Thursday, August 12, 2021

Safety in numbers: Outdoor Afro’s Adirondack outings

Outdoor AfroA couple of weekends ago, I paddled along with a group of mostly first-time Adirondack canoeists as they watched loons and enjoyed the soothing waters of Little Green Pond and Little Clear Pond — adjacent water bodies near Paul Smiths and the St. Regis Canoe Area wilderness. It was a rare occasion in this park when I stood out for the color of my skin — white. And that was by design.

As we’ve reported previously at the Adirondack Explorer, the very whiteness of the Adirondacks can feel somewhat disorienting or unwelcoming for people of color, and the state, the Adirondack North Country Association and others are working to create a more inclusive park. Another group working on that problem — here and around the United States — is called Outdoor Afro. I met a trip coordinator with that group earlier this summer at a celebration of the John Brown Farm State Historic Site, and she told me of her plans to bring a group to the ponds. I asked if I could come along and document the effort on our website and in our magazine, and one result is a video I produced for the Explorer’s YouTube channel. While you’re there, subscribe to that page for free to keep track of our expanding Adirondack video offerings.

If you’re interested in learning more, here’s a story about the outing on our website, and we’ll have a longer version with more details of the park’s diversity effort in our September-October magazine issue.

Above photo: Peggie Allen, left, and Gail Hammond paddle with other participants in an Outdoor Afro group outing in the Adirondacks in mid-July. The outing was intended to introduce people of color to paddling in the park, and to loon ecology. Photo by Kris Parker

Editor’s note: This first appeared in Brandon’s weekly “Explore More” newsletter. Click here to sign up.

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Brandon Loomis

Brandon Loomis is a former Adirondack Explorer editor.




32 Responses

  1. James M Schaefer says:

    The color of on’e skin does not have ANYTHING to do with a wilderness experience. I believe the human spirit benefits from having wilderness available, which is why we fight to protect and preserve the Adirondacks.
    Leave politics at home where apparently the color of one’s skin makes a difference.

    • Tom says:

      The only people who are naive enough to think that skin color has nothing to do with how one experiences the wild parts of this country, are the select few who are lucky enough to have never been made to feel unwelcome because of the color of their skin.

  2. Bob Meyer says:

    It’s a sad commentary on our society when the color of one’s skin determines whether you feel safe alone in the woods ( or anywhere else).
    Given this unfortunate reality, Outdoor Afro is a smart approach to minority participation in an activity that we Caucasians take for granted. I only hope for the day when this group is no longer necessary.

  3. louis curth says:

    Today’s headline in the Adirondack Daily Enterprise (8/13) should be a wake up call for our overwhelmingly white population of the Adirondack-north country:

    “Census shows U.S. is diversifying, white population shrinking”, (AP)

    The people of our Adirondack region can adapt to these inevitable demographic changes by accepting and welcoming diversity graciously, or we can remain stuck in denial and treat everybody who looks different from us with sullen inhospitality. The future prosperity of our Adirondack economy will hang in the balance.

    Let’s hope our better selves will prevail.

    • Vanessa Banti Vanessa B says:

      Hear hear (here here?), Louis, appreciate this comment. Though I don’t see that headline when checking the Enterprise just now – are you able to easily link it? I am sure you’re correct that it’s there, but I am curious for a local author’s take. Versions of this story have been circulating since yesterday, and some of them have highlighted the continued growth of urban centers in NYC. That’s good for the state, imo including the NoCo! – but I am curious how full-time Adirondackers feel.

  4. Vanessa Banti Vanessa B says:

    Glad to see this written up in the Almanack as well. To echo a shortened version of what I wrote in the Explorer: do people justice when you feature them for content. Looks like this article is on rotation here, Explorer online and Explorer print. Don’t be afraid to print the word “racism” if you’re going to talk about the bad experiences that people of color sometimes have in the NoCo. You have a wide audience here and that’s good, but some folks will think of you as “liberal media” regardless of what you do, unless you make the editorial choices of Newsmax…

    Mind as well commit to being thought-provoking, therefore. Who knows, maybe you’ll get readers you didn’t have before. 🙂

  5. Bob Meyer says:

    Well said and accurate!

