This is the part two of our report on the issues raised at the recent Adirondack Diversity Symposium. Part one can be found here.
One aspect of making the Adirondacks more welcoming is in how we treat people; do we provide all who come here the kind of welcoming experience we’d desire if we were traveling abroad or to differing parts of our country?
Another aspect has to do with how we expect others to live. We here in the Adirondacks love access to clean air, fresh water, and the wilderness experience. However, economics and race can temper that experience for many. Economics have a lot to do with where we live. The wealthy are taking over such locales as living on a lake, a lot with a spectacular view, and increasingly hamlet centers. The St. Regis lakes are, for all purposes, a gated community, and Lake Placid lake is all but the same. Try just renting a boat slip for the summer. Can you believe $3,800? When I was a boy, a fair number of middle-class families had camps on the lake, now a handful remain.
Seasonal residents purchasing houses in community centers, and the conversion of homes into seasonal rentals, dramatically alters the character of neighborhoods and community life. Young families and people on modest or fixed incomes can no longer afford to purchase or rent homes. That, in turn, reduces the number of people available to serve in church vestries, as volunteer fireman, on town boards, and in a multitude of other civic roles, and reduces the number of children in our schools, and so forth.
Where do the displaced people go? Some live in mobile home parks that are not the most conveniently located unless, like in Lake Placid, one cherishes easy access to the town landfill. Others move to communities further afield and face long commutes, at times with hazardous road conditions. Some just leave the region entirely.
Imagine, though, if you lived in a city like Buffalo, Syracuse, New York, or Albany, where do the displaced people live?
At the Adirondack Diversity Council’s 2016 Symposium held at the SUNY ESF Adirondack Interpretive Center in Newcomb on Saturday, August 13, Aaron Mair, President of the National Sierra Club, said that it was those who lived downwind of an incinerator that got his attention. Back in 1990, Mair was working with the Arbor Hill Neighborhood Association of Albany, representing an economically challenged neighborhood downwind of an incinerator plant. The residents, a high percent of whom were Black, had been complaining about the foul-smelling air, high rates of illnesses, and garbage in the streets, and unsuccessfully lobbied the then all-white mayor and city council to close the plant. They sent letters to all the leading environmental organizations (including the Sierra Club) pleading for help, none responded to their call. Fortunately, Robert Kennedy, Jr. then Senior Attorney for the Natural Resources Council, did.
Eventually, with the assistance of the Council, they generated media awareness that the incinerator’s smokestacks were responsible for the black soot that often covered downtown Albany. Ultimately the incinerator was closed, and a $1.6 million settlement was made to help address damages caused to the neighborhood. Mair learned from the experience that disadvantaged people had to have a voice on the table. He also learned that environmental agencies had what he described as a “Green Ceiling,” a minority membership level rarely over 14 percent. Mair acted on those insights. Today he serves as president of the National Sierra Club and their minority membership level is now twice the national average.
“The challenge is this, if you are going to speak up for the environment and all the people involved in the environment for humanity, then you must diversify,” said Mair. “You must open up your doors. We need to diversify, or we will die. Diversify or die not only as a conservation movement but die as a species because the most significant environmental threat is energetic climate change. While we are sitting around discussing how we can increase diversity to enhance the economics of the Adirondacks, I am saying we need to diversify to save the planet! The Adirondacks is nothing more than a microcosm of what’s happening nation-wide.”
Mair pointed out that while Timbucto, abolitionist Garret Smith’s Adirondack land grants, were set up to help Blacks, they were available for the disadvantaged people of any race including whites. His goal was to get them on a path towards the right to vote. Mair reminded people that John Brown was a poor failed sheep farmer, and like the Blacks who came to the North Elba settlement, he too had to apply and state what he could contribute towards the success of the experiment before being given land. Like Smith, Mair believes that all people need to have a stake and voice in creating a better future. And as part of that, critical is creating a safe space where all people feel welcome, and providing training so people can develop the skills needed to adjust to the rapid shifts that are happening to society and the planet.
Attending the conference were three teens from Saranac Lake representing the ADAC Youth Exchange Program, the Diversity Council and the Adirondack Foundation’s youth to youth effort established to promote social justice, inclusion, safeguarding the environment, and fun. The teen panelists argued that not experiencing diversity poorly prepared them for a future in our changing society. They urged adults to help connect local kids with their urban counter parts. They pushed for bringing urban kids up here to experience nature and enabling they and their contemporaries to experience life in the inner city.
“I would like to have kids from the Adirondacks be able to go down to New York City and spend a day or two in their schools,” said Silas, a junior at Saranac Lake High School. “When we discussed the book ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ in class, some kids didn’t believe that black people were treated so awful. I just want to see how inner city kids spend a normal day.”
“I think it’s really important,” said Jada. “I’ve spent my whole life in Saranac Lake. I know that when kids from other countries come to our school at first, it’s a bit of a culture shock, and I am sure the reverse will be true. But I think such exchanges will be better for everybody.”
Speaker Professor Wallace Ford II, Chair of the Public Administration Department at Medgar Evers College, echoed Mair’s call for increasing the percentage of minority members on the boards of economic development, environmental, and other agencies that seek to bring visitors to the region. He called for establishing partnerships with their urban counterparts and providing inclusion sensitivity training for their staff.
“If we think of that story that a hurricane begins with a butterfly on the other side of the ocean flapping its wings, multiple actions of doing something do have a real and permanent effect on society,” said Ford. “Really all of us can use some training in recognizing other people’s humanity. When you can think of someone else as the other, the other because they are transgender, the other because they are white, the other because they are Latino, the other because they are Black, the other because they are homeless, then you are unlikely to treat them the way you’d treat someone in your house, a member of your family, or your affinity circle. When we think of someone as the other, then our history has too many sad examples of us then feeling as if we can do anything to them. It’s that other part where we all need some training.”
As a means of pushing forward making the Adirondack Park more welcoming, the Diversity Council plans to make the economic case more aggressively in the coming year.
“We plan to schedule direct meetings with the Adirondack Association of Towns and Villages, the Olympic Regional Development Authority’s board of directors, the Development Association of the North Country, Local Government Review Board, and other local organizations who need to hear the message, and the stories of what we’ve been up to,” said Chris Morris, communications officer at the Adirondack Foundation. “We need to find ways that we can work with them a bit more. We also need to track our successes to date so we can communicate the value of this coalition.”
Along those lines, attendee Jim McKenna, CEO of ROOST, is planning to host meetings with business associations and chambers of the region to talk about the changing demographics of Millennials (currently are about 43 percent people of color), being more welcoming as an economic necessity, and the importance of training staff.
“I felt it was a productive day,” said Symposium organizer Pete Nelson. “The speakers were excellent. We had an agenda, but the day evolved in an organic way to concentrate on a sense of community that was a little different than I expected. What came out of this, the incidents in Ticonderoga and Lake George spurred, and the speakers cemented, is that we need to think about addressing inclusion as a community.”
Next year organizers plan to start holding the Diversity Symposia in differing locations throughout the Park, and in the shoulder season to enable more people to attend. Stay tuned.
Photos: Above, Kate Fish, Scottie Emery-Ginn, and David Kahn; below, Jada, Silas and Eshna on the ADAC Youth Exchange Program.