In the News  Archive

ON THE SCENE: Diversity faces challenges, opportunities in Adirondacks

Lake Placid News
August 25, 2016

By NAJ WIKOFF

Imagine you'd been hired to coach a hockey or soccer camp for the summer, teach music for the Lake Placid Sinfonietta or figure skating at the arena, or serve as a waiter, housekeeper, lift attendant or one of the many other jobs that welcome visitors to our region.

Imagine that you went with some of your fellow workers to a restaurant, or shopping, and got harassed and verbally abused by another customer because of the color of your skin.

How would you feel if a member of business's staff asked you to leave, not the person being abusive, but you - the victim? What would that say about our community? What would that say about how we welcome and care for our customers and seasonal employees?

Such a situation happened twice to Alvin Codner, the athletic director of a summer camp in the Adirondacks this summer. He shared his experience at the opening of the Adirondack Diversity Council's 2016 Symposium held at the SUNY-ESF Adirondack Interpretive Center in Newcomb on Saturday, Aug. 13.

The only good news is that his employer has lodged a formal complaint against both businesses along with local tourism and government officials. Even so, such inappropriate behavior can profoundly damage our image, just as Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte's crass behavior in Rio de Janeiro has put the entire U.S. Olympic team and indeed our nation in a bad light. His behavior dominated the media, taking away attention from the many noble acts accomplished.

"The incidents that Codner experienced was a clear case of racism," said Aaron Mair, president of the National Sierra Club. "Either the Adirondacks are safe for children and people of color or it isn't. It's a binary thing. The fact that the culture in these businesses allowed this to happen, this is a matter for the Chamber of Commerce, the mayor, every single door post needs to be painted with this because if people are not safe, then you can't bring up children of color as students, athletes, or customers because this is not a safe place for them. It goes to the culture and psyche that allows racial oppression to happen. When not one person witnessing this situation fails to call the police, fails to call the manager, then this is not just a problem of this particular business."

Soon more than 50 percent of New Yorkers will be of color. They share in the ownership of the state lands of the Adirondack Park. Their tax dollars help pay for the salaries of the staff of the state Olympic Regional Development Authority, Department of Environmental Conservation, Department of Transportation and the State Police. They help cover the costs of maintaining our state highways, Olympic venues, and the salaries of the officers of the penitentiaries that provide jobs to so many in the North Country. They are stakeholders in our region.

Our challenge and opportunity is many people of color, or those whose lifestyle or abilities may be different from the norm, are not coming here. We do a lousy job of encouraging people of diverse backgrounds to visit, and when they do come, we do not do our best to ensure their experience is a good and positive one. As a consequence, most New Yorkers are not aware of the beauty of our region; not aware of the importance of our vast forests in absorbing carbon and thus keeping air clean, our water in maintaining the levels of the Mohawk and Hudson Rivers; and not aware of the stress-reducing healing benefits of being out in nature be it to hike, fish, swim, or play a round of golf.

Mair pointed out during his presentation that a few years ago, Gov. David Paterson, our first African-American governor, closed all state parks to meet a budget shortfall. There was a huge public outcry and they were re-opened, but his actions underscore how vulnerable we are when urban people aren't passionate about preserving and participating in the natural environment. We do well to remember that urban people vote. Only about 135,000 people live in the Adirondacks year round, while well over 87.9 percent of New Yorkers live in urban areas, and of them, 56 percent are people of color. Our economic future is in their hands, as are the laws that protect this special place.

Mair challenged us to diversify our boards of directors; that with the abilities to have online meetings, a person living in New York or Albany can easily participate as someone living in Saranac Lake. He felt if we want to make our region more welcoming, we need people who reflect the audiences we wish to attract helping us set policies, develop our plans, and train and sensitize our staff so incidents like those experienced by Codner do not happen. Mair said it's vital to the future of humanity to get more people of color involved, especially in helping to protect the environment. He said that around 12 percent of the membership of the major environmental organizations are people of color. He described that as a green ceiling.

"The notion of diversity is that people from differing backgrounds can be in a room together and all be treated the same," said Professor Wallace Ford II, chair of the Public Administration Department at Medgar Evers College. "That's a means of beginning the process. We need to understand that by their very nature, diverse environments are richer environments. Being around people that just look, talk and dress like you might be comfortable, but it's not a very rich environment.

"My son, who is 19, is going to live and work in a truly global economy. This country has been competing with one hand tied behind its back because of the lack of women in the market place until very recently, and a very big heavy boot on it leg because of not allowing people of color to fully participate in the economy as well. We can't win that way. You can't be competitive if a significant part of your population is not participating in the development of your country."

And by that measure, this region will not survive if it fails to welcome all New Yorkers, instead of just one segment that is diminishing in size. Ford said that he lives in Harlem and works in Brooklyn. When he told his friends and colleagues he was coming to the Adirondacks, they asked where they were located, and what's there. He urged us to establish partnerships with urban organizations and nonprofits and offered to be a broker to help make connections to any agency wishing to establish such relationships. Members of a youth panel attending the summit urged we adults to establish school to school exchanges so kids from here get to experience the urban environment, and kids from the city can become familiar with ours.

"My take-away is that we need to work harder at promoting the Diversity Council and its efforts to make our region more welcoming," said John Sheehan of the Adirondack Council. "I think we have some real opportunities with urban not-for-profits and working with the black, Puerto Rican Caucus, Hispanic and Asian Causcus in the state legislature to help is connect with people down state. The first step is getting people connected here, getting them all on the same page, and people who have not experienced this great park to experience it for a change. It will be life changing for them and help us with our conservation work."

"This was very good, very enlightening," said Kurt Terrell of North Country School. "I really liked what Aaron Mair had to say about the image of the environmental movement and the green ceiling. I look forward to more conversations about all this."

"We want people, we want individuals to think about the challenges of making the Adirondacks welcoming and inclusive," said Pete Nelson, organizer of the Diversity Symposium. "That begins by recognizing that they aren't for many people. What came out of this is that we need to think about this as a community. We can't say, 'You in this corner are causing a problem.' What we have to say is that we as a community have to think about what the experiences of this young counselor were like, and we have to respond to that as a community. That is dialogue for sure, but it is more than that. There was a real call to action on two levels, that sense of what you as a person feel and will do, and what we as a community want to make the Adirondack Park feel like to everyone. There was a real challenge to all of us, that is we want to make the Adirondacks more diverse, we have to start with our own organizations, and we need to start developing strategic partnerships with urban agencies."

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