Five new members joined the governor’s Council on Diversity and Inclusion Tuesday for the body’s first meeting since more than half its members resigned in June, with talks centering on establishing what Chair Ahni Malachi called iteration “2.0.”
At the meeting, members introduced themselves and their backgrounds to each other, reviewed the Council’s 2017 mandate, and held preliminary discussions on potential subcommittees, which could include executive, legislative and community outreach.
“The way I look at it, every year we should be doing something like this. You need to know what you’ve done, what you’re in the process of doing and what future things need to be done. You should, as a body, be introspective,” Malachi said. “(This meeting) being a review, not a bad thing at all.”
In June, 10 members of the council resigned over concerns that a provision in the state budget silences important conversations about race. In their resignation letter, council members wrote the Council had twice requested to speak to Gov. Chris Sununu about the issue, but were not given a meeting. The governor signed the budget with the provision included.
As of Tuesday, thirteen of the 18 designated seats on the council are filled. Of the people of color who previously served on the council, the majority resigned. With the addition of the five new members, there are currently two councillors of color serving on the commission.
The new members on the council are: Karyl Martin, associate general counsel for the University system of New Hampshire; Sean Conner, legislative assistant at the state House of Representatives; Chris Connelly, representing the New Hampshire Sheriff’s Association; Meghan Eckner, Executive Assistant to the Chancellor of the Community College system of New Hampshire; and Adrienne Evans, Executive Director of the New England Institute of Developmental Pediatrics.
Sununu’s legal counsel James Scully now serves as the Council’s liaison to the governor. Scully replaced John Formella, who became Attorney General in March.
The governor formed the Council in 2017 through an Executive Order, which is “the foundation and the motivation” behind the group’s identity as a Council, Malachi said Tuesday.
“Leading this ship, for me, the biggest thing is our responsibility, not only certainly to the citizens of New Hampshire, but our really big responsibility is to line up with what the Executive Order is that created us,” she said.
The order lays out four objectives: to analyze state laws and recommend necessary changes; identify ways the state can contribute to local antidiscrimination efforts; recommend avenues through which the state can work with non-governmental organizations to combat discrimination and advance diversity and inclusion; and recommend revisions to the scope of duties of the Commission for Human Rights.
This is different than the mission statement the previous members of council created.
Malachi, who also serves as executive director of the New Hampshire Commission for Human Rights and has chaired the Council for about seven months, said Tuesday that the mission statement is subject to change.
According to that mission statement, the body’s goal is to “combat inequity, advance diversity and inclusion, and system responsiveness, so that all residents can live free of discrimination.”
“This is what was created previously. We can keep it, we can change it, we can get rid of it and start over. We are a clean slate,” Malachi said. “We all bring our individual strengths, whether it’s professional or personal, we bring that with us. The responsibility is on us to ... come together and agree as a group on how we are moving forward as long as it aligns with what the Executive Order says.”
Malachi added Tuesday that each Council seat has an important, individual role in terms of community engagement.
For example, with the appointment of Evans, Malachi said, a previously unfulfilled recommendation of the Council has now been met: to add a member who has background and experience with the challenges facing people with disabilities.
Evans, who has a family member with autism, also vice chairs the New Hampshire Council on Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Though the council didn’t lay out firm plans for what comes next at Tuesday’s meeting, Malachi said, “My expectation for you all is whatever community you represent, you are the lighthouse for that community.”
“As issues start coming to you or you turn the light on and people can find you — they bring those issues to you and you bring them to us.”
The legislation that prompted the resignations of 10 previous members — commonly known as the “divisive concepts” law — was passed with the state budget in June. The law makes it illegal in New Hampshire to teach in schools or train public employees that someone “is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.”
While the law’s language was recast by the governor and proponents as “freedom from discrimination” in schools and public workplaces, the original bill sought to ban certain “divisive concepts” such as the discussion of critical race theory and white privilege.
“You signed into law a provision that aims to censor conversations essential to advancing equity and inclusion in our state, specifically for those within our public education systems, and all state employees,” the council members wrote in their resignation letter to Sununu. “Given your willingness to sign this damaging provision and make it law, we are no longer able to serve as your advisors.”
In the aftermath of the resignations, Malachi said that the new state law does not limit “important discussions to be had across the state.”
The state released guidance on the law in July for schools and public employers. It clarified that teachers can discuss topics like racism and slavery in class, but parents can remove students from “objectionable” lessons.
Similarly, the guidance states that government programs can conduct trainings designed to improve diversity such as implicit bias training, but cannot “train or advocate that a person or a group is inherently oppressive, superior, inferior racist, or sexist.”
The body’s next meeting is Oct. 26 at 5:30 p.m., at the state Department of Safety building at 33 Hazen Drive in Concord.
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