but one example. Just a few weeks ago a new web site, visitadirondacks.com, was unveiled to much fanfare by the Adirondack Regional Tourism Council. This site is by definition the product of the best current thinking about how to market the park. Curious, I pored through it counting the number of pictures that showed non-white people enjoying the Adirondacks. My count, out of dozens of visual images, was one. And that one was ambiguous.
On the next two pages Adirondack Life reflected a second theme. This was Elizabeth Folwell’s article The Known World, about an early map of Hamilton County and her musings about how a shrinking county population is evoked by the map’s blank spots and editorial liberties. The column talked about the “dire future of Hamilton County” and its shrinking demographics. This starkly illustrate the theme of economics. The economy of the park must be improved even as the economies of the diverse cultures and communities we would seek to include are themselves improving. If the park is to appeal to urban populations it must have the economic infrastructure to do so: robust connectivity, modern places to stay, varied nightlife, coffee shops, event destinations. The mutual economic benefits of broad appeal across socioeconomic groups seem obvious to me.
On the following page (page 10) in the Northern Lights section, we find a quote from Chris Hildebrand, of Friends of Eagle Island which is in a suit against the Girl Scouts of New Jersey: “Inner-city girls and suburban girls are not exposed to the out of doors and to the wilderness. They’re not going to understand the importance of protecting it.” Here we have the theme of experience and the need for multiple pipelines to bring wilderness experiences to people who would otherwise have little chance of them. I think now of Brother Yusuf Burgess and his laudable work to share the “restorative power” (his words) of the Adirondacks with inner city youth. But in recent conversation with me he spoke of the need to do much more of this, to broaden efforts to a regional commitment to these kinds of pipelines and programs. How better to make the park more relevant than that?
There are other possible themes, among them criminal justice policy and the future of the North country’s prisons, so ably under consideration by the Prison Time Media Project, bringing students from outside the park to our schools and bridge programs to give “Adirondack-style” woods experiences to urban youth where they live, as a first step in developing a connection to our region. All of this and more will be discussed at the symposium.
This will be my last column on diversity for a while. I now turn my attention to the upcoming symposium. But for me this is only the beginning of a journey I hope to continue throughout my relationship with the Adirondacks. As the world changes the inevitable evolution of the Adirondack Park, wherever it may lead, must include preservation of its irreplaceable wild character. For through that wild character we experience immeasurable benefits, benefits that must be understood by and available to all the citizens of New York if we are to fulfill the ultimate potential of this special place. If we fail to make the park as relevant – as valuable – to all New Yorkers as it is to those of us who love it, we will inevitably fail both the park and the people of New York along with an increasingly diverse world population whose appetite and need for wild places will only become greater.
Image courtesy of http://www.freedigitalphotos.net/