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SARANAC LAKE, N.Y. - After a challenging and at times controversial start, Nicky Hylton-Paterson said recently she’s finally feeling a sense of belonging as a Black woman in the Adirondacks.
Born in Jamaica and relocating here from the Bronx in 2019, Hylton-Patterson accepted the job as executive director of the state-funded, Adirondack Diversity Initiative in December 2019 and relocated to the village of Saranac Lake, where the program’s office is located. A major goal of the program is to “make the Adirondacks a more welcoming and inclusive place for both residents and visitors.”
Several months into the job, though, she didn’t get that welcoming feeling. But that’s changing, she said recently.
Hylton-Patterson announced in June 2020 she was leaving Saranac Lake because of racist graffiti she spotted in the village that made her feel unsafe. She ended up moving to a nearby community in the Adirondack Park and continued working on her job.
The graffiti was painted on a railroad bridge along her daily running route. It included slurs, expletives and the phrase “Go back to Africa.” Hylton-Patterson said it was a threat to her and the village’s other Black residents. The graffiti was painted over and village police and state officials investigated, but no arrests were made.
Looking back on the racist graffiti incident a year later, she says emphatically that “it didn’t slow me down.”
“There’s people out there who still think that I’ve left. I didn’t go anywhere. Actually, I dug down,” she said. “Think they’re going to run me out? No. The Adirondacks belongs to all of us.”
Her program’s “Year-End Report” filed in March notes a laundry list of accomplishments with more anticipated. But among the most memorable things of the past 18 months, she said, are the positive interactions with people and the support and changes she’s seen. One incident involved a local liquor store.
Hylton-Patterson said she likes to drink Wray and Nephew white rum, which is made in Jamaica. She went into the Saranac Wine and Liquor store and the owner ordered some. “The dude ordered (a bottle) that was very big for me, bigger than I’ve ever seen. Twice.”
The third time she came in, the owner walked her over to an aisle to show her. There were 12 bottles of Wray and Nephew on the shelf.
He said, ‘Don’t worry, you’re a member of our community so we’re going to stock it,” she said.
She asked if anyone else drinks it. He replied, “Nope, but you do so we’re going to make sure we have some for sale for you.’
“My God. I wanted to cry, because that’s what belonging looks like,” she said.
Hylton-Patterson said her program is striving to bring diversity, equity and inclusion to the Adirondacks. “But (those things are) only a bridge to belonging. When we feel like we belong, we have arrived,” she said.
She currently has two staff members (one full-time and one part-time), a core group of 15 volunteers and an estimated group of supporters numbering around 100 -- in addition to receiving support and in-kind services from some 40 local organizations, businesses and colleges. Her program’s funding ($250,000 annually) has been approved for three more years.
It’s been a trying time with the Covid-19 pandemic, coupled with the eruption of Black Lives matters protests following the murder of George Floyd. The Adirondack Park in places has seen the flying of Confederate flags. One community, Tupper Lake, last year debated banning them, but that decided against it, citing freedom of speech rights.
During a recent interview, Hylton-Patterson related continued enthusiasm and good feelings about working and living in the Adirondacks. She has embraced the outdoors, trying many activities out for the first time in her life.
An avid runner, she said she tries to keep in shape. She strives to get out hiking every week – even in the dead of winter.
She’s been out snowmobiling, ridden a fat bike in the snow. She recently completed the Saranac Lake 6er hiking challenge, and is looking forward to completing the Lake Placid 9 and eventually the Adirondack 46.
“I can’t swim, but with the help of friends I’ve been safely doing a lot of canoeing,” she said. “I’ve camped twice. My core team bought me a pair of binoculars because I love bird watching. This is like the heaven of birds. Right? I’ve gone bird watching and cataloguing (what I’ve seen).”
She is particularly proud of recently completing the Saranac Lake 6er hiking challenge, which traditionally ends with ringing a bell in downtown Saranac Lake to announce her accomplishment. She range the bell and looks forward to receiving her patch.
“I completed it in the middle of a thunderstorm,” she said. “I was slipping on my butt (in places), climbing with my nails and hands. It was freakin’ fabulous. You should have seen me. I was like a dirty kid when I came off that hill.”
She said she moved out of the Saranac Lake area to a place that was “less crowded.”
“I wanted to be closer to people who supported me. I now have people right across the road I can call, reach out to right away if I had an emergency,” she said.
Prior to moving out of Saranac Lake, she said the entire staff at the Adirondack North County Association (the office where the Adirondack Diversity Initiative works out of in downtown Saranac Lake) “surrounded me.”