  6. Withheld says:

    Whiteness is unwelcoming. Quite the inflammatory and racist statement. But I guess that is acceptable nowadays. As we know white people are all racists and racism only goes one way.

  7. Unknown says:

    Wondering where the “safety in numbers” group is to help white people feel safe in black neighborhoods

    • Pete Nelson Pete Nelson says:

      As a white person who has extensive experience living in black neighborhoods that most ignorant white people “rope off” both literally and figuratively, and would never visit, it is my pleasure to tell you that there is no analog whatsoever. “Unknown” is a fine anonymous name, since you have no idea what you’re talking about.

    • Bob Meyer says:

      See Pete Nelson’s reply and get a life!

  8. Jeff Miller says:

    I watched the video of the Afro trips. I have to wonder if the lady doing the talking is racist against us in Adirondacks. She is scared to come here and kayak? This is not Deliverance. We all own the Adirondacks, come visit, enjoy and find out you are probably safer here than where you live.

  9. Adam K says:

    As keepers of the legacy of Gerrit Smith’s Timbuctoo and of the legacy of John Brown, I am ashamed that such a group is considered necessary. Just as it’s our responsibility as current, former, and future residents to ensure the park remains forever wild, it’s also our mandate to ensure it is, and will always be, open to all who wish to experience its beauty and grandeur.

  10. Maggie Jihan says:

    I was glad to read of The Park’s effort to become more inclusive of people of color. Yes, the ADKs are very white, as is most of the rural Northeast–a shock to me when I moved to Maine in 2012 from the mid-west. Now I’m here, but it’s the same here as Maine and Vermont, my 2 stops along the way.

    But one thing puzzles me about that article, and that’s the title of “Safety in Numbers”. It sounds, well, kind of grim, giving a hint of an existing threat to BIPOC citizens who might visit the Park. Maybe it was just not well thought out, or maybe in the longer version of the article it’s explained somehow?

    • Boreas says:

      My take was slightly different. While I too applaud the effort, I wonder – is this type of a activity promoting a type of “separate but equal” or segregation in itself? Is encouraging “Afro Outings” the best way to integrate the area? I am not trying to make a statement, but rather am asking the question?

      It seems to me you would want to include as many locals in the outings as possible to encourage integration rather than segregation. Will these “safe” outings simply prolong and/or reinforce fears?

      • JB says:

        Hmm…Interesting point, Boreas. I will admit to my ignorance about the organization and people behind Outdoor Afro, but a quick check of their website leads me to believe that neither integration with larger communities nor desegregation are a part of their mission. Maybe these things are outside the scope of a group that concerns itself more with excursionary experiences, or maybe the organization in fact has a prominent black nationalist streak. I am actually inclined to believe both the former and the latter: On the website, there is much about recreation, but also a very prominent focus on black community, going so far as the phraseology “co-creating and enhancing land management plans, parks, monuments, and wildlife preserves that are dedicated to Black people…” (though maybe I am misinterpreting something).

        I will emphasize that I am not saying that these aspirations are necessarily bad in and of themselves; increasing access among disadvantaged minorities (meaning disadvantaged people within certain minorities that are statistically more greatly disadvantaged than the majority) to wide-open spaces is an admirable goal. However, I do think that segregationist ideas are becoming more widespread and more aspects of our lives are becoming increasingly segregated. Many writers (including black writers like Nikole Hannah-Jones) have blamed this largely on “black elites” perpetuating white segregationist ideals in order to appease local “white elites” and retain their money for black communities (i.e., fear of “white flight”). And while I may not agree as to that etiology of the problem, I share the sentiment of such authors that increasing segregation is indeed a problem–“separate but equal” harms society more than it benefits.

