Black Granite Staters call for more inclusive New Hampshire

Now is the time for systemic change in the workplace, government and community at-large, they say
Deo Mwano

Deo Mwano leads diversity, equity and inclusion trainings for companies nationwide. He grew up in Manchester after fleeing political unrest 20 years ago in what is now the Democratic of Republic of Congo.

Prompted by the death of George Floyd and resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, Granite Staters are expressing renewed vigor in addressing diversity, equity and inclusion in their workplace, community and state government advisory groups.

“With everything that’s been playing out in our communities, companies and organizations are more receptive to bringing trainings to their organizations virtually,” said Deo Mwano, a business consultant in Manchester hired for DEI trainings and one-time speaking events.

Mwano recently led trainings for groups of 250 to nearly 300 people for local recovery centers and Northeast Delta Dental.

Launching a community discussion, “we are all human,” four years ago, Mwano says he comes across people who embrace the concept of being inclusive and open to diversity, “but they don’t really know what that is and what that looks like because they have minimum engagement and interactions with people from other cultures.”

He says the experiences of Black residents and New Hampshire’s demographics demonstrate that point.

Isolating experience

Lisa Carter-Knight moved from New York City to Newburyport, Mass., 20 years ago to work for a company that designed a clothing label for Victoria’s Secret. Soon after, she decided to settle down and raise a family in New Hampshire, where she now runs her firm, Drinkwater Marketing, in Exeter.

Just over the border, Carter-Knight didn’t think of the move beyond the logistics.

Lisa Carter Knight

Lisa Carter-Knight of Drinkwater Marketing in Exeter helps her clients address Black Lives Matter in their marketing because they can no longer overlook it.

But, “I started to see a huge difference between people in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, like whoa, that’s a huge difference,” says Carter-Knight, who soon realized there were many white Granite Staters unfamiliar with people of other backgrounds.

New Hampshire, afterall, is 90% white with 10% people of color — 1.8% identifying as Black or African American, according to U.S. Census estimates. In comparison, Massachusetts residents are 71% white, and 29% are people of color — 9% identifying as Black or African American.

“It’s not about Massachusetts — it’s about Boston and New York, the cities,” says James McKim, the new president of the Manchester NAACP.

The Great Migration of African Americans from 1916 to 1970 led them to jobs in the cities, and the impact of that remains today.

“There’s no metropolitan area [like Blue Hill Avenue in Boston], where the vast majority of the people  who live in that area are people of color,” says Rogers Johnson, president of the Seacoast NAACP, who moved to New Hampshire because “I wanted safety, security, good schools, a nice place for my children to grow up irrespective of the places around me.”

To live in the Granite State, Black residents have to overcome the uncomfortableness of standing out in a crowd, says Rogers.

Standing 6 feet 8 inches, Dwight Davis, president and co-owner of Senior Helpers, based in Stratham, is accustomed to that.

“Having played professional sports [as a first-round draft pick by the Cleveland Cavaliers], it gives you a little bit more of a measure in terms of when people meet you they give you a little bit more, I don’t know if the word is respect or more accommodating, maybe a little more accommodating, because they may be curious of you,” says Davis.

Originally from Houston, Texas, Davis moved to New Hampshire after he met his future wife, Gayle, who is white, and who he gives credit to for developing a trusting community he was able to become a part of.

But not everyone is comfortable being noticeably different.

Whether moving to or growing up in New Hampshire, the lack of a like-minded community can be isolating and has contributed to some residents leaving the state.

“High-skilled people of color [have] found it hard to stay here,” says Mwano, whose pastor connected him at one point with a British doctor of African descent who was recruited to New Hampshire for a job.

The doctor and his family lived in Hopkinton and his children attended Concord Christian Academy. Mwano’s pastor told him the family was debating moving to Atlanta or Houston, where the community was more diverse. “He could get a job pretty much anywhere in the world, and when it felt like it wasn’t a fit, it was easier for him to pick up and leave,” he says.

Even finding basic services in New Hampshire can be difficult.

When Kettia Fenestor opened up Robesteurs Unisex Salon in 2009, she estimates there were only two salons in Manchester that catered to textured hair. That has since grown to about five.

Dwight Davis

“If New Hampshire made itself more openly welcome, I think the state could attract people of diversity,” says Dwight Davis, president and co-owner of Senior Helpers.

“Think of it like this: when you move to a new state you’re like, ‘Oh, now I gotta find a new doctor and I have to find someone to do my hair because I’m starting a new job.’ With African Americans, hair is sooo important to us,” says Fenestor. “That might be on the top 10 list of things we need to find when we move. It’s so important for us to upkeep our image, especially our hair. And working in the corporate world, sometimes you have to look a certain way in order to get the part, so to say.”