“Like a front and rear guard,” she said. “They put together a rotation. My co-workers and volunteers put down a rotation to watch my house until I moved. They gave me the spread sheet. There was not a minute that someone wasn’t there watching my house during the two weeks before I left.”
And she said she was impressed by the support she encountered – and continues to receive -- on the street.
“Afterward, as I was walking through the town, you could see some faces that were upset because I brought…I kind of exposed their little town. But people were coming to me and saying, ‘We support you. We hear you.’ Right on the street!”
Along with the liquor store incident, she related an additional anecdote involving the Walgreens Drug Store in the village. She told about how she walked in the store one day to buy some hair dye and noticed “I couldn’t find anything with a Black person on the cover of the package.”
“I’m just saying my hair is different,” she said. “The manager was right there so I said, ‘Even if you had one (product with a woman of color on it) and I picked it up, another Black woman is going to come in here and see there’s not one that looks like her.
“Then, the next week I came in and there was an entire (new) row of products. I am not kidding you.”
Hylton-Patterson concedes changing an entire region’s attitude about race and inclusiveness doesn’t happen overnight. She’s experienced some setbacks and anticipates more to come.
“I tell people every day this work takes discipline, consistency and lots of patience,” she said. “Patience with yourself and patience with the community. Even when 100 people come together (and they’re working for the same thing), we have to be prepared for the pitfalls.
“But we know that what we’re doing is good. It’s about justice. It’s about love and it will come to pass. We just have to be patient and never give up.”
Among the Adirondack Diversity Initiative 2020-2021 accomplishments/goals:
*A total of 68 online seminars, group discussions, webinars “exploring the intersections of race, class, gender, sexuality, and the environment” in the Adirondacks. The virtual series included: 1) Antiracism 101, 2) The Black Experience in the Adirondacks, 3) Black History in the Adirondacks, and 4) Queer of Color Voices. See the ADI website for more on this.
*Community Policing Initiative: This is the “core component” of ADI’s “Community Wellness” effort. ADI has contracted with RENZ Consulting, LLC , a firm that specializes in strengthening police-community relations at the state and local level and within urban or rural settings. Adirondack agencies being trained this spring include NY State Police, Lake Placid Police Department, Essex County Sheriffs, SUNY Potsdam
University Police, Potsdam Police Department. Additional agencies have signed on for the fall 2021 trainings. Total cost of program is estimated to cost $500,000 and $135,000 in private donations has already been raised.
ADI Emerging Stewards Program: This includes teaming up K-12 students from New York City with students up in the Adirondacks for week-long summer exchanges; alternative Adirondack spring breaks for university, college students; welcoming excursion groups from BIPOC (Black-Indigenous People of Color) communities to the Adirondacks that are safe, affirming and promote belonging; establishing a grades K-12 Ranger pipeline to address the lack of Forest Ranger diversity in the state Department of Environmental Conservation. The idea is to create “an entire generation of ADK stewards from BIPOC communities across the state who are invested in the sustainability and longevity of the Adirondack Park.”
The ADI 100 program: The goal is to place 100 “facilitators” in communities across the Adirondack Park. This program will compliment a do-it-yourself, program that ADI is creating for businesses and expected to roll out this summer to help businesses train their employees on racism, inclusion, customer service and other issues.
ADI liaisons in school districts: The goal is to have an ADI liaison on each school board in the Adirondacks by the end of 2021. There are currently two: one on the Saranac Lake School Board; the other, in Lake Placid.
Collaboration with other groups: “Perhaps the strongest expression of ADI’s forward momentum to date are our partners that currently include many of the leading civic, educational, marketing, and environmental groups in the Adirondacks,” according to ADI’s annual report.
“Along with lending their names, input, and feedback, partners agree to provide resources and expertise to ADI projects and programs for which they have an affinity. ADI Partners have assisted with funding, sponsorship, marketing, media, training facilities and more.” Partners include: Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism, SUNY ESF Northern Forest Institute, North County Community College¸ Adirondack Almanack, Adirondack Experience, Adirondack Foundation, Adirondack Mountain Club, Adirondack North Country Gender Alliance, Adirondack Park Institute, North Country School, Adirondack Research Consortium, Cloudsplitter, Common Ground Alliance, Eagle Island Camp, John Brown Lives!, Lake Placid Institute, The Nature Conservancy, Adirondack Chapter, Northern Lights School, Paul Smiths College, Saranac Lake Chamber of Commerce, SUNY Canton, The Wild Center, St. Lawrence University, Adirondack Council, Adirondack North Country Association, Adirondack Wild, Camp Sagamore, Union College, SUNY Potsdam and Clarkson University.
For more, see the Adirondack Diversity Initiative’s Year-End Report.
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