        As far as the Adirondack Park, I would welcome having a greater demographic percentage of non-whites in both residents and tourists, although a huge population increase for the Park, regardless of demographic makeup, would never be feasible nor sustainable. Further, national housing segregation will not be significantly impacted by programs such as the Adirondack Diversity Initiative and those of Outdoor Afro, and the ultimate holy grail of the social justice movement–eliminating racial disparities–will arguably be placed farther out of reach by movements with black nationalist undercurrents. Rather than focusing on black entry into Adirondack communities as a panacea for larger systemic problems, it would be more productive to focus on white entry into black core communities–this, the ultimate end goal of desegregation, is undeniably most efficiently effected by the direct effectuation of the desired outcome itself. Then, the elephant in the room being addressed, we could comprehend the goals of organizations like Outdoor Afro as they truly are–the actualization of eudaemonical concerns that are equally important to but distinct from nomothetic basal needs.

        • Vanessa Banti Vanessa B says:

          To comment on all of the above: JB is essentially correct on the first point. Outdoor Afro doesn’t really have a position on who non-white folks should travel with. It is meant to be a starting place for non-white folks who want to connect with people that share their own life experiences to have an adventure together. I relate to the appeal a lot: I LOVED my women-only “how to camp” class. It was a revelation to learn how to set up a tent among only ladies. No one laughed about the pace at which we learned, no one got impatient and did it for us. I walked out with confidence I would not have had if a generic “outdoorsy dude” had taught me. (A few have tried, lol). Likewise, other people who have been historically marginalized in outdoors spaces may appreciate the comfort that a shared experience brings.

          • JB says:

            Vanessa, thanks for the insight. I think that in my previous comment, I am guilty of both fixating on the ambiguity of Outdoor Afro’s mission statement and being ambiguous in places in my own writing. “Black nationalist” was probably an overly strong term–I would maybe have liked to say “strong black solidarity”.

            Solidarity and pride are essential human needs and drivers of social cohesion, but, in our society, these concepts tend to become, at least perceptibly, mutually exclusive with larger-scale integration and inclusion. It is telling that there is no commonly agreed upon, unambiguous term in our lexicon that signifies anything akin to “solidarity and pride within a community sharing common master status that simultaneously demonstrates an openness towards alliance-building with external communities”.

            So, I guess the heart of it is that I am a strong advocate for intra-class cohesion and solidarity, but I find myself asking the question: how can any social grouping within a society rightfully harbor animus towards another until inter-class alliance-building mechanisms are created and agreed upon?

            • Vanessa Banti Vanessa B says:

              I think you may mean “avoid animus” per the above? Not sure?

              Imo it’s about your *initial comfort level. 12 years ago my husband boarded a plane from his home country, India, and landed in Germany. He didn’t have a cold winter coat and not a word of German. Doesn’t eat meat. Just didn’t have the same life experiences. Fast forward a year, and he was 100% comfortable with the experience and people, though he chose which elements of the new culture to adopt. He ended up moving to America, which I appreciated ;), and the adjustment was much much quicker, even though we Americans are neither like Indians nor Germans.

              Likewise, it’s my experience that even two diametrically opposed groups will start to be comfortable and mesh with each other after adequate exposure to each other, *sometimes even with an uneven power dynamic.

              But the more uneven power dynamic, the harder it is for this to be accomplished. Hence my small gripe with Mr Loomis’s article, which is implying an uneven power dynamic (racism, specifically), but not really owning it. That’s the why in this whole discussion, and it’s definitely not unique to the ADKs. Outdoor-oriented activity has had an issue with race for decades and Outdoor Afro has been around for a while as a national org. The outdoors community has absolutely made progress, but I think only because we’ve now been paying attention to this for maybe a decade or so.

              I don’t think anyone disagrees that in an ideal world, we shouldn’t need orgs that help people of underrepresented races or genders adjust to a different cultural space. We ain’t there yet, and so the efforts of such orgs are helpful. In 20-30 years, I am sure a new generation will be tackling different issues.

              • JB says:

                Vanessa, I’m sure your husband has learned much about this topic: born into a society that is still largely underlain by a caste system (post-colonial jati), then moving to a society that still pays monthly reparations to the few living survivors of a former ultra-violent caste-like system (Nazism), and finally moving to a country that once had its own type of caste system (American slavery).

