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Diversifying The Visitor Base to The Adirondacks: An Interview at The Wild Center with Multicultural Travel News

Monday, Oct 19, 2015

On a recent visit to Upstate New York for The Adirondacks (Outdoors) Challenge, Multicultural Travel News had the opportunity to learn about diversity in the region. Not bio-diversity, though our trip did coincide with Invasive Species Awareness Week.  But how attractions have taken steps to diversify their visitor base and why the State of New York considers diversity a priority.

At a press conference with the Governor, during a chat with tourism officials and a visit to the Natural History Museum of the Adirondacks’ The Wild Center, it became clear that diversity is important to this non-profit organization and indeed to the State.

In an interview, Gavin Landry, Executive Director of Tourism, New York State at Empire State Development, explained how New York has a history of being at the forefront of important issues. “Support of women’s rights, Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Tubman, ‘We had emancipation before Lincoln was born,” he noted. “Not only are we large geographically and rich with tremendous assets,” he noted, “our goal for diversity at the agency (is to) create greater awareness, not only (among) ethnic, but LGBT visitors,” as well.”

(An interview with Ross D. Levi, VP, Marketing Initiatives, including LGBT market outreach, will appear in a later issue of Multicultural Travel News.)

“Make every decision for the 6 to 7 generations to come.” “We need all New Yorkers to care or how else will there be protections for the future.” “This is everyone’s Adirondacks.” Comments we heard consistently throughout the long weekend – any could be slogans reflecting their outlook.

Native American history and heritage is also part of the equation. Adirondack, the word itself, might have been an insult that a Mohawk would have hurled at an Algonquin. You ‘Bark Eater’ would have been the translation, implying they were bad at hunting.

Hillarie Logan-Dechene, Director of Philanthropy at The Wild Center pointed to the Visit Adirondacks website . “The word ‘Adirondack’ originated as a derogatory term given to the Algonquin tribe by neighboring Mohawk, meaning “barkeaters.””

Hillarie Logan-Dechene,
Director of Philanthropy, The Wild Center, Natural History Museum of the Adirondacks

Multicultural Travel News asked Hillarie Logan-Dechene to discuss The Wild Center’s diversity initiatives and goals:

Does The Wild Center have a diversity initiative?

The Wild Center is part of an effort (the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council) that has identified the need to broaden diversity in race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender-identity among the Adirondack region’s residents and visitors.  The Wild Center is committed to the importance of working at diversifying our base.

Why is diversifying your visitor base important?

The Wild Center was created so ALL people and nature can thrive together.  Our mission is to ignite an enduring passion for the Adirondacks, where people and nature can thrive together and set an example for the world.  If, for whatever reason, we only serve a segment of the population, we are not meeting our mission.  In addition, part of the reason The Wild Center exists is to help people develop an appreciation for the Adirondack region, and help maintain it for future generations.  If large segments of our population are not familiar with this place, then they will have no interest in stewarding and preserving what is special about the Adirondacks for those future generations.  It is important that all New Yorkers consider the Adirondacks theirs.

Wild Walk, The Wild Center, Natural History Museum of the Adirondacks

How have the demographics changed?

We have not had an opportunity to formally study the nuances of our changing demographics, but anecdotally we are witnessing a wonderful broadening of the profile of our visitors since the opening of (our latest attraction) Wild Walk on July 4th.  Our visitation is up 400% this year and we are hearing other languages spoken daily, and seeing more ethnic diversity in our guests.  Today for example, I heard Spanish, Russian, Chinese and French spoken in our exhibit and on Wild Walk.

What can visitors see at The Wild Center and Wild Walk?

Opportunities to see, explore, and learn abound at our 54,000-square-foot Center and on our 81-acre campus. A visitor can explore the exhibit halls, meet one of our many animals, watch our swimming river otters, take a woodland walk down to the river Oxbow, canoe the Raquette with a licensed Adirondack guide, or view one of many amazing films produced by The Wild Center. We also feature Planet Adirondack, an exhibit with a giant floating Earth where you can see the planet come alive. (During the) summer, visitors can experience Wild Walk, a chance to walk over the treetops. Wild Walk features a giant spider web suspended above the forest, and an Eagle’s nest at the highest point of Wild Walk. Wild Walk is a brand new feature where visitors can get a truly elevating perspective of the living wild forest and is accessible to people of all ages and abilities.

What are some initiatives you have undertaken already to attract diverse visitors? What are some projects you would like to undertake?
We are actively marketing to a broader base with the help of I Love New York.  They have helped us by using a cross section of media to reach more New Yorkers than ever before.
  • In terms of our educational mission, we would like to serve more inner-city schools.  As a museum based in a rural area, we would like the experience of being in the Adirondacks to be a shared experiences with New York’s youth no matter where they are from; from Brooklyn to Buffalo.
  • We are looking at making our education programs available on distance learning.
  • We hope to work more with partner organizations to convene around issues that are important to our communities.
How is the Wild Center looking to incorporate the “Native American narrative?”

The traditional historical narrative of the Adirondacks had overlooked the history of the native people.  Until very recently, they had been considered just seasonal visitors to the region and not a significant part of the story of the settlement of the region.  To me and many other people, this was a great oversight as there has always been both physical and historical evidence of native people in the region well before white settlement.  The Wild Center, from its opening day has involved the Aquasansne Mohawk in its significant celebrations including its opening day and most recently in the celebration of Wild Walk’s opening.  The Wild Center is interested in exploring a way to give a voice to the native interpretation of our nature exhibits.

A recent New York Times article with the headline, Why are our Parks so White ?, called on Parks to diversify.  How does that dovetail with your mission and goals?

The article in the Times hit home.  The resident population of the Adirondacks is rather monochromatic, but it is a complex story of a mostly rural poor resident popular that is shrinking.  As more and more people move to live in urban and suburban places, small Adirondack towns are losing population base and so the opportunities for a more diverse workforce are more challenging.  However, leaders in the Adirondack have been consciously working on reversing the declining populations for about 7 years (Adirondack Common Ground Alliance) and we have been trying to get infrastructure such as broadband and cell service so people can work remotely in our rural communities. This is making telecommuting more practical and we are starting to see opportunities grow for people who want to live here.  This will, in turn, allow a more diverse work pool to be employed in the region and then when more diverse visitors come to feel more a part of our ecosystem. In terms of The Wild Center’s mission, we want “people and nature to thrive together” and that means having healthy, sustainable well-balanced communities.  Part of this is making sure our communities embrace diversity in our people just as we embrace diversity in nature.

What are the initiatives/projects you are seeking funding for?

The Wild Center
We are seeking funds to attract new more diverse audiences, such as Chinese tourists, diverse millennials from New York and Canada, and also to expand our programing to a broader audience.  For example we have a Youth Climate Program, that has been very successful in the North Country and we would like to offer the program to more high school and college students around the state and around the country. On our wish list, we would like to have webpages that offer both our basic information as well as some key content pages in different languages. We currently have a page in Mandarin information page, and would like to expand the efforts to include pages in Spanish, French, German and Japanese.  In addition to a web presence, we would like to have some on-site translation of our exhibit content available as well. (During a recent)  I Love NY’s first Tourism Sales Mission to China in March… I was delighted to learn that the Mandarin word for beautiful scenery is a combination of the symbols for mountain and water – in the Adirondacks we have both!

Should a corporation of agency wish to help support The Wild Center’s efforts to service a more diverse audience, they can contact Hillarie Logan-Dechene, Director of Philanthropy, The Wild Center, Natural History Museum of the Adirondacks, Tupper Lake, NY, 518-359-7800, ext. 103

By Lisa Skriloff