Several months ago I wrote a series of columns on socioeconomic and racial diversity and the Adirondacks. The reception to these columns was even stronger than I expected. Much of it was thoughtful. Some of it was controversial. Some of it was ugly. But in total the columns and the reaction validated my point that for most people diversity in the Adirondacks is an under-the-radar issue even though it is arguably the most important issue facing the future of the park.
Since then the conversation has grown and led to action. Many stakeholders in the park recognize that human diversity – my new descriptor, for indeed the issue is bigger than just racial or socioeconomic problems – is just as important to the Adirondacks as plant and animal diversity is to a healthy Forest Preserve.
The result of the momentum on this issue has been the creation of a symposium, Toward a More Diverse Adirondacks, to be held Saturday, August 16th at SUNY-ESF’s Adirondack Interpretive Center in Newcomb. All are encouraged to come: details and registration information are available here.
If you peruse the agenda you will see how broadly the imperative to consider human diversity in the Adirondacks has called people to action. The collection of speakers and panelists is impressive and extremely gratifying to me personally. Most of all it is a manifestation of the fact that this is not a new idea: many people have been thinking about and working hard on diversity in the park for a long time. As educator Paul Hai, Symposium Co-Chair and leader of the Northern Forest Institute said:
“Working to address issues of low-diversity in the Adirondacks is something many of us have been aware of and trying to improve for some time, but what makes this symposium different, and the intent of the planning team behind it, is that the symposium represents the first effort across the Park to bring together in common conversation and effort everyone interested in working on these challenges. Our hope in creating the space to engage in this exploration together is that we will help foster an initiative going forward maximizing our collective efforts, resulting in greater success creating a more welcoming and diverse Park than we could have achieved individually.”
But does this question of diversity really matter? Here’s Dave Mason of Adirondack Futures, who has studied a variety of possible scenarios for the Adirondack Park looking out more than two decades:
“The Forest Preserve exists at the pleasure of New York State voters. The direction of the State’s demographics is starkly at variance with the Park. If this remains the case for years to come, the risk is that the Forest Preserve and the Park could become a largely abandoned, increasingly irrelevant and neglected backwater of the State with fewer residents and visitors than ever. This does not have to be our future, but it could turn out to be the default if we don’t take some steps to address this. “
I think Dave’s right. As we put together this symposium we thought hard about why we were doing it. We encapsulated our thoughts in this, our official statement of purpose and rationale:
In comparison to a rapidly changing New York State the Adirondack region suffers a lack of diversity in both its permanent population and its visitor population. This growing diversity gap represents a bi-directional problem. On the one hand it threatens the well-being of the Adirondack park because a predominantly urban and non-white population may not see the park as relevant and therefore may fail to adequately protect it. On the other hand it affects the well-being of those very populations because they have little opportunity to experience the myriad benefits the park offers.
The story of this diversity gap is difficult and complex, embodying a long American history of racism, homophobia, economic and social privilege, conflicting cultural values and injustice. To address it in any meaningful way will require a region-wide commitment, beginning with recognition of the problem and a discussion to realize a deeper understanding. From there a strategy to address the gap will require multiple dimensions, ethics, economics, perception, media and social justice among them.
The purpose of this symposium is to explore diversity and the Adirondacks through the multiple perspectives of history, the present and the future in order to recognize and better understand it, to discuss strategies for reducing the diversity gap and finally to forge a regional commitment to actively address diversity issues moving forward for the mutual benefit of the Adirondack Park and the people of New York State.
The linchpin for this is experience, not only morality or philosophy. The Adirondack region as a whole lacks the experience we need to be wise about this. We need to pool our collective experience and hear from voices outside the park as well as within. We need to learn from each other. And so we will.
Some will say that this conversation is unnecessary, nothing more than an exercise in political correctness. Some will claim the Adirondack Park is already welcoming and diverse. Some will even be angry and fearful about such an initiative. The fact that these reactions will occur is not ever going to change. That is life and is part of the nature of diversity itself: to me, diversity in any real sense has never been about some utopian sister and brotherhood, some stereotypical vision of “kumbaya” around a circle. Rather it has been about engaging in an experience of people different than we are – though not any more different than we are to the world at large – and with that, growing in our understanding and in our shared human values, warts, differences and all. My measure of progress for the Adirondacks will never be that voices of challenge, of opposition, of ignorance, selfishness or bigotry disappear. My measure will be the extent to which these voices fade to irrelevance in favor an Adirondack Park that in its human diversity more closely and completely mirrors the human diversity of the world at large.
This is the recipe for an Adirondack Park both that is robustly sustained in the future and that fulfills its ambitions to be an essential gift and example for the future of humanity. Come join the conversation.