By Tamara Joly
Finding a safe and inclusive place to live in this world eluded me. I couldn’t find it in rural Pennsylvania. Might be a “safe place” for some, I felt anything but safe growing up there. I was kicked out of birthday parties, tagged undated, teased about my hair, and called racial slurs. It was often the little slights that hurt the most because they were uttered by those close to me, with what they considered to be good intentions.
While I spent a lot of time playing outside as a kid, my true love of nature was cultivated in my twenties. I was thirsty for adventure and often traveled alone. The more time I spent in nature, the more I loved it. I quickly learned that many of these spaces didn’t love me back. Sure, I felt at peace in a remote wilderness, but I needed a companion for my safety, not because I was afraid of wildlife. As a biologist, I love and appreciate the environment. As a diversity, equity and inclusion consultant, I seek conversations around our cultural differences. As a school teacher, I realize the benefits of connecting young people to nature. My desire to increase this advocacy is what brought me to the Adirondacks.
I was fortunate enough to attend Ranger School last year while on a teaching sabbatical. I fell in love with the area, kayaking Oswegatchie, bird watching and enjoying the views on a long hike to a high peak. However, after reading an article last fall about an interracial couple from Tupper Lake receiving hateful comments, I was reminded of the challenges I would face if I lived in the Adirondacks. My quest to find a diverse and welcoming place close to nature seemed much more difficult.
During the second semester, I took the opportunity to explore this question in a computer mapping project. I wanted to answer the question, “Where can I feel safe in the Adirondacks?” Specifically, I wanted to know if there was a diverse, inclusive, and equitable place where I could live and feel safe as a woman of color. I felt the project could be a great way to find my future paradise, or find out if I could even find it. I didn’t expect the impact this card would have on me.
I collected data and overlaid it on my map. I added information about safety, diversity, and state lands and tried to figure out how I would designate the settings to be “safe and inclusive”. I was shocked and delighted to find two small pockets labeled as having high diversity (68% chance that two random people are from different racial or ethnic groups). I started focusing on these two areas, but a thought came up that ruined weeks of work and broke my heart. “Dannemora,” I say. The prison I had heard about in a news report—Clinton’s cold, isolated correctional facility. I held my breath as I typed in the name of this second area of great diversity – Ray Brook. I hoped my fears were wrong, but no, the screen showed Adirondack Correctional Facility.
I held back my tears. The only two regions with high diversity were prisons. This realization then pushed me to think about the validity of the data. If based on the census, residents of the jail were counted as residents of that county. I checked the internet only to be even more devastated. Inmates are counted in the census, although they do not have the opportunity to vote.
New to the area, I was unaware of the prisons, and even my own teachers were shocked by the data. Vanessa Rojas, my teacher, reviewed my new map with the prisons now labeled and we wondered what I should do next. She suggested I contact Nicky Hylton-Patterson at the Adirondack Diversity Initiative who told me about her experiences. She reinvigorated my will to keep exploring and I studied the hate crime data in the park. I realized the need to add qualitative stories to my map.
I wanted to give voice to local residents and show the positive and negative happenings around inclusivity. Interviews and news reports began to tell the story of two Adirondacks. One was trying to evolve, the other was clinging to the past. Reading Malone’s reporting on racism denial in a draft police reform plan made me sick. The reference to Malone’s white heritage and black people as “passengers” was heartbreaking. I sent the article to my teacher, added the negative event to my map, and took a long walk to clear my head.
The search began to take its toll. On my way to Raquette River Brewing, I wondered if any other customers were the ones quoted in the articles on Tupper Lake’s decision to allow the display of Confederate flags. Who here yelled at the sweet biracial couple? Would they sit quietly and watch if I was confronted? Would I ever feel safe in the Adirondacks alone? Would my worries go away? Would my house here be tagged? Would my children feel the need to make a personal speech against racism like the Saranac Lake High School Class of 2020 Major?
I evaluated my data on my card and found two options. I could live around Lake Saranac, which had more positive events than negative, or east of St. Regis Falls, which had no events of any category. I concluded that I could live in a region in turmoil where people are working to become more welcoming. I also realize that more research is needed. Living in beautiful Wanakena while attending Ranger School, I felt safe and loved in a little paradise on Oswegatchie. There may not be a perfect inclusive place in the Adirondacks. My research suggests that there are cities across the region that are being forced to wrestle with their values and make decisions that will positively impact their future in a place I hope to one day call home.
Tamara Jolly is a high school science teacher in Baltimore, Maryland, a graduate of SUNY-ESF Ranger School in Wanakena, and a member of the Adirondack Diversity Initiative.
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This comment first appeared in the January/February 2022 issue of Adirondack Explorer magazine.
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