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‘Does This Unify Us?’ A Manchester Business Owner Responds To 'Divisive Concepts' Legislation

A man sits in front of a screen filled with people on a Zoom call.
Deo Mwano
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Legislation that would determine how the topics of racism and sexism are talked about in publicly funded entities, like schools or businesses with government contracts, is still on the table in New Hampshire. The proposed legislation started as House Bill 544, the so-called “divisive concepts” bill. Some schools, business owners and other community groups have rebuked that legislation. 

All Things Considered host Peter Biello talked with Manchester business owner and community advocate Deo Mwano to talk about the implications of the bill on business and education in New Hampshire. Below is a transcript of their conversation.

Peter Biello: Legislation to police how publicly funded entities, including schools, teach about race and sex has been moving forward in New Hampshire. Versions have appeared in budget proposals put forth by both the House and the Senate, and it first came to public attention as House Bill 544, the so-called "divisive concepts" legislation. The proposals have received criticism from schools, business owners, religious communities, environmental organizations and others. Some business leaders say it could have far reaching implications on how they approach training, recruiting and supporting a diverse workforce. Deo Mwano is a business consultant and community activist based in Manchester. Deo Mwano, thank you very much for speaking with me.

Deo Mwano: No problem, Peter. I'm glad. I'm happy to be here.

Peter Biello: You've done a lot of work advocating for business owners of color in the Manchester area, and you've drawn attention to some of these deeper challenges they face in New Hampshire. What are you hearing from some of them about the potential effects of this legislation?

Deo Mwano: Well, so there's two distinctions, right? So the BIPOC businesses that I've been working with, specifically in terms of helping them find resources and how they're going to move forward, that's the group that's not really talking about this. But the businesses that I work with through my consultant work around diversity, equity and inclusion and culture build and alignment that are based in New Hampshire are definitely talking about it.

Peter Biello: Many businesses in the state depend on a positive reputation and image of New Hampshire for their branding and for their ability to attract and retain a diverse workforce. What impact might this legislation have on that?

Deo Mwano: This is an opportunity for many of these businesses that have kind of stepped up within the last year to actually put their, you know, their words and their mission statement into action. And I think a lot of them are jumping on it.

Peter Biello: So, do you mean that businesses who have publicly said, 'look, we're against HB 544, we're going to sign on to any letter that is protesting it,' are you saying that there's an opportunity for them to do more than just sign on to a statement or make a statement? And if so, what more do you think they should be doing?

Deo Mwano: I think there's definitely an opportunity for them to do more. Right? So I want to acknowledge that it's a good thing that they're making statements, that they're signing their part of letters and they're part of associations that are making statements against this bill. I think that's important. But I also think that in the path in which you take to do this advocacy, to bring this awareness, is very important. Right? So I do think that there's an aspect of it where they can do more and that more is: How do they internalize this issue? Right? What does it actually look like? So giving tangible examples of the negative impact of this bill for their organization, for their employees, for their visibility, for their partners that are outside of New Hampshire, for their business partners or clients that are from diverse [backgrounds], that this bill doesn't look good on. Right? Like, making it more tangible —  I think the more tangible it is, the better that it brings that awareness and how people are aligning with it.

Peter Biello: If this bill becomes law, what impact do you think it will have on efforts to attract more people of color to New Hampshire?

Deo Mwano: I know for sure that people will continue to confront it. I don't think if this bill becomes a law, automatically businesses will stop having these types of trainings or educative opportunity for their employees and for their community.  I don't think it's going to prevent them from doing it. I do think that what it does, though, it does not paint a good picture of our state.

Peter Biello: And in Manchester, where you live, school district leaders have publicly opposed these efforts, the divisive concepts, legislation. And if it's passed, it could end up impacting how teachers are trained and what they are able to teach in the classroom. So, how do you think this could affect your kids and their friends?

Deo Mwano: Oh, it would definitely impact negatively because we're in this crossroad of rediscovering what America is, right, at its fullest. And part of the education institutions is to be able to teach and educate at its face value. So people are able to take that knowledge and figure out what it means for them. So we need this renaissance, right, that's happening right now to continue to happen because it's going to help shift mindsets positively. So, if this restriction is put in place, it makes it a lot easier for certain districts or for certain teachers to not be intentional around how they teach, or it also makes and allows them to get away with, you know, the way that things have been done for so long. So I definitely think that our students today, they need education that's presented at face value. So, "at face value" meaning, not weighted in one side over another. And they need to be able to gather that information in order to make sense of where we came from and where we are now and how we move forward. And I think that's the important part of this. It will be a big missed opportunity holistically, because when we look at American history and how it's been taught, we're already coming from a disadvantaged standpoint because history was only written from a certain point of view. Now, there's an opportunity to change that. And I think it's more than important now to make sure that that inclusivity in the way that things are taught is presented that way.

Peter Biello: If you could talk to the political leaders who are backing this proposal, what would you say to them?

Deo Mwano: The big thing for me is I always start by saying, 'what is your intention?' Right? Your intention is so important. What do you intend to do? And If you have positive [intentions] , how are you allowing those positive intentions to come to life, to manifest? So, that's the big thing that I would ask the legislators who are backing this bill: Does this unify us? Does this accomplish the goal of bringing us all together from learning from one another and moving forward holistically? And if it does not, like everyone who has been opposing this has brought up, then it's your opportunity to evaluate if you want to be in this part of history by endorsing this bill.

Peter Biello: Well, Deo Mwano, thank you very much for speaking with me about this. Really appreciate it.

Deo Mwano: Appreciate it, Peter. Thank you.

Peter Biello: Deo Mwano is a community advocate and business consultant based in Manchester.

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