Most diversity council members resign over governor signing ‘divisive concepts’ legislation

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New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu announces an executive order establishing a Governor’s Advisory Council on Diversity and Inclusion and the formation of a new Civil Rights Unit in Concord, N.H., on Dec. 14, 2017. With him are Assistant Attorney General Elizabeth Lahey, left, Attorney General Gordon MacDonald and New Hampshire NAACP State Coordinator Rogers Johnson. Photo/Valley News – Jennifer Hauck

CONCORD, NH – Ten of the 18 members of the Governor’s Advisory Council on Diversity and Inclusion resigned Tuesday in a letter to Gov. Chris Sununu over his decision to sign into law controversial legislation that is aimed at banning the use of Critical Race Theory in classrooms and government-sponsored diversity and inclusion training. [See letter below.]

Sununu signed the budget into law, with the language included, on Friday.

The so-called “divisive concepts” legislation was included in the state budget trailer bill and amended by the Senate to a form that met with Sununu and Attorney General John Formella’s approval. 

The former council members who resigned in protest say the new law will “censor conversations essential to advancing equity and inclusion in our state” but Sununu and Formella say that’s not so. 

In response to the resignations, Sununu issued a statement downplaying the move, and accusing the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire of orchestrating the exodus in an attempt to politicize the issue.

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.”

ACLU-NH Executive Director Devon Chaffee, who is one of the former council members who resigned, said the assertion that the ACLU was the architect of the resignations is false, and that it undermines the diverse voices on the council.

“That allegation is simply not true,” Chaffee said.

She said other council members were already discussing the idea of resigning and brought in Chaffee at a later date. 

Sununu said many of the members who resigned had already indicated an interest in stepping down after their first few years, and that some of the vacancies are already being filled. 

The council is made up of community leaders and government employees. From her perspective, Chaffee said there was no schism on the council, but noted that the 10 members who resigned represent nearly all of the members who are not directly employed by the state.

Council Chair Ahni Malachi apparently changed her position. In a June 2 letter sent to the governor, the council expressed grave concerns with the language of the bill as amended by the Senate, for its perceived potential to stifle discussions about racism and chill implicit bias training for fear of litigation.

Chaffee said Malachi voted in favor of and signed the letter at their May 25 meeting. During that meeting, Chaffee said she asked Malachi if she believed the language would prohibit implicit bias training, and her answer, as Chaffee recalls, was that she did not know.

But on Tuesday, Malachi issued her own statement, provided by the governor’s office, apparently agreeing with the governor’s interpretation of the legislation.

“Despite some misinformation out there, the new language placed as a budget amendment does not place a limit on the important discussions to be had across the state, and this new language took out the phrase ‘divisive concepts’ as it worked its way through the legislative process,” Malachi said.

On Wednesday Malachi reinforced her position with the following statement:

“When votes take place, the council votes as a whole – whether to write a communication or not. As chair, my job is to support the will of the council, which has been done at every turn. Even in providing support for the members that chose to relinquish their seat at the table on Monday. In reading the finalized language in HB2, my statement on Monday is the same today,” Malachi said in a written response to Manchester Ink Link.

Malachi is the Executive Director of the NH Commission for Human Rights, which is a state agency. She reports to commissioners who are appointed by the governor.

Malachi said the important work of enhancing our understanding of each other, from a cultural and ethnic perspective, is being championed by the governor and the diversity council. 

Sununu created the council by executive order in 2017.

Malachi was named chair after the death last November of Rogers Johnson, who was the president of the Seacoast NAACP.

The language in the new law would prohibit state-funded training that teaches an “individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.” 

The administration, and Republicans in the State House who drafted it, said it’s a common-sense enhancement of the state’s discrimination laws. But advocates of the law, such as Adam Waldeck of 1776 Action, said it was intended to restrict the use of a controversial study of systemic racism known as Critical Race Theory, which is not named in the law.

While it has become a lightning rod issue among conservatives, opponents of the law say it is simply the name of a relatively benign body of academia that seeks to explain why racial disparities continue to exist in the U.S., and that it is mischaracterized as anti-White by people who are not comfortable having those conversations. 

Chaffee said even if the law doesn’t outright ban ideas from Critical Race Theory, or implicit bias in general, it introduces enough legal ambiguity that disgruntled parents can sue their school districts or state employees their employers, if they feel diversity and inclusion training is discriminating against them.

“These are concepts that six months ago would not have been at all controversial, would not have been at all partisan, but are now front and center,” Chaffee said.

The new law is expected to face a first-amendment challenge in the courts. 

Sununu made statements earlier in the year that he did not believe systemic racism is a problem in New Hampshire. The resigned council members took issue with that.

“Governor, we feel obligated to inform you that — contrary to your recent public statements — systemic racism does in fact exist here in New Hampshire.”

They said the only way to serve all Granite Staters is to acknowledge what is true for some of the citizens, many of whom shared stories of racial discrimination to the council. But they said the governor ignored their recent letters expressing concern about the legislation, and urging Sununu to oppose the provision. 

“Your disregard of this work makes clear that we are no longer able to fulfill the Council’s mandate,” the letter states. 

The letter was signed by Chaffee, Dr. Dottie Morris,Maria Devlin, Sharon Harris, James Maggiore, Dr. Salman Malik, Dr. James Morse, Pawn Nitichan, Sheriff Eliezer Rivera and Allyson Ryder.

Below are some of their individual statements, shared via the ACLU-NH.


Morris

Dr. Dottie Morris, former Vice Chair of the Council, said, “As Council members, we listened as Granite Staters told us about some of the most painful moments of their lives, and how that lived experience impacts them in their communities every day. As a state, we must listen to all voices and put in the very real work to create the better future we all envision. 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.”


Chaffee

Devon Chaffee, Executive Director for the ACLU of New Hampshire, said, “Civil rights leaders, business owners, and educators all made overwhelmingly clear that this provision would harm New Hampshire. Our deepest concern for teachers is that they are already feeling the impact of this legislation, while simultaneously enduring the latest attacks we are seeing on school boards across the state. 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. 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.”


Devlin

Maria Devlin, President and CEO of Families in Transition, said, “As Council members, we heard many Granite Staters tell us about their personal experiences with discrimination of all kinds right here in New Hampshire. Some were told they weren’t wanted here, or told to ‘go home.’ We have so much work to do as a state to reckon with the past, because a New Hampshire with this discrimination is not a New Hampshire I want to live in. My organization is working internally on our diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts to ensure it is a place where diversity is welcomed and we are aware of systemic barriers. New Hampshire should follow suit in similar efforts—not ban them.”


Harris

Sharon Harris, Owner of Partnered Success, said, “Honest and robust discussions on significant, often uncomfortable issues such as racism, sexism, and ableism are critically important to building a better future for New Hampshire. With Governor Sununu’s signature on the ‘divisive concepts’ language, it is clear that we must recommit ourselves wholeheartedly to those efforts beyond his Advisory Council and continue to fight for the voices and lived experiences we heard while part of it.”


Dr. Salman Malik said, “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. 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.”


Morse

Dr. James Morse, Oyster River Cooperative School District Superintendent, said, “This budget language is designed to hide, obscure, and deny racism, prejudice, and discrimination of many kinds. 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. Governor Sununu’s signing of this language makes clear we must work hard in other ways to combat racism, sexism, and discrimination in the Granite State—separate from the Governor’s Advisory Council.