Governor’s diversity council: Some in N.H. feel unwelcome, unrepresented

  • The State House dome as seen on March 5, 2016. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) ELIZABETH FRANTZ

Associated Press
Thursday, June 07, 2018

A newly formed panel intended to improve New Hampshire’s diversity released its first recommendations Thursday, urging legislators to review the holidays the state observes and continue updating its nondiscrimination statutes to include gender identity.

Following a series of meetings, the Governor’s Advisory Council on Diversity and Inclusion issued a preliminary report that said some residents complained New Hampshire fails to acknowledge or celebrate identities and cultural events for some racial and ethnic groups.

For example, it noted that the state doesn’t recognize Juneteenth, which marks the end of slavery in the United States. The advisory council said most states acknowledge Juneteenth in some way, either as a holiday, day of observance or through ceremonies.

The council said community members have been less inclined to discuss gender identity, sexual orientation and religious beliefs, and its meetings have not encompassed those issues, which it had hoped to discuss. It said it plans to hold online discussions and meet with specific groups.

“Discussions at the listening sessions to date have tended to center on race and immigration, which are undoubtedly important topics, but do not comprise the entirety of the council’s charge,” the report said.

Another recommendation was to include gender identity as a protected class in several anti-discrimination statutes. In March, the Legislature voted to expand New Hampshire antidiscrimination law to include transgender people, but there are several statutes that do not expressly mention gender identity, according to the report.

Thursday’s recommendations come out of a series of listening sessions held with residents in recent months; the commission has met three times since December, in Durham, Portsmouth and Claremont, according to the report. Attendance varied from 80 to 20 people, the report said.

The goal of the sessions was simple: to hear any experiences of discrimination and bias-driven behavior in New Hampshire and to take in suggested solutions.

Some participants cited positive relationships with the state, praising the openness of neighbors and politicians alike. But others harbored strong concerns over how welcoming the state is for minorities.

“Specifically, participants commented that the State fails to sufficiently acknowledge, accept, and celebrate identities and culturally significant events outside of the dominant culture,” the report said.

According to participants, some of the challenges came from an education system that is “antiquated and lacks diversity and representation,” with some taking issue with curricula that centered too heavily on “the ideas and accomplishments of dominant groups.”

And the report listed other barriers that members of the public said keep young people and minorities away, be they the cost of education or the shortage of affordable housing.

Others said the state’s problems are rooted in general ignorance.

“A number of participants expressed that many New Hampshire residents do not understand the concept of whiteness and the role it plays in systems of oppression,” the report stated.

Established last December, the council is tasked with reviewing everything from the state’s laws to its agency’s policies, as well as recommending ways to kick-start community initiatives to combat discrimination. The group’s formation followed several racial incidents in the past year, including the near hanging of a biracial boy in Claremont.

Among its members are the state’s attorney general; commissioners for the Education, Safety and Health and Human Services departments; university chancellors; the American Civil Liberties Union; and representatives of law enforcement and municipalities. The body also features members of the public appointed by the governor.

The council was charged with finding ways of improving diversity and inclusion. But part of that involved breaking down what those words mean in the first place, the report said.

“Diversity is a set of conscious practices,” that include respecting differences but also recognizing structural discrimination that privileges some at the expense of others, according to the report.

An “inclusive” environment, meanwhile, is one that “requires a willingness to analyze and deconstruct systems and institutions that perpetuate bias,” the report said.

“Inclusion demands a shift in mindset and culture to allow all people to engage as full participants in society,” read another passage.

In a statement, Gov. Chris Sununu did not directly address the recommendations in the preliminary report, and instead thanked the council for its work and praised its overall goal.

“If we really want to be the Live Free or Die state, we must ensure that New Hampshire is a place where every person, regardless of their background, has an equal and full opportunity to pursue their dreams and to make a better life for themselves and their families,” Sununu said.

The commission plans to continue to hold listening sessions in other locations through the summer and fall – including Concord, according to the report. And it hopes to finalize specific recommendations for legislation in the fall and winter, ahead of the 2019 session in January.

(Ethan DeWitt contributed to this report.)