Hundreds gather in Concord to talk about a diversifying New Hampshire

“If you don’t have a seat at the table, you may be on the menu.” – NHCJE’s annual meeting discusses strategies to enhance equity for communities of color in NH

CONCORD, NH — Dwight Davis went straight to the point when he spoke at The Barn at Bull Meadow on the afternoon of Tuesday, April 30.

The New Hampshire Center for Justice and Equity is making it possible to have a seat at the table of decision-making,” said Davis, chair of the NHCJE’s board, to the more than 150 activists, business leaders, educators, labor organizers, and politicians in attendance. “Because if you don’t have a seat at the table, you might be on the menu.”

Davis’ remarks opened the Second Annual Meeting for the NHCJE. Launched in September 2022, NHCJE seeks to elevate and empower people of color in New Hampshire by fostering connections, changing systems, and meeting community needs to make a better Granite State where all belong. In his opening remarks, NHCJE founding President and CEO Anthony Poore made sure to thank all those who contributed toward advancing the center and its goals.

“We have a lot to be thankful for,” he said. “Let’s be clear: This work is hard. We recognize that making progress on these issues will take work.”

He went on to say the work will continue to become more challenging but of crucial importance as New Hampshire’s population continues to diversify. As of the 2020 Census, 13% of the state’s population identified as people of color, the first time this proportion hit double digits in NH in Census history.

Though changing, the Granite State’s long history and narrative of a largely racially homogeneous population means that there will be challenges moving forward in the eyes of many participants.

Poore

“A lot of the culture in New Hampshire is the lack of diversity,” said Jason Green, Deputy Director of the New Hampshire Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), adding that Granite Staters must learn to live with a more diverse population.

In counting off NHCJE’s successes, Poore highlighted NHCJE’s Implicit Bias and Tactical Mindset Training for law enforcement. The program — which has already trained 200 public safety officers in multiple jurisdictions across the state — looks to mitigate the harm caused by racially biased policing. Poore said NHCJE hopes to expand the program and work with more agencies soon.

He added to the list of wins the increasing number of visitors to the NHCJE website, saying that in 2023, there were 15,000 unique visitors from 49 states and about 42,000 page views.

Bringing NHCJE’s Policy Platform to Life

The opening speakers did not allow themselves to go on for too long. They swiftly moved the event toward collaboration and advocacy.

“Who likes to be talked at for three hours?” said Jamal Downey, the event’s MC and NHCJE board member. “Let’s take a minute to look at how [activism] is supposed to work in an ideal setting.”

In that spirit, attendees were split into six groups focused on each of NHCJE’s Sectors of Effort — Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice, Government, Education, Health, Economic Development, and Civic Engagement. The groups were encouraged to discuss NHCJE’s Policy Platform, exploring the strengths, weaknesses, and blind spots of each pillar.

The Law Enforcement & Criminal Justice table had a particularly lively conversation focused on the availability of demographic incarceration data, re-entry after leaving prison, and combatting stigma.

Lett

“What’s missing [from the policy platform] is recognition of an omnipresent stigma,” said Anna Adachi-Mejia, a coach, founder of Adachi Labs, LLC, and activist for prisoner reintegration. “Stigma applies to everything.”

Jason Green of the New Hampshire ACLU added that stigma directed at returning prisoners from the general public is not the only type of stigma that needs to be addressed. “Stigma is not just external,” he said. “It’s about feeling worthy and about dignity.”

The group agreed with the NHCJE Policy Platform in its call for greater detail from authorities in reporting the demographics of their incarcerated populations in the hope it may reveal the information needed to help create programs for issues like reintegration into society.

“Thinking about data is nuanced,” said Adachi-Mejia. “But it helps to understand which pathways are associated with different experiences.”

In the ensuing discussion between all groups, it became clear that all present needed to look at the big picture because all the issues NHCJE hopes to confront are connected.

“We can’t afford to not take a systems approach to our problems here,” said Woullard Lett, Education Chair of the Manchester Chapter of the NAACP.

Taking Stock 

Afterward, the groups reconvened for panel discussions about policy activism and government.

