A group of New Hampshire leaders from the private and public sectors met recently to discuss what they see as a challenge for the state: How to attract a diverse workforce.
It was an energetic group of folks, all sitting around circular tables in a conference room in Manchester. Organizers said they were pleased with the large turnout.
Will Arvelo, Director of New Hampshire’s Department of Economic Development was one of several who led the event and he laid out the group’s goals.
“We must collectively create a welcoming and supportive environment,” Arvelo said. “We must also ensure that diversity is inclusive of not just race, ethnicity and gender differences, but of people of diverse religious beliefs, those with disabilities, those in addiction recovery, veterans, older workers and the formerly incarcerated.”
The message at the conference was clear: With very low unemployment and an aging workforce, New Hampshire needs to do everything it can to bring more people of all backgrounds into the state - and create an inclusive atmosphere that will keep them here.
Eversource, the state’s largest energy company, hosted the event. Major employers, including Eastern Bank, the University System of New Hampshire and Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, sent attendees.
“I left that event and we were so pumped,” said JerriAnne Boggis, Executive Director of The Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire, a non-profit that seeks to share the state’s African-American history.
“We were so excited that, wow, we're talking on a full, rounded, inclusive dialogue.,” Boggis said. “People who were really interested in this -- and it’s not changing the state but growing.”
But once the conference was over, that dialogue took an unexpected turn.
National coverage, including a New York Times article with the headline: “New Hampshire, 94 Percent White, Asks: How Do You Diversify a Whole State?” drew a lot of attention to the conference, much of it critical of the notion of racial and ethnic diversity.
Here’s how Tucker Carlson responded to the Times story on his Fox News show.
“According to the New York Times, Americans have an obligation to change their culture to suit foreigners and not the other way around,” Carlson said. “But more than anything, the paper says, the state must become less white, quickly, like the rest of the country.”
There was local pushback as well. A few days after the conference, the Union Leader ran an editorial which said the efforts to diversify the state should be “watched closely” and pondered the effects of “changing New Hampshire’s culture and values.”
Meanwhile, the spokesman for the New Hampshire Department of Education weighed in on social media, writing, “We don't want or need New Hampshire to become any kind of cesspool,” adding, “Diversity for diversity’s sake doesn’t bring us anything.”
What’s more, several attendees from the meeting have received personal threats.
Boggis, who said she had left the meeting excited for what was to come, picked up the phone and heard this from an unknown woman:
“[She said] that I’m trying to kill her white children and she will kill mine before,” said Boggis. “She said that white people are 74 percent of the country and they have more guns than us, so if it’s a race war you’re having then you’re gonna lose because we will kill you.”
Deo Mwano, a motivational speaker and community activist, also received threats after the meeting, including an email saying his efforts were not welcome in the state and “the common person there will not be kind to you in finding out what you are doing.”
Mwano says he sees the backlash as another sign of why this conversation needs to happen.
“And it’s also important to see, we need those business leaders that were involved in this conference to speak up,” Mwano said. “To advocate. And I know a lot of times when stuff like this happens, it intimidates folks.”
Peter McNamara, president of the New Hampshire Automobile Dealers Association, is one of the business leaders who attended the event. “It’s the beginning of a dialogue and I can only hope that people continue to have the discussion rather than react to any sort of single meeting,” McNamara said.
NHPR reached out to many of the other businesses represented at the conference. But most either did not return our calls or declined our request for an interview - including Eversource, which hosted the event.
Still, several people involved with the meeting stress that it was, at its core, an economic development conference.
Rogers Johnson is president of the Seacoast NAACP and the Chair of the Governor’s Council on Diversity and Inclusion. He was a featured speaker at the meeting and says the uproar that has resulted is missing the point.
“There’s an economic purpose behind everything we’re trying to do,” Johnson said. “It gets lost in ‘Oh this is white vs. black, this is affirmative action.’ No, it’s economics.”
But Johnson also said the reaction to the conference illustrates the difficulty Americans have whenever conversations even touch on racial issues.
“They’re all looking at it from one point of view,” Johnson said. “We are so myopic. We’ve got the blinders on. All we look at, all the time, in this country, is race. Everything.”
JeriAnne Boggis of the Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire said it was a week of contrasts for her. Around the time she received that hateful phone call, her group bought a property for its new headquarters in Portsmouth, a building that was once home to enslaved people.
“Bringing all the ancestors' stories in a place that we could tell and creating that, ‘Hey, black people have always been here.’ To go to this, ‘black people, we don’t want you here....” Boggis said.
“So, as much as we have this coming to make it visible, then there’s this trying to make it invisible, you know. As much as we are showing love, there is this showing hate. As much as we’re growing, there’s this wanting to hold it back... It’s America’s story, what’s going on with us. It’s the truth," she added.
Boggis and other attendees said that, while some of the backlash to their meeting has been deeply disheartening, they won’t let it silence the work they’re doing.
Savannah Maher contributed to this story.