Saturday, February 21, 2015

Recognizing the Adirondacks’ Hidden Diversity

TMDA LogoWilderness advocates in the environmental movement have known for years there is a problem when it comes to diversity and the future of the Adirondacks. We look around the backcountry on an inviting summer weekend and we see people who use, love, and defend New York’s wildest lands. But we don’t see many people of color.

New York’s constitutional Forever Wild Clause is one of the most important land preservation covenants on earth. But it would only take the passage of resolutions by two consecutive state legislatures and a simple majority of New York voters at a subsequent election to repeal or change it.

There is no immediate danger of that happening, but sometime around 2030, New York is going to become a majority minority state. That alone should inspire an insightful, and respectful approach to how we broaden the Adirondack constituency. And, as evidenced in the pages of this publication and the convening of the Diversity in the Adirondacks summit last August, it clearly has.

I have been in many discussions about how environmental groups can build relations with people of color in communities and cities across New York. But most tend to focus on the question, “How can we get people of color to join our organizations?”

That, unfortunately, is the wrong question. We need to be asking, how do we support and work with organizations that exist to meet the expressed needs of people we hope to reach? This is how trust is built. This is where points of intersection, of mutually shared values, will be revealed.

In its recent letter to the Department of Environmental Conservation in support of the state’s Open Space Plan, the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council (ADAC) offered a strong statement of support for the principles of environmental justice, and made the case for wilderness preservation as benefiting what are often called “EJ constituencies.” The problem, again, is that we are focused on sharing our interests with others.

Let’s try another approach. One place to start would be an area where there already is a lot of diversity in the North Country. Unfortunately, that place is behind bars, in the North Country’s numerous jails and prisons. I have had occasion to visit some of the state’s prisons. On these visits, I see many Black and Hispanic men who live in the Adirondacks. I also see their families: parents, girlfriends, wives and children coming for visits. While most people I know, who aren’t already fortunate to live in the area, look forward to their North Country visits, for prison families, visits to the Adirondacks are often frightening and alienating. You get on a bus in Manhattan, the Bronx or Buffalo and ride all night to arrive in a far-away all-white town. No one makes you feel welcome. You are anxious to leave; and your memories are of a place that is hostile and unfriendly.

It doesn’t have to be like this. It could become a part of our outreach efforts to find ways to help people of color, and other minorities, who come to the Adirondacks on prison visits to have a better, richer, and friendlier, experience. I’d like to see this discussed at the next ADAC retreat.

To do this, we can take inspiration from the late Brother Yusuf Abdul-Wasi – who so tragically passed in early December. Brother Yusuf first came to the Adirondacks as a young man, where he served time for drug-related crimes. He often recounted his experiences of moving from fear of the Adirondack’s carceral landscape to beginning to reconnect with his childhood wonder of nature and finally to love the beauty of his surroundings: a beauty which helped him rebuild his life to become a wilderness guide, urban gardener, and mentor helping countless young people and adults expand their comfort zone to include the snowy slopes, icy rapids, still waters and pine-scented woods of Upstate New York. He became a pioneer in introducing inner-city youth to the joys of nature and the wilderness.

Brother Yusuf’s life shows us that it is possible to transform the experience people of color have in the Adirondacks – and also transform how white Adirondack residents in turn view and know people of color. Environmental groups, advocates for and representatives of those presently and formerly incarcerated, faith communities, college and campus groups, and government agencies should get together and figure out how to do this. It’s an opportunity before us that can yield great benefit to so many people.

Meanwhile, John Brown Lives! and North Country Public Radio have been working on another model: stimulating community conversations about the impact mass incarceration of mostly African-American and Hispanic men has had on Adirondack communities. New York is closing some prisons, and the state and the national record-breaking incarceration rates are under criticism. Contemporary racism and present day policing tactics are being understood, criticized and debated. It’s an important topic that strikes home. The creation of the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council is a significant step forward, for justice, and for the future of the Adirondack Park.