Systemic exclusion

Despite finding New Hampshire “fairly welcoming,” Davis mentioned an all-too-familiar experience for African Americans.

“Because you have so many of those small towns and here’s this Black guy driving through the town, whether Stratham or Epping, I’ve been pulled over an inordinate amount of times. Sometimes the basketball thing has come up — it has helped me,” says Davis.

Born in 1949 in the only Black hospital in Houston, Davis personally experienced the “segregated South, where Jim Crow laws were in full effect.”

Basketball led Davis to attend the University of Houston and integrate with people of other cultures who became lifelong friends.

He says New Hampshire is not “scary” like Texas was back then, but other Black business owners see subtle signs of systems that create an unwelcoming environment that discourages diversity.

When the CARES Act funds were first rolled out, many barber shops, restaurants, cleaning services, gas stations and other businesses owned by people of color and immigrants in Manchester were left out, says Mwano, who heard this anecdotally.

He wrote a letter to the governor, signed by business and organizational leaders, about how business owners confused the grant funds of the Main Street program with the Paycheck Protection Program loans.

“The first time the PPP came out, a lot of minority businesses I knew did not apply for PPP,” he says.

Those that did apply saw themselves cast aside as businesses with existing banking relationships or larger bank accounts received the first round of PPP loans, says Mwano.

Mwano stresses there were gaps in the government’s approach to helping businesses, illustrated by how “the SBA put on webinars for minority-owned businesses two and half months after they introduced the PPP and EIDL programs. The minority business community saw this as an afterthought,” read the July 3rd letter.

“I’m saying the information is not getting to some of these folks and some of these folks are not applying for what their white counterparts are,” Mwano explains. “The resources were not being broken down properly to meet people where they were and organizations didn’t have capacity to break it down.”

The Governor had already created a Covid-19 Equity Response Team and released a report on July 12, outlining how it could be more intentional about its outreach to businesses owned by people of color.

“He shouldn’t have even needed to create Covid Equity Reponse Team if he made sure those represented in those [Governor’s Office for Emergency Relief and Recovery] committees in the first place were diverse and of diverse backgrounds,” says Mwano. “The only reason we asked for something separate is because we’ve been left out of it!”

Kettia Fenestor

Kettia Fenestor, owner of Robesteurs Unisex Salon, says the cosmetology exam in New Hampshire does not cover ethnic hair.

Other areas of state government are intentionally or unintentionally excluding people of color.

Fenestor talked about her experience working with DL Roope, an outside consultant hired by the state Board of Barbering, Cosmetology and Esthetics to implement the cosmetology licensing exams.

“At the end of the training I noticed that there was another section of the training manual that tests on ethnic hair. So I asked, ‘Are we gonna go over this portion of the manual,’ and the instructor said, ‘No’,” Fenestor recollects. “They don’t teach any ethnic hair services in the schools, other than relaxer services, which is pretty much removing all of your natural curl to make it straight. He referred me to my state, so I called them and asked them and they said New Hampshire has opted out of testing on ethnic hair because the population wasn’t high enough.”

McKim of the Manchester NAACP says this may be an example of how New Hampshire’s minimalist approach to legislation has unintended consequences. “The state board doesn’t say what you can’t teach,” says McKim.

The Legislature did pass legislation in 2017 that eliminated a licensing requirement for African-style natural hair braiders, which helped the immigrant community earn some cash, acknowledges Fenestor.

Yet, another experience, this time with New Hampshire Employment Security, made an already trying time even harder for Elizabeth Salas Evans.

Salas Evans, president of Cayena Capital Management, an independent financial advisory firm she founded last year in Weare, encountered an issue with the federal algorithm used to determine eligibility for the state-run Pathway to Work program. The program allows individuals to collect unemployment pay for 26 weeks and use that time to work with advisors at the Small Business Development Center to start a business in place of the job search requirement.

Salas Evans — a 15-year finance industry professional who held positions at TD Ameritrade, Fidelity Investments and Charles Schwab —  was told she was eligible to collect unemployment funds but ineligible to participate in Pathway to Work. The algorithm deemed her hirable in the industry despite the fact she experienced harassment and discrimination, working predominately with “aggressive white men.”

“I said, ‘You need to remove the jobs from the companies I resigned from that were perhaps based on the variable of harassment.”

