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Diversity director to ‘double down’ on fighting racism since graffiti

Adirondack Diversity Initiative Director Nicole Hylton-Patterson speaks during a press conference outside the Essex County Courthouse on Thursday, Aug. 6. (News photo — Elizabeth Izzo)

ELIZABETHTOWN — Nicole Hylton-Patterson says she is a fighter ready to “double down” against racism.

Confronted by racist graffiti in Saranac Lake painted on a railroad trestle bridge — which she believes was targeted toward her, one of the village’s few Black residents — the Adirondack Diversity Initiative director decided last month that she would relocate elsewhere. The experience was “egregious, hurtful, painful and traumatic,” she said — but it did nothing to deter her from her mission to help diversify the Adirondack Park and make it a more welcoming place for everyone.

“I’ve been doing this since I was born,” Hylton-Patterson said Thursday, Aug. 6, speaking at a press conference in Elizabethtown outside of the Essex County Courthouse. “My father was a Rastaman. When I was 5 years old, he couldn’t read or write, but he got someone to write a placard and gave it to me, and said, ‘This is what we’re fighting today. We’re fighting poverty and injustice. We’re fighting anti-Black racism in this country of Jamaica.'”

Born in Jamaica, Hylton-Patterson spent time in northern Norway participating in a gifted child program before she went on to spend the next 20 years leading programs designed to advance diversity, equity and inclusion. Before moving to the Adirondacks last year to take on the role as ADI’s first director, Hylton-Patterson was acting director of the Mary T. Clark Center for Religion and Social Justice at Manhattanville College. She coordinated programs at the school’s Center for Inclusion.

“You know what happens when fighters, when revolutionaries, when visionaries get attacked? We double down,” she said. “Because there’s many more with me, with us, than there are with them.”

The Adirondack Daily Enterprise was the first to report on the racist graffiti in Saranac Lake and then on Hylton-Patterson’s decision to move out of the village. Within two days of the latter story being published, Hylton-Patterson said 1,000 people signed up to get involved in ADI.

“Before that, we had 10,” she said. “That is the difference. That’s why, this time, it’s going to be different.”

Hylton-Patterson received a lot of blowback after the community learned of her decision to move away, and that was amplified when, two days later, Gov. Andrew Cuomo released a statement condemning the racist graffiti and directing the State Police Hate Crimes Task Force to help village police find the perpetrator.

“I heard that … there were a lot of nasty comments, racist,” she said of the public response, including on the Enterprise Facebook page. “But that didn’t phase me.

“Many, many, many more people — white people, non-Black people of color, were with me. There was a sweeping recognition that staying silent could’ve meant death. I got comments, ‘Well, where are you going? It was probably just some kids.’ But what silence does … silence has meant death for Black, Indigenous and people of color for generations in this country.

“What happened in that moment was towns and communities, people I didn’t know, by the hundreds and thousands, reached out and said, ‘I support you. I hear you. I see you. I believe you. I will not delegitimize your story. I will not do that. And so what I’m going to do is I’m going to lean in. I’m going to do the difficult work of exploring what being raced as white means, and what that means for every other body and identity on the margins.’

“The nastiness that followed was mostly by people who were incognito, who wanted to remain anonymous. But there was a lot of boldness, too. By thousands of people. And that’s what I’m taking from that.”

Hylton-Patterson appeared at a press conference in Elizabethtown on Aug. 6 to call for an investigation into an alleged incident between a white off-duty Cohoes police officer and a group of young Black people near his second home in Elizabethtown two months ago. The officer, Sean McKown, initially claimed that a Black man fired a gun at him outside of his Lincoln Pond Road home, but he later admitted to police that he had provided them with false information, according to the Albany Times Union newspaper. McKown has yet to face charges or internal disciplinary action.

Hylton-Patterson said her reaction to learning of the case was “instant trauma.” She mentioned the case of Amy Cooper, a white woman who called police after a Black man, Christian Cooper, asked her to leash her dog in Central Park in New York City, where dogs must be leashed. The video of the interaction went viral and sparked widespread outrage.

“She weaponized her white womanhood because she understood what that meant, when you call the police on a Black body,” Hylton-Patterson said. “We know what could happen when (McKown) called the police. What could’ve happened if the police showed up because an officer of the law called and said that Black youth had a gun, fired at him and he returned fire? What do you think would’ve happened to those Black youth, especially if they had stayed in that location? That is why it’s important. He was weaponizing race.”

State Police, who later obtained a video of the incident from a neighbor and interviewed witnesses, have described McKown’s description of events as “extremely inconsistent.” State Police say the case is closed and no charges have been filed.

Instances of racism and micro-aggressions against people of color in the Adirondacks “deters not just members of the Black, Indigenous and people of color communities, but it deters white people, non-Black people who also love the Adirondacks, who also want to come here,” Hylton-Patterson said.

“The silver lining is that in all of this, more and more people are deciding that they cannot stay silent. More and more white people are deciding that they want to step in and lean in, that they are not going to continue to be non-racists, but anti-racists. And that is the difference.”