 


Jeff Jones

Jeff Jones is an Albany-based consultant in political and media strategies. A former reporter, he has written for numerous publications including Adirondack Life and Adirondack Explorer.

For more than a decade he was Communications Director of Environmental Advocates. Jeff is a founding member of John Brown Lives!, and serves on the boards of West Harlem-based WeAct for Environmental Justice and the Capital Region League of Conservation Voters.




28 Responses

  1. Ethan says:

    These are great ideas. I especially like the idea of making the Adirondacks more welcoming to those who visit their fathers, brothers, sons, husbands, or boyfriends in prison. One of the most eye-opening parts of the first ADAC gathering (for me) was Alice P. Green’s discussion of how for so many African-Americans, the Park is experienced primarily as a sort of penal colony where those they know are incarcerated.

    I look forward to keeping the conversation going!

  2. Hawthorn says:

    The more important question to tackle is how to stop incarcerating so many people, particularly people of color, in the first place! We should all be embarrassed that our country has the highest incarceration rate in the world. I have read that we imprison a higher proportion of our black population than South Africa did during apartheid. That’s the real problem!

  3. Martha Spear says:

    Wonderful, thank you, Jeff.

  4. Charlie S says:

    More importantly we should be talking about the gap between rich and poor Hawthorn.Incarcerated blacks ‘are’ committing the crimes they are charged with and so are doing their time. Do you read the papers?
    What many incarcerated blacks have in common is they are from poor families. More and more of us,black and white,are struggling. There’s no sense of hope and our leaders do not encourage us. We can assume that prison populations will increase for whites and blacks due to lack of jobs,poverty,lack of education,etc…
    I suppose we can go further and say there’s just too many people in this world yet nothing is being done about that unless you think war is the answer to reducing populations.That’s one way.The problem is most of the victims of war are women and children who are just like us in that they want to be happy and get along in life. What gets my goat is these people (and i’m not picking on anyone here,just an observance) who can hardly afford to pay for their rent yet are spitting out babies left and right. It is not unusual to see poor people walking down the street with sometimes three little ones in tow,sometimes more. We are improperly educated Hawthorne and look how they keep cutting funds for education. Our corrupt government is a major part of our problems. We can expect things to get worse as the gap between the rich and poor (which our serve-the-rich government is creating) grows.

    • Outlier says:

      If poverty and lack of education are the source of criminal behavior, why are the Amish, who are poor by our standards and who rarely attend school beyond the 8th grade, able to live largely crime free? Or how about the Orthodox Jews who dominate the town of Kiryas Joel, NY where most of the inhabitants are on welfare and education consists of reading the Talmud?

      • Ethan says:

        Simple answer: Because most crimes in those communities are rarely reported to authorities. There have been major issues with, e.g., Hasidic rabbis and their religious courts dispensing “justice” for crimes internally rather than reporting to secular authorities. I suspect that to a certain degree the Amish are the same way. And when all the members of the group are raised in an insular fashion and taught to be suspicious of the secular authorities, victims don’t attempt to seek justice outside of the community.

    • Hawthorn says:

      People of color are arrested and prosecuted at much higher rates than white people, for the same crimes committed. Plus, stupid mandatory sentencing and worthless drug laws have thrown thousands of people behind bars who shouldn’t be there. Laws are very unevenly enforced. It is true that poverty, education, and opportunity are all very important. Instead of focusing on punishing people in expensive prisons we would get a lot more for our money educating them and putting them to work.

  5. Nate Gilbraith says:

    Jeff,

    I think you bring great perspective to the Adirondacks as both a physical thing and a social / political idea. Your idea of helping people enjoy, or even desire, to visit upstate NY when they have previously disliked the location is out of the box. I these are exactly the type of discussions we need to have.

    After we take these steps, I believe we need to continue down the path of identifying ways of getting people into the ‘dacks so they continue to believe in the value of preserving this wonderful place.

