Disney has the most-visited theme parks in the United States. Disney’s marketing material depicts families having fun, families that represent a wide range of cultural diversity. Disney offers a lot of fun things for families to do and continuously announces new facilities, venues, and activities. Disney’s goal is to entice people to visit, and then visit again.
A multitude of diverse peoples lives less than a days drive away from the Adirondacks. In our state of 20 million, over 40 percent are people of color. They represent a huge potential audience, with over 5 million more living in the nearby states of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New Jersey and in the city of Montréal. Problem is, we are not marketing to them: the images of people vacationing in the Adirondacks show a high percentage of white people. As an example, in a recent issue of Adirondack Life, the only non-white featured were musicians in a visiting band.
Drilling through the Lake Placid Visitors Bureau website as well as those of ORDA, visitadirondacks.com and the attractions, hotels, and restaurants therein, finding people of color is no easier. A person of color seeing our materials might think that the Adirondacks is one big gated-community. One sees little implying that gay or lesbian couples, people of different faith traditions or with disabilities are welcome – or much that implies older adults are either.
The Wild Center and Fort Ticonderoga show a few images of people of color, an exception that underscores the question: How do we make our region, communities, venues, and activities more attractive to more people so they will chose to come here to visit or live? One is to have our marketing materials signal that the Adirondacks is a great place to visit no matter who you are. Another is to ensure diversity among greeters at venues and attractions, such as among our ski instructors at Whiteface so that when diverse people arrive they feel welcome.
Every day our state, the states around us, and the country as a whole are becoming more diverse. Thus finding ways to help all of us be more welcoming to others is vital to our ability to improve our economy by increasing visitors stays, encouraging more young people and families to live here, and educating people around the state about the importance of supporting environmental protections for clean water and air and sound animal habitat for the Adirondack region. The second conference on diversity was held at the Adirondack Ecological Center in Newcomb in August with all this in mind. This year, the focus was on youth’s take on diversity.
Organized by the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council and hosted by State University of New York College of Environmental Forestry (SUNY ESF), the conference brought together some sixty people from across the Park. This included a small delegation of youth, half living in the park, and half, all of color, from just outside the park.
“I hope to achieve three things,” said event lead Pete Nelson. “First, to maintain momentum because we need more conversations about diversity and more competence around these issues. Second, youth engagement. Our focus today is on their perspective on life in the Park and, from those outside the Park, how they benefit from being here. Third, to come up with concrete ideas and steps to consider for going beyond just talking about diversity. We need to focus not on 90 things, but five or six most likely to be effective.”
“The Adirondack Park is a national treasure,” said Willie Janeway, Director of the Adirondack Council. “Its future depends on its welcoming and including people of all backgrounds whether that be of race, religion, economic status, or sexual orientation. It is smart economics, smart politics, and smart conversation to make sure that the Adirondack Park is open and welcoming to everyone.”
“If we want diversity, low and moderate income families need diverse employment opportunities, non-tourist priced items, services, and rentals,” said Henry Birk Albert, a 16 year-old Koyukon Athabascan Indian living in the park. “They need to see familiar faces and foods. I suggest we have an Adirondack diversity day, just like Fairbanks Alaska has, for celebration and mingling. Invite people of color to hike the “6er peaks” around Saranac Lake. And all should visit the Six Nations Museum in Onchiota. Get more kids to attend John Brown Day.”
Silas Swanson, a Saranac Lake youth, spoke of the importance of not singling out individuals (whatever their age) who are of color, gay, or whatever, repeatedly to discuss issues of difference as that can make them feel excluded; instead, treat everyone equally. Youth of color from Albany said that the silence of the woods or a night without any ambient light can be initially frightening to urban youth, and at the same time, how life-changing climbing a mountain, canoeing, or catching a fish on a fly can be. Their were surprised that few kids they met who lived in the park had climbed a mountain or gone camping! They suggested exchanges to bring Adirondack kids to experience urban environments while providing more urban kids a chance to spend time here.
Jaimiz Edwards, Director of Youth Ed-Venture Nature Network, called on young people “to be the agents of change and help educate others on the kind of change they’d like to see.” He said that before introducing urban kids to the Adirondacks, his group educates them about the history, character, and importance of an activity, be it fishing or kayaking. “They need to understand what you’re talking about,” he said. “If you ask a kid not to litter, they need to know why. We go into great depth on how long it takes plastic to decompose. They need to understand what effect they as individuals have on the planet. We do that up here, so the outdoors is our classroom. We call our trips edu-ventures because they are educational adventures, they all have an educational component.”
“I was pretty surprised by the nuanced understanding of diversity issues expressed by youth in the park, especially as they are not exposed to much diversity. I was surprised by how willing outside youth are to come here for change, to see different things, and to go beyond their comfort zone in an area that’s so quiet, so full of nature and different from what they’re normally exposed to,” said Leah Valerio of the Wild Center at day’s end. “They just need to have the opportunity to come up and, when they get here, for us to just say ‘Hi.’”
This story was first published in the Lake Placid News.