It must have taken great courage, the kind needed to overcome the natural fear of rejection and isolation, for the first woman and the first person of color invited to join the board of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks.
For one hundred years, from 1901 until 2001, those directing the work of the Association had been entirely white and mostly male. So had the boards and staffs of most environmental organizations in the Adirondacks, in the entire state and, I imagine, in the country. I hope we were all warm and welcoming of these courageous individuals when they first joined. Their experience and character made a difference.
The recent conference in Newcomb at the Adirondack Interpretive Center, “Toward a More Diverse Adirondacks,” brought the reality of courage, fear of rejection and isolation to everybody’s heart. It required everyone participating to re-examine assumptions. Many governmental and non-governmental organizations today applaud diversity and are trying to find ways to walk that talk and be more diverse. This recruitment is challenging, but what this conference made clear is that it is even harder to welcome, include, accept, and embrace difference.
Alice Green, a black woman born in the Adirondacks where her father was employed in the iron industry, bluntly told the conference: “Diversity is not inclusion.” Alice is founder and executive director of the Center for Law and Justice in Albany, NY, and of the Paden Institute and Retreat for Writers of Color in Essex, NY, not far from where she grew up.
There were plenty of diverse people working the mines in her youth, people from all over the world, Alice told us. But there was not much welcoming, not much inclusion after the long, hard work day was done. “I had to find ways to cope with the void,” Alice said. “I had to think about who I am.”
I told the conference that part of what motivates me to diversify(and organizations I have worked for) was that not doing so placed ideals, principles, and laws we highly valued at risk. What might become of our “Forever Wild” Constitution for instance, if the soon to be majority of the state’s voters were not invited to care for that wilderness, if they had little interest and no stake in the success of the Adirondack and Catskill Parks?
Alice Green’s response was two-fold. Understand that black people have the same inherent love of nature, love of quiet, love of solitude as you do. In other words, this love is common to our very humanity. But value me for my culture, for who I am, not for what I can do to help you preserve the Adirondacks.”
There were other personal, heart-felt statements that day about inclusion, in addition to diversity, that caused all of us to feel more and to think again. A diversity consultant and a gay man living in the Adirondacks asked us: “what are you doing on a daily basis to help make me feel welcome?” Brian McNaught also reminded us that being inclusive and accepting is a skill and a muscle, and needs to be taught, exercised and encouraged at school, at the work place, at home. He put this another way: “what’s your music telling me (i.e. your expression and body language), as opposed to your words?”
Brother Yusuf Burgess, youth counselor for teens at risk and an outdoors educator, spoke of the years of struggle to raise transportation funds each season to bring several van-loads of at risk teens into the Adirondacks or Catskills to learn to ski, hike, kayak or fly-fish. It’s time for more sustained programs that allow these kids to mature in their appreciation of nature, and to grow and gain from those experiences vocationally as well as avocationally, he said. “No more one shot deals any more. We need to include these kids in everything we do from the very beginning, he said.” Yusuf and some of the many teens he has mentored are featured in the 2011 film, “Mother Nature’s Child.”
One of the most arresting parts of the conference were Alice Green’s informal interviews of people of all ages on the sidewalks in Albany. She recounted some of what she heard in response to her question: What and where are the Adirondacks? Here are some of the responses:
“No people of color there.”
“I’m fearful there. They look at you funny.”
“I have sons there and they’re in prison.”
“I like the fishing. I like the water.”
“How do I get there”? “Are there any jobs there?”
There were other inspiring speakers in Newcomb at this provocative event. Skip Hults, of Newcomb Central School, spoke about that school’s remarkably diverse, international make-up and academic program. Martha Swan, Newcomb teacher and leader of John Brown Lives! asked us to imagine those who once inhabited our lands, towns, streets, lakeshores. By being more attentive to “unobserved history” we open our minds and hearts to other times, events and diverse cultures.
Rocci Aguirre who works for the Adirondack Council told us that he was born of a Mexican father and Jewish mother. One of Rocci’s lesson for the conference was “be prepared, be open-minded and embrace what comes to you,” just as his parents and grandparents of such different cultures managed to embrace each other. “It all starts from the heart,” Rocci noted.
And Ethan Friedman, a member of the board of the Adirondack Council, pointed to one key for being more attuned, tolerant, and inclusive in our Adirondack communities. “Living and life in the Adirondacks must not become perceived as a zero sum game of winners and losers,” he reminded a roundtable discussion that closed the afternoon. We can all fall prey to it.
It was a thought-provoking conference, one involving many people I do not ordinarily get to interact with in an Adirondack setting. We had the chance to see each other and Adirondack Park “issues” in a new light. Many thanks to the organizers and onwards for future re-engagement on these important topics for the Adirondacks, the state, nation and for our world.
Photo: Rocci Aguirre speaks during the Diversity conference at Newcomb’s Adirondack Interpretive Center.
This article is one in a series on diversity in the Adirondacks, an outgrowth of the August 2014 “Toward a More Diverse Adirondacks” symposium.