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ON THE SCENE: Adirondack Diversity Initiative begins year two

Kindergarten teacher Temnit Muldowney and Nicky Hylton-Patterson pose with a basket filled with donations from local businesses to welcome a new family in Saranac Lake. (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

On Dec. 2, 2019, Nicole Hylton-Patterson was hired as the Adirondack Diversity Initiative’s first director. A year later, she’s now providing a bundle of gifts gathered from area shops to an African American family that’s recently settled in Saranac Lake.

This is one of many initiatives she’s launched to make the region more welcoming to visitors of diverse backgrounds and, in this case, a family that’s taking up residence.

Hylton-Patterson knows personally that settling in can be rough as some people view diversification as a threat to their jobs, way of life or some other concern. She experienced it as graffiti painted on a railroad trestle she passed by every day on her morning run. Fortunately, a good Samaritan painted it out soon after, but the damage was done. Hylton-Patterson shifted her place of residence, much to the dismay of many in the community as voiced a few days later by Mayor Clyde Rabideau.

Hylton-Patterson further responded by organizing a series of online discussions about the Black experience in the Adirondacks with panels of experts that ranged from an ex-cop and diversity officers from regional colleges to local residents who shared their lived experiences.

I caught up with Hylton-Patterson and Pete Nelson, a founding member of ADI, a few days after an online retreat with the Adirondack Diversity Initiative’s board of directors. The retreat was organized to review where they were, what’s been accomplished, and to lay plans for the coming year. Nelson began by saying that thanks to state funding through the state Department of Environmental Conservation and hosting by the Adirondack North Country Association, the ADI went from an all-volunteer effort to having a full-time director and, under her guidance, being able to launch a variety of initiatives.

“Nicky has taken the reigns and put together a long-term action plan for accomplishing our vision of making the Adirondack region welcoming to all,” said Nelson. “No question that this is a difficult environment in which to start. We are facing the challenges of COVID and its economic ramifications, a massive surge in visitors wanting to get away from the city, exasperating an already difficult housing situation, coupled with the escalation of consciousness around racism in the country. Yet, despite that, I think that the Adirondack Diversity Initiative is starting to get the message across that the work we do is positive, affirming and about inclusiveness. I believe that message is timely and critical, and people are starting to embrace it.”

One who does is David Kahn, executive director of Adirondack Experience, Museum on Blue Mountain Lake.

“When we partnered with the Wild Center a few years ago to conduct consumer research to determine what activities we could put on or messages to describe our offerings, in our naivete, we thought, ‘If we just knew the right way to market, had the right venues and message, and that sort of thing,’ that would help increase the diversity and size of our attendance,” said Kahn. “As we’ve been working with Nicky, we’ve discovered that the issues are much larger. We learned there are reasons why people are not coming. It’s not that they don’t know about us.”

Through working with the ADI, they learned that people of color feel from past experience they are risking being stopped by the police on multiple occasions when they come up here. In addition, they have concerns about how they will be treated in convenience stores and other establishments along the way and once they get here as they have a deep history of being harassed when visiting rural areas.

To address these concerns, the ADI began hosting series of online seminars that included some on driving while Black in the Adirondacks. They then hired consultants to work with local and state police, people in the hospitality industry and other stakeholders to help sensitize them to the Black experience and how their own behavior, language and messaging can be the opposite of welcoming.

“It’s been a learning experience for us,” said Kahn. “Obviously, the work that Nicky is taking on for the entire region is key to bringing about change that might enable everybody to enjoy the region peaceably and feel welcomed. It’s going to require us to move our institutions in a different direction. It’s not going to happen by our placing an ad in the right community newspaper.”

While it’s been a learning curve for the Adirondack Experience and local police along with educational, hospitality, nonprofit, and retail agencies, it’s no less true for Hylton-Patterson.

“I’m learning the real meaning of change,” she said. “I’ve learned about my own capacity and a sense of belonging in a different way. My experiences are similar to those that other Black, brown and bi folks have had who have lived here 20 or 30 years. What they haven’t had was someone who can name it and call it out so we can deal with it.”

Hylton-Patterson’s efforts are fully backed by such institutions as Clarkson University and the DEC, which is not new to the effort of making the region more welcoming. Different is having an Adirondack-based initiative working with them to educate, foster collaboration, and stimulate change.

“Supporting inclusivity in New York’s great outdoors is a priority for the governor, for me, and our agency,” said DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos. “We were big and early supporters of what the Adirondack Diversity is trying to accomplish. I was so excited when they were able to bring on Nicky, who I believe is able to shape and advance a vital dialogue at this point.”

Seggos said that having the dialogue about what it will take to make the Adirondack region more welcoming among all stakeholders is overdue and believes we’re at point where we can make real and sustaining change. He feels that Hylton-Patterson brings a lot of energy and credibility, and, without a doubt, is a very strong leader. He said he’s proud to stand with her and pledged the DEC’s continued support, which includes working closely with the State Police and other agencies toward achieving common goals.

Associate Professor and Chief Inclusion Officer at Clarkson Jennifer Ball echoed the importance of Hylton-Patterson’s work and leadership.

“We want our region to thrive and survive, and diversity is an important part of what will make that possible,” said Ball. “The initiative helps us to be more inclusive with everybody, welcome more people in and helps us understand for a very long period in the United States; we haven’t been welcoming everybody to our wide-open spaces like the Adirondacks.”

For Hylton-Patterson, it’s as if all her past work and experiences have led her to be here. She has fallen in love with the Adirondacks and is committed to laying the foundation for long-term benefits. She’s building a strong network of allies like Ball, Kahn, Nelson and Seggos, who are no less determined to open doors, plant seeds, and build networks towards a better future not just for here, but one that can foster change beyond our borders.

(Naj Wikoff lives in Keene Valley. He has been covering events for the Lake Placid News for more than 15 years.)