                I did in fact intentionally write that no group can currently “rightfully harbor animus”, ad verbum. My intended meaning, which I did not properly elaborate, was that no Americans are any longer living under a caste system, thus any so-called “class struggle” will always be revealed through escalation in actuality to be a “culture conflict” in which neither side can lay unequivocal claim to “righteousness” as the “oppressed” (although both will) until it accepts that its own perceived status, as oppressed object of unidirectional persecution, is in actuality a status as active subject, both ward and warden of impregnable cloisters built through bidirectional fortification; then, upon such diagnosis, efforts toward inter-class alliance-building are obligated of the active subject, either leading to the sustainment of the class society through the development of reciprocal alliance-building mechanisms, or leading telically to the ultimate dissolution of the class society and a reversion to the stability of a feudalistic caste system wherein, reciprocity not withstanding, claims of oppression become ipso facto “rightfully” founded. In anthropology parlance, you could say that American society is endangered by unchecked schismogenesis–Gregory Bateson’s terminology for the differentiation between social groups that is requisite in all human societies but can only serve to sustain them if counterbalancing forces exist. In sustainable societies, there exist rituals that limit schismogenesis from spiraling into a cycle of infinite regress that completely destroys the society itself. However, the rituals of American society are becoming increasingly inadequate to protect our society from this fate given its current overdetermination of conflict. Thusly, my argument becomes that alliance-building needs to be ritualized and culturalized into the fabric of American society if we are to have in the future something that resembles the ideal of “American society” at all.

                In a few generations, I do hope that we are forward and onward towards clearer horizons. However, I still believe that we will need to actively engage in these types of novel cohesion-inducing rituals in perpetuity if our modern society is to persevere rather than going the way of the many others that have come before. Of course, we cannot get ahead of ourselves: first we need to develop those rituals to begin with, to fill to cultural void left by the fleeting vacation from American society of the Christian aspects that have hitherto served that purpose, so that we can live amongst each other in “the shadows of the setting sun of Christianity” without succumbing to the terror of the elongation of those shadows of the other. Undoubtedly, proto-Christian values still remain the fundamental foundation that underlies our sciences and technologies (including our successful co-option of those developed by others), framing our critical theories and serving as context for our external relations, but the cohesive system as a whole has been dismantled of its fundamental cornerstones, cannibalized by the “mythology left behind in the wake of science” and, facilitated by the technologies that have sprung forth hence, obliterated by the globalistic clashing of worlds that characterizes our modern age.

                The question has become: Are modern developments “bad”? Everyone seems to think so, and the question is now becoming: Who do we blame? Or, at best: Who will be our savoir?

                But, ultimately, the question has always been: How do we control “bad”? How do we address “bad”? How do we even define “bad”?…As a Christian, as a Taoist, as a humanist, as a nihilist? Most of us are neither. The substances that had once suspended human communities concretely into the changing tides of time have been decanted into a eutetic mixture that is not the sum of its parts. Welcome to multiculturalism.

                • Vanessa Banti Vanessa B says:

                  The topic of caste in India is a tough one, lol. Will save that one for another comments section.

                  We have not met many Germans comfortable talking about WWII. I made that mistake with a German client once, asking, has your company been around since the war? Awkward as hec.

                  As for America – well, I hope we all just keep working on the nations flaws. I believe most of us are trying to do so in our own ways, especially this group Outdoor Afro.

  11. Bob Meyer says:

    The threat is real for persons of color…It comes from (some) locals, visitors and police. Read Driving While Black and find previous articles in the Almanack that document specific experiences in the Adirondacks.

    • Maggie Jihan says:

      Bob, I’m fully aware of the many threats to people of color living under white supremacy, the potential for being terrorized or even killed for Existing While Black/Brown/Other (depending on one’s neighborhood). Maybe my question wasn’t clear. Or maybe it was just silly… I suppose I was thinking that it’s possible that threat doesn’t exist–or is at least greatly minimized–out in the wilderness. Which is silly because racists also go to the wilderness, live nearby, and surely some are on the various police/ranger forces it’s possible to encounter. But I wasn’t sure what to think of that title of the article because nothing was spelled out. With a title like that, I think it should have been. That’s all.