    I hope you continue your valuable work.

    Nate

  6. Paul K says:

    for prison families, visits to the Adirondacks are often frightening and alienating. You get on a bus in Manhattan, the Bronx or Buffalo and ride all night to arrive in a far-away all-white town. No one makes you feel welcome. You are anxious to leave; and your memories are of a place that is hostile and unfriendly. …Really Jeff!!, do you mean the all white town is hostile and unfriendly or the prison atmosphere….those damn white people, well if you are correct,then by 2030-2035, those damn white people will be gone.

    • Outlier says:

      If current trends continue, the system will collapse or be substantially changed long before 2030. The White demographic replacement effort relies on high taxation of Whites as well as deliberate government policies with consequences that are becoming obvious even to the most comatose. In other words, it’s unsustainable.

      However, if anyone thinks the new minority-majority can be encouraged to support the Park, perhaps an Adopt-a-Felon Program can be started where a local family hosts a felon and his family during visits. I’m sure the MacArthur Foundation would award a “Genius Grant” for such a program.

      • Ethan says:

        Sigh. Last time I checked, the IRS 1040 form had no differing tax brackets by color. You enter your income you pay your tax that’s it.

        As for your idea, as sarcastic as your language is: an effort to help women and children maintain relationships with their fathers / husbands is not a bad one. From the mouths of babes and sucklings….

    • Hawthorn says:

      I bet the families would be a lot happier if we just shut the Adirondack prisons down and moved everyone a lot closer to home.

  7. Wally Elton Wally says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful, and thought-provoking, article. I would love to see some specific suggestions made and steps taken.

    • Outlier says:

      I hope you’ve got a lot of patience. The discussions about bringing dieversity to the Adirondacks has been going on for over a year without much in the way of specific suggestions. I think they’re still in the brainstorming stage. I recognize that it is difficult to come up with a new idea that hasn’t been tried a few times before and crashed and burned. Of course it is possible to use a failed idea from the past – just give it a new name.

      • Ethan says:

        Try re-reading the piece and you’ll see the start of specific suggestions.

        Or you can continue to tear down this process.

        Your choice!

  8. Brian Mann Brian Mann says:

    Great essay, Jeff. I think this is a valuable conversation and I hope to do some stories about this project in the months ahead. One thing I do think sometimes gets overlooked is that the North Country has some interesting diversity in our backyard. The prisons, as you point out, are one particularly complicated and challenging example. But there is also a sizable community of color in the Fort Drum area very near to the Park’s northwestern boundary. Also the Amish and Akwesasne Mohawk communities are near neighbors who make little use of the Park’s resources, despite a deep engagement with the outdoors. And finally, there is a significant community of seasonal workers, a sizable percentage of them documented – particularly the Jamaican community that has been returning annually to the Champlain Valley for many years. I love the idea of opening the Adirondacks to a more diverse group of visitors and it seems like getting these folks involved (who are already “here”) might be an interesting part of that experiment. — Brian Mann, NCPR

    • Ethan says:

      Wonderful comment, Brian. I was unaware of those groups you mentioned. Let’s hope this process can be the start of a pulling together of resources and efforts from individuals and groups across the Park!

    • Paul says:

      Spending your summers in the Adirondacks and your winters in Jamaica is starting to sound pretty good right now!

  9. Charlie S says:

    Outlier says: If poverty and lack of education are the source of criminal behavior, why are the Amish, who are poor by our standards and who rarely attend school beyond the 8th grade, able to live largely crime free?

    Poverty ‘is’ a big part of the problem Outlier this has been proven.Poor people are less educated which doesn’t mean all poor people are out committing crimes but a good chunk of them are.I would bet that three-quarters of the prison population came from poor families. Maybe i’m wrong but I cant be far off.

