Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Brother Yusuf Burgess: A Trailblazer is Stilled

Brother Yusef is amazing.  Our hopes are with him.Last weekend the people of New York State lost a leading citizen, the children of Albany lost a dear friend and the Adirondacks lost a trailblazer. On Friday, December 5th, Brother Yusuf Abdul-Wasi passed away unexpectedly at the age of sixty four.  His substantial contributions to the Adirondack region were only a small part of his many undertakings.  But from the perspective of the ongoing work to make the Adirondack Park a more inclusive, welcoming and life-changing place for everyone,  we have suffered an incalculable setback.

Brother Yusuf was a tireless doer, a walker of the walk who gave the experience of the outdoors to countless urban children.  He was also a man of courage and staying power who struggled through war and personal adversity and emerged as a voice of dignity, commitment and wisdom. His story is a great American story and his accomplishments were many (you can read a brief article about his life here).

As an trailblazer in the work to make the Adirondacks more open to young people of color, Brother Yusuf lent his expertise and advice to the work of creating the symposium “Towards a More Diverse Adirondacks.”  Being one of those rare people with natural eloquence, his advice and participation left a strong impression.  The authority of his experience and his sincerity, directness and strength were distinctive assets to the conversation.

The evolution to a more inclusive Adirondacks begins with children. It is through their innocence and idealism that the afflictions of prejudice and class can be abated. But children need to value nature too, value what we have here and carry that value out into the larger world. It is no accident that understanding and love of nature is of a piece with understanding and love of those who might be different from you. Yet in this era of increasing urbanization, ubiquitous smart technology and instant gratification, an immersive experience of nature is both rarer and more needed.

Brother Yusuf knew this better than anyone. He devoted himself to giving urban kids the same opportunity that so many of us have had: to form our truest selves, our sense of the world and our values in the woods and waters of the Adirondack Forest Preserve. In doing so he blazed a trail for those who would seek to make the Park a better place for all people as well as an irreplaceable part of life for many who might never have otherwise experienced it.

Brother Yusuf Abdul-Wasi was – and remains – an example and a moral force for the intersection of nature and humanity. We owe it to his legacy to carry his work forward.

Photo: Brother Yusuf at the Symposium “Towards a More Diverse Adirondacks.”

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Pete Nelson

Pete Nelson is a teacher, writer, essayist and activist whose work has appeared in a variety of Adirondack publications, and regularly in the Adirondack Almanack since 2005. Pete is also a founder and current Coordinator of the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council, which is working to make the Park more welcoming and inclusive.

When not writing or teaching mathematics at North Country Community College, Pete can be found in the back country, making music or even walking on stilts, which he and his wife Amy have done professionally throughout the United States for nearly two decades.

Pete is a proud resident of Keene, and along with Amy and his dog Henderson owns Lost Brook Tract, a forty-acre inholding deep in the High Peaks Wilderness.




7 Responses

  1. Bob Meyer says:

    Pete, thank you for sharing this news, sad as it is.
    though i never met Brother Yusuf, i am familiar with his good work and know that what you write here is truth.
    R.I.P. Brother Yusuf.

  2. Dave Gibson says:

    Very beautifully stated, Pete. Thank you.

    Yusuf, and the way he related to the children in his care during many outdoor “ed-ventures” has left indelible memories. He allowed me, however briefly, to more easily step over perceived cultural barriers and laugh out loud with them all – when I was benefiting as much or more than anyone. And the parents of those teens had to trust and grow, also, and big-time, in what Yusuf was doing. I hold up my arms to rejoice in Yusuf’s pursuit of transforming lives through new exposure to the woods, the waters, the slopes, urban parks and gardens. In the midst of it all, we all are transformed.

  3. Ethan Friedman says:

    I only got to meet Brother Yusuf once — at the Diversity Symposium. His passion and eloquence, as you say, left a strong impression, at least on me.

    His belief in the transformative impact of wilderness (on children especially) is, I think, a terrific argument for why we need to continue to fight to create a park that welcomes *all* New Yorkers.

  4. Pete Sheehan says:

    Indeed,Brother Yusuf was one of a kind by instilling a sense of confidence and independence in these young men. He was particularly helpful to my son who related instantly to Yusuf, which is not an easy thing to do. He was tireless and hardly ever complained about his health issues. I got to experience his energy in our projects down in Tivoli Preserve in Albany and at Green Tech High School. It was quite amazing
    Our family will deeply miss Brother Yusuf but commit to carrying on his work.

  5. Evelyn Greene says:

    I and three of my friends feel very privileged to have spent a day with Brother Yusuf as we scouted out a proposed trip for some of “his” kids (part of a basketball team)to a unique geological area at the foot of Snowy Mt. We were going to take them this spring. He and a woman volunteer were very interested in all the natural features of the area, from old growth hardwoods to lichens, fungi and liverworts, which were my main focus of the “ed-venture”–to connect inner city kids (and adults) with our wonderful wild, native Adirondacks.

    I hope others will be able to keep his work going and that I will be able to lead some kids here. I feel his loss very personally, after such short contact.

  6. Amy Godine says:

    Thanks, Pete. A wonderful introduction to a lovely and beloved man. I met him through Martha Swan of John Brown Lives! — he got some of his kids involved researching the stories of the Gerrit Smith grantees for the Dreaming of Timbuctoo exhibition — he was so inspired by this history, and because of his excitement, the kids caught fire, too. I think he packed three lifetimes into his own too-short one. We should all live such full and mindful lives!

  7. Late Summer greetings from Chicago. In honor of Brother Burgess’s life and commitment i would like to make available to your organization several socially-relevant songs from my catalog on an unlimited royalty-free basis. I am an award-winning music producer w/extensive credits and have produced the following songs:

    G.U.N.S. (Good Under no Situation), Ribbon of Red (HIV/Aids), We Need Clean Air (Not Black & Green Air), No Place Called Home and The Kindness of Strangers. If interested, please let me know where to send the mp3s. Sincerely, Larry Nestor

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