More than half of the state’s Council on Diversity and Inclusion abruptly resigned Tuesday, citing concerns that the state budget signed into law by Governor Chris Sununu silences important conversations about race.
It is now 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 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. “Given your willingness to sign this damaging provision and make it law, we are no longer able to serve as your advisors.”
Ten of the Council’s 17 members stepped down, writing that “it should not be taken lightly that nearly every member of the Council that is not part of your administration is resigning today.”
“This budget language is designed to hide, obscure, and deny racism, prejudice, and discrimination of many kinds,” said James Morse, Oyster River Cooperative School District Superintendent. “If we are to grow as a state and community, we must recognize our past and learn from it—not hide New Hampshire’s difficult history from our schools, institutions, and workplaces.”
The Council, which advises the governor, had twice sent letters to Sununu to express its “grave concerns” with the legislation and to request a meeting with him.
“Although we are resigning from the Council today, we are committed to this work and to uplifting the many voices, stories, and experiences we have heard,” said Dr. Salman Malik, a Littleton cardiologist. “We remain open to new ideas, to a future meeting with Governor Sununu, and to do whatever it takes to create the change we have been working so passionately toward.”
One of the organizations pushing back against the New Hampshire legislation, which was largely modeled after an executive order by former President Donald Trump, was the ACLU of New Hampshire. It’s executive director, Devon Chaffee, was one of the council members to resign.
In a statement Tuesday, Sununu dismissed the resignations as political moves.
“It is unfortunate that the ACLU has tried to insert politics into an otherwise fruitful mission in addressing many issues of race and discrimination in our state,” Sununu said. “These politically-charged actions will not deter the Council from advancing the good work they’ve accomplished and help move forward New Hampshire’s efforts around messaging, training programs and diversity in the workplace.”
Sununu said the Council has long been undergoing a transition period through the COVID-19 crisis and the death of former Chair Rogers Johnson, and some members had already indicated they were planning to move on.
Sununu added his administration is currently working to fill the vacancies “with representatives from all walks of life.”
Chaffee said teachers across the state are already feeling the legislation’s impact, while civil rights leaders, business owners and educators had all made their concerns “overwhelmingly clear.”
“Over three years, the Council has listened to Granite Staters in dozens of communities, and the people who shared their stories made clear there is much work to do,” Chaffee said in a statement. “We resign today not to stop this critically important work, but to recommit and strengthen our resolve to build an equitable and inclusive New Hampshire.”
First established through a 2017 Executive Order, the Council was formed to “combat inequity, advance diversity and inclusion, and system responsiveness, so that all residents can live free of discrimination,” according to its mission statement.
The Council members who resigned said the “divisive concepts” language is in direct conflict with its mission.
“As a state, we must listen to all voices and put in the very real work to create the better future we all envision,” said Dottie Morris, the chief officer of diversity and multiculturalism at Keene State College and former Vice Chair of the Council. “The ‘divisive concepts’ language signed by Governor Sununu sets us back in this mission, and so we must continue that work using other avenues to create an equitable, diverse, open, and inclusive for all our children."
Ahni Malachi, the Council Chair and Executive Director of the New Hampshire Commission for Human Rights, said the new state law should not limit "the important discussions to be had across the state," adding that she is saddened by the resignations.
“I will be meeting with Attorney General John Formella and the Department of Justice to discuss the development of guidance for state agencies and others that makes clear that this legislation will not prohibit necessary conversations and advocacy on issues related to diversity and inclusion," she said. “I have immensely enjoyed the work we have done as a council, and look forward to the work ahead as we come together towards a common goal of a more kind and understanding New Hampshire.”
Earlier this month, members of the governor’s Commission on Law Enforcement Accountability, Community and Transparency or LEACT also requested an emergency meeting to discuss the “divisive concepts” legislation.
That request was shot down by Formella — who helped draft the language — responding that the matter was not within the commission’s purview.
New Hampshire is one of 26 states that have introduced bills that would restrict teaching critical race theory or limit how teachers can discuss racism and sexism, according to a recent analysis by Education Weekly. Nine states have enacted these prohibitions, either through legislation or other avenues, including Idaho, Iowa, Oklahoma and Tennessee.
These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative as part of our race and equity project. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.