    The Amish? Maybe it’s their lack of televisions and computers is why they’re not corrupted like the rest of us.Maybe it’s because they’re not subjected to all of the violence that tv and computers emit. I don’t know but it makes sense to me. I mean why else do we often hear after a major felonious event “It looked like a scene right out of a movie.” That is no coincidence! Maybe their closeness to the earth and the elements without all of the electronic gadgetry corrupting them is why they are crime free.

    • Ethan says:

      Charlie S: all of that is well and true but a big part of it is that these closeted religious communities (Outlier mentioned the Amish and the Hasidic Jews) have a much higher rate of NOT reporting crimes to secular authorities. Everything gets kept within the group. Intra-group justice is dispensed in lieu of secular justice.

      If you’re taught your whole life that “they” out there are corrupt, materialistic, what-have-you while those within the group follow the One True Path (whatever that may be) and that you must listen to and respect the judgments of the group elders, then you’re less likely to call the cops and more likely to do whatever the group leaders say if you’re the victim of a crime. Plus w/r/t to the Amish, it’s a lot harder to report a crime. Without a phone or a car, if say, you’re the victim of domestic abuse, you need to walk or saddle up the horse or whatever to go into town to report a crime. How often do you think that happens?

      • Outlier says:

        Which community would you feel safer walking through by yourself, a typical inner city minority-majority, an Amish or Hasidic?

        • Ethan says:

          Depends. If I’m female? Probably the Amish or inner-city. Definitely NOT Hasidic. If I’m dressed in what they consider immodest clothing, ditto (don’t know the Amish’s policy on that). I’ve seen garbage and rocks thrown at women on the street because they were dressed in a way that offended the Hasids.

          Go to school? I’d probably choose the inner city, believe it or not. The Hasidic districts starve the public school system. And I prefer not to get a religious education thanks.

    • Outlier says:

      So do they commit crime because they are poor or is their poverty and criminal behavior a result of something else?

  10. Charlie S says:

    Hawthorn says:”People of color are arrested and prosecuted at much higher rates than white people, for the same crimes committed. Plus, stupid mandatory sentencing and worthless drug laws have thrown thousands of people behind bars who shouldn’t be there. Laws are very unevenly enforced. It is true that poverty, education, and opportunity are all very important. Instead of focusing on punishing people in expensive prisons we would get a lot more for our money educating them and putting them to work.”

    There’s a smart man aboard the ship!

  11. Charlie S says:

    Ethan says: ” these closeted religious communities have a much higher rate of NOT reporting crimes to secular authorities.”

    I highly doubt they’re committing the sames kind of heinous crimes that we see almost on a daily basis in this mundane society of ours Ethan.

    • Ethan says:

      You doubt wrong then. Go do a little, you know, actual research. Researchers believe rape and horrific domestic violence are rife in, e.g., Hasidic communities, just not reported.

  12. Charlie S says:

    I was thinking Amish when I wrote the above Ethan.

  13. Eileen M. says:

    Diversity starts at home or indigenous origins. There are children who grow into adults right here in the Adirondacks who have never bagged a peak, fished or rafted a river, hiked and set up overnight camp, let alone all the extra perks that some kids have with tourist town residence. Ski areas, golfing, outdoor clubs, fee based athletic groups in summer. The Indigenous roots that need nourishing I speak of is our Native kids in the Adirondacks. Bringing diversity is not just about inner city residents enjoying outdoors (6 million acres belongs to all IF you can access it), Black families, inmate families… transplanting here (Lake Placid area) after 15 years from bush Alaska village of mostly Alaska Natives has been quite a contrast. All is white, not just the snow-should not have to wait for a Lacrosse event to mingle with a few Natives….or drive 2 hours to Akwesasne. I want Adirondackers inviting to all including the original-and current- residents despite income, family support (relative to get kids outdoors) or other circumstances. Fresh Air campaign for ALL to mingle. Not just well to do from here or for the summer. Go out of your way to be inviting to Native communities if you have a event here. World Understanding and all that. There is a Adventure Gap for various races. (not just a book title) Nature sooths the human soul and enriches all.