The first panel focused on efforts to make permanent the Medicaid Expansion under the Affordable Care Act and combating the 2021 Divisive Concepts Law.

“We defended some things that were very good,” said Josephine ‘Jo’ Porter, panel moderator and Chief Strategy Officer at NHCJE. “And we went after some things that were very bad.”

Brian Hawkins, Director of Government Relations for the National Education Association’s NH chapter, spoke about the fight against HB544 — the Divisive Concepts Law. The law, now in effect in the Granite State was passed despite overwhelming public testimony in opposition during the 2021 legislative session.

“As much as we think of ourselves as a homogeneous state, we are diversifying,” Hawkins said.  He added the law’s vagueness effectively stopped many classroom conversations about issues of identity.

“That is the point,” Hawkins said. “The point is to write something so vague that it would chill discussion in the classroom.”

Hawkins added that, at first, they thought there was no chance the bill could pass, but events quickly dispelled that notion.

Vásquez

“So, what can we do?” asked Lisa Vásquez, a Behavioral Health Strategist at the City of Nashua’s Division of Public Health, in response to Hawkins’s presentation. “What else could have been done to prevent that from becoming a law?”

“By taking even the things that are really out there seriously,” Hawkins responded. “You have to take it all seriously now.”

Jake Berry, the Vice President of Policy at New Futures, Inc., a public health advocacy non-profit, followed with a talk about the successful push for continuing Medicaid Expansion.

Initially passed as part of the Affordable Care Act in 2010, Medicaid Expansion means that those with incomes 138% or more below the Federal Poverty Line can access the program for low-income Americans.

Berry said that, though it faced considerable opposition in the state, the secret to their success was building a coalition of advocates for children, the elderly, veterans, the impoverished, businesses, and others.

“This is a multi-year process,” Berry said. “We have to keep our heads up and keep going forward.”

Effective Lobbying

The day’s second panel featured Jim Monahan, Managing Partner for government relations firm The Dupont Group; Abigail Rogers, Legislative Liaison for the Division of Public Health at the NH Department of Health and Human Services; and NH House of Representatives Minority Leader Rep. Matthew Wilhelm, D-Manchester.

Moderator Ben Frost, the Deputy Executive Director at New Hampshire Housing, opened the panel with a question about handling diverse viewpoints in the General Court.

“I feel like I learn every day more and more how to do that,” Wilhelm said. Wilhelm continued that one of the biggest difficulties in getting progressive change through the General Court was the constitutionally mandated pay rate for legislators of $100 a year.

Wilhelm

Wilhelm said the pay rate means the legislature tends to skew towards older and wealthier individuals. With the size of the legislature (over 400 legislators) and frequent turn-over of many legislators “because of that, change moves a little slow”.

Frost later asked when it would be best to contact a department head directly rather than a legislator. Rogers said legislative agency leaders can help develop strategies to tackle New Hampshire’s social issues.

“We’re subject matter experts,” said Rogers, adding that contacts in the General Court were necessary too, since many decisions come down to the availability of funds.

Frost then asked Monahan — a lobbyist — for his thoughts. He recommended that those gathered take advantage of election season and invite legislative candidates to visit their respective organizations to give them an idea of what the group is about. In this way, he said, they could build relationships for change.

Building on that concept, Wilhelm emphasized the role of clarity in effective advocacy.

“We need to be clear about our values,” he said. “About where we can compromise and where the line is.”

Vásquez, from the audience, noted the session passed on some important lessons about NHCJE’s chief mission, elevating marginalized voices.

“I think it’s important to highlight [marginalized] voices because of the lack of diversity at our state house,” she said. “We need to make it clear that lifting people up doesn’t mean pushing someone else down.”

That was exactly the type of takeaway Poore hoped for.

“We recognize progress on our public policy priorities will require a sustained and consistent focus as well as collaboration and cooperation across a myriad of sectors, geographies, and interests,” he said. “NHCJE stands prepared to lead when necessary and offer support when that is the best approach.

We look forward to sharing the results of our collective efforts soon.”