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'Whiteness' workshop draws fire

New Hampshire Union Leader

January 14. 2018 11:27PM
This image is taken from a web page with information on the "Building Our Beloved Community" program today. (

MANCHESTER — A City Year event being held today to commemorate the life and work of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is drawing criticism from some city officials over the subject matter of several workshops — including topics such as “unpacking whiteness” and “microaggression awareness.”

“I believe the workshops offered in honor of Dr. King are, at best, a terribly misguided attempt to promote diversity and inclusion and, at worst, an insult to the city and citizens of Manchester,” said At Large school board member Rich Girard. “Either way, there is reason to be manifestly displeased, even disgusted by them.”

But Mayor Joyce Craig said she is looking forward to participating in the event.

“I grew up here in Manchester, and I look forward to working hard to make my hometown a better and more welcoming place for all its residents,” Craig said in a statement. “Even though we all come from different backgrounds and varying life experiences, we are all united in our desire to make our city a better place for everyone.”

She described the City Year event as “uplifting, inspirational and family-friendly.”

According to its website, City Year New Hampshire is “dedicated to helping students and schools succeed.” City Year New Hampshire currently has AmeriCorps serving in eight elementary schools in the city: Bakersville, Beech Street, Gossler Park, Henry Wilson, McDonough, Parker-Varney, Hallsville and Northwest Elementary.

Building Our Beloved Community” is to take place from 9 a.m. to noon at the YWCA New Hampshire, 72 Concord St.

According to an online description of the “Unpacking Whiteness: workshop, presented by New Hampshire Listens — an initiative of the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire — the session includes discussions on such topics as, “How do I unintentionally benefit from racism?” and “What does it mean to be ‘white’ today?”

“Participants in this workshop will engage in constructive, reflective conversations focused on examining and understanding racial bias, systemic racism, and unpacking whiteness,” reads the online workshop synopsis. “Racism is not just about individual acts of meanness. It also includes those invisible systems that confer advantages on those people considered white while disadvantaging people of color.”

Girard pointed to the many refugees and immigrants who have been resettled in the city over the years.

“The impact on schools, neighborhoods, social services and the community in general has been profound,” he said. “Despite having no help from either the federal or state governments or the resettlement agencies, the city has undertaken enormous efforts to welcome, educate, socialize and otherwise serve these people.”

“Yet, instead of highlighting the many people, organizations and efforts undertaken in this city that have helped so many for so long, we’re treated to workshops that essentially accuse virtually any white native of being ignorant, inhospitable and insensitive at best,” said Girard.

Pawn Nitichan, executive director of City Year New Hampshire, said her agency’s event “aims to renew Dr. King’s spirit of unity, justice, equality and opportunity for all.”

“Participants will have the opportunity to engage in service projects that will benefit NH Food Bank, veterans, refugees, seriously ill children and our community,” said Nitichan. “Participants will also have the option of learning more about volunteer opportunities by visiting non-profit info tables and attending several short workshops intended to foster mutual understanding and inclusiveness.

“Among Dr. King’s most compelling visions is that of a Beloved Community — a community in which people of different backgrounds recognize their interconnectedness and how individual well-being is inextricably linked to the well-being of others. We look forward to hosting nearly 200 national service members from across our state, as well as students and community members from Manchester and beyond, for a day of celebrating our shared humanity.”

‘Very real issues’

On Sunday, several city school board members expressed support for the City Year event, while one alderman expressed outrage.

“In the environment we live in today, where we have a President who thinks nothing of calling other countries s---holes, it is very important to engage in dialogue that addresses the very real issues and experiences of people of color or other minorities to understand and empathize others’ perspectives,” said Committeewoman Katie Desrochers of Ward 11. “To say that Dr. King would not approve of this is just foolishness.”

“Over the years, I have been lucky to attend a number of MLK Day events at which challenging questions about race were presented,” said Committeeman David Scannell of Ward 2. “Dr. King’s legacy is bigger than one speech. Indeed, as he drew closer to the end of his life, his rhetoric reflected a world view somewhat different than the one apparent in the ‘I Have a Dream Speech.’ In my view, nothing on the City Year agenda on Monday represents a betrayal of this legacy.”

“I don’t think the discussion topics are controversial — they have become standard fare when discussing race not only among progressives and ‘social justice warriors’ but among everyday people as well,” said Ross Terrio of Ward 7.

“Are race and racism a problem in our country — yes, but having traveled the whole world I think it is a problem affecting all people on every continent. That being said, I do have a concern with the premise of the topics, in that, just as it is wrong to say all Black, Latino or Asian people are a certain way or share the same characteristic, it is equally wrong to say all White people are a certain way or share the same characteristic.”

“Mayor Craig must immediately take a strong stand against the anti-white sentiment City Year is engaged in,” said Alderman At Large Joseph Kelly Levasseur. “‘Unpacking whiteness’ is morally repugnant and disconcerting to anyone who understands what this country is about. Mayor Craig should send a strong message that this city will not tolerate racial bigotry by defunding this fringe-turned organization by getting them out of our schools now.”

Bruce Mallory, co-director of New Hampshire listens, defended the content of the “Unpacking Whiteness” workshop, saying, “for systemic racism to end, it will take all of us.”

“The mission of NH Listens is to help people have informed conversations that can lead to stronger communities,” said Mallory of NH Listens. “To do that, we strive to bridge the differences that often divide us, whether those are about politics or economics or social issues like race and racism. The only way to bridge such differences is to honestly and openly talk about them, hearing from all sides. This workshop is part of that effort.”

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