Saturday, April 25, 2015

Paul Hai: Conversations About Diversity Matter

TMDA LogoThere are some things better left unsaid. On-going conversations about diversity, more accurately perhaps, about acceptance, is not one of them. Why do conversations about diversity and acceptance matter? Because if we ignore these conversations the consequences are myriad and pervasive, affecting our families, our professions, our region, and our future.

As a starting point, this conversation is important because if we do not engage it then the passive and active discrimination, disrespect, and simple ignorance of this generation will be passed on to the next.

It is important because this fall I had to explain to my child why it is not OK for schoolmates to say “that’s gay” as a denigrating phrase for things they don’t like. The “kids will be kids” excuse ignores the fact that kids do not create intolerance on their own. It is adopted from somewhere else: a parent or a friend, who likely adopted it from their parent. If we do not have that conversation we are tacitly approving the perpetuation of “other” and “different is lesser.” Importantly, it’s not just about ideas, it is also about daily life. If we fail to have the conversations how can any child in the concentrated petri dish of our small North Country schools ever feel safe being open about their gender identity, religion, or personal beliefs if those do not conform to “the norm?”

It is important to engage in conversations about diversity and acceptance at work because our employees represent our businesses, and how they interact with customers and guests reflects directly on our businesses. An intentional or inadvertent comment can make fellow colleagues uncomfortable and more importantly, guests and customers unlikely to return.

For example, a close friend and former colleague once entered a local convenience store with a group of urban youth, none of whom were white. They were on their way to SUNY Potsdam for a program exploring the history and archaeology of Timbucto, the free-black settlement in North Elba. The clerk asked where they were playing their game that evening. In fairness to the clerk, I’m sure they were trying to be polite, and ironically, welcoming. Unfortunately, they instantly reduced the leader and their group to a stereotype, limiting who they were, who they could be, and what they might be doing in the Adirondacks.

My friend never shared this story as an indictment, and I don’t either, he shared it as an opportunity to educate, and that is the vein in which it should be taken. But not every customer is as broad-minded and magnanimous, which highlights why this conversation is important to have.

The reality is that the individual represents a business in the eyes of the guest. Will your guest separate the individual from the employee, and the employee from the business? As a former professional in the hospitality industry, I can attest that perception is reality from the guest perspective. No amount of money spent on formal advertising can counteract word of mouth (in this case, negative word of mouth), which is the least expensive and most effective advertising there is. No business owner wants a guest experience at their establishment to become a region-wide teachable moment, or worse, the unintentional undoing of that business.

Conversations about diversity and acceptance are important because they can encourage all citizens of New York to consider the Adirondacks as a place where they can have incredible personal experiences. This semester, a group of university students have been exploring issues of diversity in the Adirodnack Park. One town official they interviewed expressed concern that more diversity would lead to a degradation of the park. That same individual wanted to see more economic growth in his community however. With the students we discussed the internal tension of this perspective that some ethnic and racial groups have a different (i.e., lower) appreciation and respect for the outdoors and natural resources. As two separate statements, it is easy to miss the distillation of “we need more business, just not that kind of business.” Maybe the individual who expressed this opinion missed it too, but the distinction between what you say, what you mean, and how it is interpreted is critical when we are working to make our communities more welcoming.

This column has been focused on addressing the legacy of the past, reshaping attitudes and opinions in an effort to be more understanding, open, and inclusive. Ultimately however, the conversations I am most excited about are those so many are already having: how we provide the community, experiences, food and  goods and services we look for here that are easily available elsewhere.

If we want to make the Adirondacks a vibrant community where residents and visitors alike not only feel welcome, but don’t even have to think about whether they are welcomed at all, simply that they belong then we need to have a lot of conversations about diversity, about acceptance, about inclusion – pick your term. These conversations will be informal and formal, and take place in many venues and forums, public and private, but we need to continue to advance creation of the space where everyone feels a sense of pride and a sense of ownership in this great landscape we love so dearly.

Ultimately, conversations about diversity are important because they are about our future. The conversations we have are the conversations our children will have. Our children, the future representatives and ambassadors, residents and business owners, educators and parents of the Adirondacks, along with, I hope, a wide range of others from widely different backgrounds, who share the value of all human diversity.

Please join this conversation, either through trainings and events hosted by the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council and its partners, or by starting your own conversations with neighbors and friends, in your school or business, at the diner, or around your fire ring.

Diversity can mean an enormous range of things, and it’s a challenge, but the more we have conversations about what it means to us and to the Adirondacks, the more we’ll be able to identify opportunities for improvement, areas to focus our energies, examples of successes and remaining areas of needed growth.

The Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council is sponsoring trainings on May 16th and June 27th, and our second symposium will be help August 15th.



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Paul B. Hai is Program Coordinator for the Northern Forest Institute for Conservation Education and Leadership Training of the State University of New York, College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF).

Paul is passionate about creating interdisciplinary programs using natural history, inquiry-based activities and outdoor experiences as the foundations for teaching the process of science, exploring the Adirondack experience, and for getting children outside. This commitment to using informal science education as a vehicle for reconnecting children to nature is a key programmatic theme of programming at ESF’s Adirondack Interpretive Center.

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