10 members of Governor’s Advisory Council on Diversity and Inclusion resign, citing budget language

By: - June 29, 2021 12:15 pm
A protester holds a neon green sign with black letters reading "I can't breathe" following the death of George Floyd.

Democrats and civil rights advocates say the “divisive concepts” language in the budget would stifle discussions in classrooms and state workplaces about systemic oppression, a topic brought to recent prominence by a string of demonstrations and protests in 2020 following the death of George Floyd and other Black Americans at the hands of police. Here, demonstrators hold signs during a protest on May 31, 2020, in Kansas City, Missouri. (Jamie Squire | Getty Images)

More than half of the members of Gov. Chris Sununu’s Advisory Council on Diversity and Inclusion resigned Tuesday, citing the governor’s signature of a budget that regulates public school teaching around structural racism and implicit bias. 

In a letter sent to Sununu, 10 members of the council said they would be resigning their positions from the advisory board, which was formed by Sununu in 2017. 

“Governor, we feel obligated to inform you that – contrary to your recent public statements – systemic racism does in fact exist here in New Hampshire,” the members wrote in their letter, which was made public by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire. “You appointed us to explore these issues, and we have reported our findings to you in detail every step of the way.”

Sununu fired back Tuesday morning, issuing a statement calling the letter a “politically charged” move led by the ACLU. And he said the council would continue its work with newly appointed members.

In the letter, members added their disappointment that Sununu had supported and signed legislation that critics say would bar public school teachers and state employees from teaching that white privilege and other forms of structural bias definitively exist in modern society.

That language – previously referred to as the “divisive concepts” bill – was added to the state budget by the Legislature and signed into law by Sununu on June 25. 

The legislation would prohibit public school teachers from teaching that anyone of any race, gender, or protected class is “inherently superior” to someone of another class, or that an individual in any protected class is “inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.”

And it would allow public employees to opt out of professional trainings that taught the same concepts. 

Republican proponents have said the legislation is meant to stop the encroachment of “critical race theory” – the academic concept that structural and historical racism persist in modern society. And they have said the language is broadly worded to cover all races and classes. 

But Democrats and civil rights advocates say the language would stifle discussions in classrooms and state workplaces about systemic oppression, a topic brought to recent prominence by a string of demonstrations and protests in 2020 following the death of George Floyd and other Black Americans at the hands of police.

The language signed into law allows parents to sue school districts for instruction that violates the law, and allows the State Board of Education to discipline teachers who breach the new guidelines. 

The Council on Diversity and Inclusion had met in early June to express frustration with the legislation. That meeting led the council to send a letter urging Sununu to push to remove the “divisive concepts” language from the budget, a move that was supported by the commissioner of the Department of Safety

Sununu had opposed the original House-proposed version of the legislation, which banned the teaching of a number of “divisive concepts.” But in the later stages of the budget process, the governor came out in support of a Senate version that removed the words “divisive concepts” and added the teaching ban to the state’s diversity laws. 

In their resignation letter, the 10 members cited their failure to change Sununu’s mind as a reason behind their departure. 

“The council has continuously worked to deliver to you our findings, sent you our opinion that this would weaken – not strengthen – the state’s anti-discrimination laws, and urged you to oppose this provision,” the members wrote, referring to the “divisive concepts” legislation. “Your disregard of this work makes clear that we are no longer able to fulfill the council’s mandate.”

Responding to the letter, Sununu called it a political stunt.

“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.”

Created by executive order in 2017, the Governor’s Advisory Council on Diversity and Inclusion was meant to address a period of high tension, shortly after a 9-year-old biracial boy in Claremont said he had been pushed off a picnic table by his peers with a noose around his neck. The council accompanied Sununu’s creation of the Civil Rights Unit in the Department of Justice to investigate alleged civil rights violations. 

In his statement Tuesday addressing the resignations, Sununu said that the council had already been going through a “transition period” since the death of Rogers Johnson, the former president of the Seacoast NAACP, in November. 

“Some members had already indicated to our office that they were already planning to move on after the first few years, and we wish them well and thank them for their great work,” Sununu said.

Those who resigned were Dr. Dottie Morris, the associate vice president for institutional diversity and equity at Keene State College; ACLU Executive Director Devon Chaffee; Families in Transition President Maria Devlin; college career coach Sharon Harris; Rep. James Maggiore, a North Hampton Democrat; Dr. Salman Malik, an oral surgeon; Oyster River Cooperative School District Superintendent Dr. James Morse; Pawn Nitichan, executive director of City Year New Hampshire; Cheshire County Sheriff Eliezer Rivera; and Allyson Ryder, program manager for the University of New Hampshire Office of Community, Equity, and Diversity. 

The resignations leave behind seven members on the council, many of them members of Sununu’s administration.

Those remaining include Ahni Malachi, executive director of the New Hampshire Commission for Human Rights; Assistant Attorney General Sean Locke, who heads the state’s Civil Rights Unit; Commissioner Robert Quinn of the Department of Safety; Jeremy Denlea; Hanover Police Chief Charlie Dennis, the former president of the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police; Associate Commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services Ann Landry; and Marianne Rechy, the classification and compensation administrator at the Department of Administrative Services. 

Malachi, the council chairwoman, holds a unique position: As the head of the Commission for Human Rights, she leads the agency that will be responsible for adjudicating some of the claims brought under the new laws about teaching in the classroom and public workplaces. At its June 1 meeting, some members of the council had objected to Malachi’s role as the council chairwoman and head of the commission, arguing it was a conflict of interest. 

Sununu said his office would move to fill the vacancies.

“There are many individuals who have expressed a willingness to join these efforts as we come out of the pandemic, and we have already started filling these vacancies with representatives from all walks of life,” Sununu said.

The ACLU, for its part, said in a statement Tuesday that it would carry out the diversity inclusion efforts “separate from the council.”

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Ethan DeWitt
Ethan DeWitt

Ethan DeWitt is the New Hampshire Bulletin’s education reporter. Previously, he worked as the New Hampshire State House reporter for the Concord Monitor, covering the state, the Legislature, and the New Hampshire presidential primary. A Westmoreland native, Ethan started his career as the politics and health care reporter at the Keene Sentinel. Email: [email protected]