Wilderness 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.