“A lot of that score comes down from what you put down as your career,” said Bruce Ramos, a former NHES employee who handled Salas Evans’s case but said he did not remember her. “I don’t think the reason why you quit is taken into the algorithm at all.”

If there are jobs available in the client’s career field, the algorithm will determine the client is ineligible for Pathway to Work, he says.

“For us counselors, we see people it might be a good deal for them or [good business idea for] New Hampshire, but the way the law is written, they’re flat out denied,” said Ramos, who thinks the law could use some updating since it was adopted 10 years ago.

NHES does have an appeals department, and Ramos said his supervior at NHES did make exceptions, wanting to give some people the opportunity.

“I spent a lot of hours prepping for two appeals and they said it was just based on the algorithm and, as we know, algorithms don’t make decisions,” says Salas Evans, who was also told the outcome was “maybe for the best.”

Esevans Jwh 9770

Elizabeth Salas Evans, a 15-year finance industry professional, encountered barriers in her industry and with NHES as she sought to form Cayena Capital.

“Just because you’re using variables doesn’t mean they’re unbiased, and they can be manipulated all the time to create various outcomes,” she says.

Salas Evans was further dismayed when she had no luck with the Job Match System search engine and found she was not being taken seriously when she physically met with job coaches.

“When I say I pick stocks, they laugh,” Salas Evans says of her first impressions with NHES and other people in the state. “I’m legally bonded, fully licensed, 15 years of experience.”

The problem, says Salas Evans, is she does not look like the traditional money manager on Wall Street.

“The norm and the bias and systemic racism says that’s not me, and it ends up not being this individual person discriminating against me — the system has created a situation where to them the banker is this white man named John that has a wife and three kids and isn’t this Black woman from New Hampshire,” says Salas Evans. “It’s all of these biases that work against minorities because of the systemic racism that exists.”

Salas Evans was forced to search full-time for a job she never found, but she did start her business.

Intentional inclusion

Jerrianne Boggis Headshot

JerriAnne Boggis, of the Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire, has been uncovering Black history around the state.

Black business and community leaders think New Hampshire can be more intentional about fostering diversity, looking to our combined history and the future.

“We talk about New Hampshire as one of the whitest states in the union, and when people talk about the state they don’t see it has a Black population or African American history here,” says JerriAnne Boggis, of the Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire.

“I started the Harriet Wilson Project in Milford. In doing that, we saw there was so much more history in the state not known, so we started the Black Heritage Trail in Milford in order to build a more inclusive community,” says Boggis. “It’s not a matter of highlighting this history but how does knowing that history affect our knowledge of ourselves as people and a state and how did that bring us to where we are now and how can we look at our history to live up to the promise that is America — an inclusive and welcoming place.”

McKim of the Manchester NAACP is seeing some promising signs.

The Manchester NAACP is working with the Greater Manchester Chamber on an informational platform that will be available to business owners that can’t afford membership.

The Education Committee of the NAACP has been regularly meeting with a sub-committee of the Manchester School Board “to talk about the policies and procedures that need to be evaluated with a diverse lens and recommending improvements in the school district.”

Just the other day, McKim spoke with the new superintendent in Concord to discuss a committee looking at the Social Studies curriculum, “wanting to review it with an eye toward diversity.”

And membership to the Manchester NAACP has doubled over the past two months — a majority of members are white, which is often the case for branches in New Hampshire.

Founded in 1919, the national organization focused on the descendants of slaves.

“Today, we use this other term, people of color — we’re trying to be inclusive of all people of color and whites,” say McKim. “It’s still white people who control the levers of power, so our focus is to be inclusive and find solutions everyone can get behind and implement.”

Mwano is hopeful as “some companies reaching out to me want to do some internal reflection and look at their own processes and operational approach.” He sees the conversation for companies shifting past a surface level diversity and inclusion awareness workshop for employees to considering systematic change.

“Some have already identified they could be more diverse and equitable and inclusive because they realize the representation of their workforce and the clients they serve,” says Mwano, noting nonprofit organizations and recovery centers in particular. “What’s been playing out nationally and socially has forced us to reevaluate ourselves and we want to do better.”

Promoting an inclusive community would work to the benefit of employers anticipating a coming decline in New Hamphire’s dwindling workforce, as baby boomers retire.

“If New Hampshire made itself more openly welcoming, I think the state could attract people of diversity,” says Davis, who thinks the state could develop a marketing plan.

“Since I’ve been here, I’ve heard some lip service from certain politicans about it,” says Davis. “I’d like to be part of the discussion.”

Liisa Rajala can be reached at lrajala@nhbr.com.

Categories: News
Comments