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GIVING BACK: A more diverse Adirondacks

Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council raises money for youth exchange program

December 8, 2016
By ANTONIO OLIVERO - Staff Writer (aolivero@adirondackdailyenterprise.com) , Lake Placid News

KEENE - When Pete Nelson moved to this mountain town a year and a half ago, something was nagging at him. It was the idea that in an ever-more diverse state, country and world, many people who don't call the High Peaks home perceive the Adirondack Park as an uninviting place.

"It's about an active sense that we can understand and embrace things we never have before," Nelson said. "It's about understanding and accepting people."

A math teacher at North Country Community College's Ticonderoga campus, Nelson is described by Adirondack Foundation Communications Director Chris Morris as the "spark plug" who helped to found the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council.

Article Photos

Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council Volunteer Coordinator Pete Nelson and Youth Ed-venture & Nature Network President Cherrie Burgess speak at ADAC’s 2015 symposium at the Adirondack Interpretive Center in Newcomb.
(Photo provided — Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council)

Living in Keene now after recent stays in the urban areas of Cleveland, Chicago and New York City, it was Nelson's goal as ADAC's volunteer coordinator to not only open up discourse about diversity in the Park but to actively connect more people of differing backgrounds from within and outside of the Blue Line.

"We started a conversation," Nelson said, "and the further we go with this, the more we realize this is going to be our most important work: to have conversations."

At the core of ADAC's work and growth since its inception at its first symposium in August 2014 have been three annual symposiums at the Adirondack Interpretive Center in Newcomb. The three events featured conversation between groups, individuals and agencies from inside and outside of the region that may not have interacted otherwise, particularly about race relations and diversity.

Another symposium is scheduled for next summer, and this time ADAC is looking for a host outside of Newcomb for the first time. But along with the annual event, the council is currently fundraising $1,000 for what it hopes will be an expanded youth exchange program in 2017.

ADAC is supported by volunteers and more than 30 affiliates, including the Adirondack Foundation, the host of the online fundraiser through its Adirondack Gives crowdfunding website (www.adirondackgives.org).

Morris also serves as ADAC's Youth Program coordinator. He said the fundraiser will primarily help with projects the youth program has mapped out for 2017 including several trips to districts in the Albany area and the donation of literature to local schools that is more representative of a diverse population.

"That's our most direct immediate need," Morris said of the youth exchange program. "It's really more about camaraderie. You have groups of youth from two different backgrounds finding things that they have in common and enjoying them. There is a really common bond with young people - their love of the outdoors - and they share an appreciation for why diversity and cultural exchange is important. We hope high schoolers from here can spend an actual full day in classrooms down in Albany and the other way around to get a sense for what a day is like in urban inner city school, and at rural school in the Adirondacks."

Morris encourages local students from any school, public or private, to join the council's official public Facebook group if interested (www.facebook.com/groups/279088629142925/). They can contact him directly as well at chris@adkfoundation.org. Morris added that the the council would like to work with any area school districts to try to set up student exchanges.

Along with the youth exchange program, Morris said ADAC plans to organize an early winter skiing and snowshoeing event with local students and students from the Albany area. Other events are planned as well.

He stressed the program is a student-led initiative and said three seniors at Saranac Lake High School have stepped up in recent months: Silas Swanson, Jada Meadows and Eshna Prajapati.

The trio spoke on a panel at this summer's third annual symposium in Newcomb. Looking ahead to next year, Meadows said she's particularly interested in discussing with students from outside of the park "what diversity means to them."

"I am sure our definitions will differ," she said. "Listening to some of the speakers at the diversity symposium this summer, many of the worries they had related to negative encounters they experienced while in the Adirondacks. Some of them were harassed on account of their race, making them feel that the Adirondacks were not a welcoming place for people of other ethnicities. This concerns me as well because although I am a minority, I have lived here for my entire life and have never had a negative experience I would love for the Adirondacks to have a reputation of being a welcoming environment for all. And I think the key to that is exposure and education."

Swanson said via the youth exchange program he is most interested in changing preconceptions youth of varying backgrounds may have about other youth. In meeting with students from the Albany area, Swanson said he would like to ask them if there is a specific misconception they think students from the Adirondacks have about students from urban schools outside the Park.

"It's not really a good perception to have walking into a room, that you are completely unable to talk about a topic whether or not that perception is true," Swanson said. "It's not that any of us are thinking negatively about other races/ethnicities; it's just that many students I think are uncomfortable talking about it or simply don't know how and really it's not our fault but it also doesn't set us up well for the real world outside of Saranac Lake."

As of Dec. 6, the Adirondack Gives fundraiser had raised $195 of its $1,000 goal with 30 days remaining. Morris said money raised via the fundraiser would go toward food, transportation and other out of pocket expenses students involved with the youth exchange would incur as part of the program.

Settling down in Keene, Nelson said this town isn't the "hub" for ADAC, "because there is no hub." But he did recognize groups, such as the Keene Valley Congregational Church, and places, such as the Keene Arts Center, that have played a pivotal role for the council in its early years.

"My wife Amy and I live across from the Keene Arts Center," Nelson said. "In our short year in our current house we have enjoyed lectures on diversity in education, music from funk to classical to jazz to reggae, and a range of art exhibits. All of these have brought cultural experiences from a wide range of influences to the Adirondacks. This is a long tradition and value in Keene."

 
 
 

 

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