      • Vanessa Banti Vanessa B says:

        I want to cite myself here but that’s crass :(, so suffice to say that I think the tricky word here is “wilderness” in terms of anyone’s experience in the ADKs. You’re out in the woods, sure, but are you ever really absent the influence of human society anymore? Ones ability to be comfortable with fellow outdoors enthusiasts, ones ability to even afford gear to stay safe, ones ability to have the self confidence to know how to survive with minimal assistance – all of this is, imo and unfortunately, still tied to both race and gender in America circa 2021.

        As a woman who was not raised with an iota of outdoors influence, I feel these limitations super hard still. It’s changing and I know of a lot of women who have super positive experiences, but I still know a lot more dudes who are a part of the culture than ladies. I have never gotten around to doing more women-only camping trips because frankly, I don’t know many women who camp, and I both can’t afford and feel too inexperienced to go on a paid-for trip through something like REI.

  12. Dale Trent says:

    Wake up people. If you like crime so much why don’t you move to the city.

  13. Zephyr says:

    Unfortunately, articles like this will bring the racists out of their holes as can be seen in some comments. These comments perfectly illustrate why Outdoor Afro exists. Back when Border Patrol was stopping vehicles on the Northway I approached a roadblock and they shooed many of us along after a few brief questions, but the one car they pulled over for further questioning was a nice white BWM convertible driven by a Black man with long braids. For a moment I wondered if I should follow him into the rest area just to keep an eye that he was safe knowing that I’m an old white guy that the cops would never bother. That’s one reason people of color feel safer traveling in groups.

    • Vanessa Banti Vanessa B says:

      Two things here: well said.

      Also, you’re a guy? My honest apologies because I believe I assumed you’re a lady, and I dunno or remember why, and I have perhaps addressed you as such in the past. Got my “mea culpa” hat on over here.

      • Zephyr says:

        Yep, I am a member of the dwindling white male demographic! I don’t know how many remember back when some of us were wearing safety pins in obvious places as a show of support for vulnerable groups. Maybe us hikers and outdoors people could come up with some sort of symbol like that we could wear that would indicate we are friends and want to be welcoming to people who have not ordinarily felt welcome in outdoor settings. The pandemic seems to have encouraged more people of color to venture out onto the trails, particularly younger people. Not long ago I was on top of a small mountain and a couple was speaking Spanish, which was nice to hear also. A lot of younger groups I run into include people of different races. I hope that trend continues.

        • Vanessa Banti Vanessa B says:

          Ah thank you for clarifying! Again apologies if I’ve ever called you “ma’am” !

          I don’t think anyone needs to wear pins to identify themselves, lol. It’s worth emphasizing that many, many people we meet in the ADKs are friendly as hec, and they are mostly what I’ll call your vintage. There is lots of wisdom to gain from all generations, and folks from all walks of life.

  14. nathan says:

    WOW!!!!!! So racist on so may levels….so if african-americans go out as small group are all the local whites waiting in ambush???
    TITLE “local whites have safety in numbers” but that would be racist, but all blacks is ok??? Double standards are tiring, at this point should just be non color based period. we are all just people, lets just enjoy nature, stop making labels, because “afro” is another label making seperate, further keeping a seperation of quote “whites and blacks”. no labels means truely equal and just people.
    Shame on Brandon Lewis for using racial labels and continuing to maintain a seperation of cultures, ethnicity, and propagating RACISM, the first step to maintaining racism is by labeling!!!

  15. louis curth says:

    Nathan’s five words; “we are all just people” are perhaps the most profound observation to be found anywhere in the entire lengthy comment section for this article.

    The irony is that these simple words have the power to obliterate racism if we were just willing to embrace them as the starting point for an honest, open-minded exchange of ideas about what must change in order to achieve that oh-so-difficult egalitarian objective.

    Any takers?

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