WHAT WE’VE experienced as a state and a nation over the past 12 months has taken its toll in so many ways. From the summer’s protests for racial justice to the mind-boggling loss of loved ones due to COVID-19. From the economic peril faced by so many families and small business owners to the long-standing health disparities intensified by the pandemic. From a growing ideological divide to the violent insurrection at our nation’s capitol. If you’re up at night worrying about the health of our communities and our very democracy, you are certainly not alone.
As we approach the season of town meetings, it’s a good reminder to keep our collective civic health in mind. We may have to conduct the local business of our democracy in different ways this year due to the pandemic, but we can’t lose sight of our shared vision for the future. Getting closer to that elusive concept of unity requires that we engage with each other, participate in communities with one another and get to know neighbors who may look and think differently from ourselves.
Most of us would say we believe deeply in democracy — even if we disagree on policies. So here is a fundamental question for our fellow Granite Staters: What kind of democracy do we believe in? A selective one or an expansive one? Do we stand by the notion that the majority speaks for the collective will of the people even when the majority grows more diverse? Until we tear down the systems that confer privilege on some groups at the expense of others, the chasm will only widen.
Across the country, the number of non-White Americans is expected to double by the year 2060, according to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation analysis of U.S. Census data. Here in New Hampshire, our diversity also continues to grow. The Carsey School of Public Policy’s latest “What is New Hampshire” report shows that Hispanic, Asian and African-American residents all tripled in number between 2000 and 2017. We believe that growth in diversity is an asset that will help our state’s economy and communities flourish. Building mutual trust cannot be underestimated as a key ingredient to our shared success.
Yet, the soon-to-be-released N.H. Civic Health Index highlights an 18-year erosion of trust in our institutions, communities, and neighbors between 2001 and 2019. Factor in the political, health and societal challenges of 2020, and that decline is likely even more severe. In specific, Granite Staters lost trust in national government, down 16 percentage points. Trust in local government also declined by 8 percentage points. The data further shows that New Hampshire is a mixed bag when it comes to civic health indicators. National rankings place our state near the top — 5th out of 51 (including DC) for connecting with friends and family, for instance. But the Granite State ranks extremely low — 46th in the nation — for connecting with people of a different racial, ethnic, or cultural background.
Nationally and locally, we must continue engaging in difficult conversations about our differences. We need to let go of the fear that someone else’s gain will result in another’s loss. Power is abundant. There is plenty of influence and opportunity to go around. It’s time to move to a new and longer table so that all may take their rightful place. Then we need to listen to and respect all the voices assembled there. That is the expansive democracy we must create.
Communities across the state are already having conversations with neighbors who look different from themselves -– closing the gap on the civic divide in the process. In our role as board members at the Endowment for Health, New Hampshire’s largest health foundation, we were heartened by recent roundtables (held virtually this past summer) designed to envision a shared future that promotes health, wellbeing and opportunity for all Granite Staters. That effort sought to introduce and engage neighbors who had a lot in common even if their backgrounds were worlds apart.
In the months to come, the Endowment for Health will continue to foster community engagement that brings all voices to the table. They will also continue to engage in the work of the Race and Equity in New Hampshire Series alongside hundreds of other Granite Staters from all backgrounds and walks of life as they promote equity in the domains of government, civic engagement, law enforcement/criminal justice, economic development, education, and health.
All of these efforts are the building blocks for a collective future that strengthens our communities and builds a more perfect union. As Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman reminds us: “…We lift our gaze, not to what stands between us, but what stands before us. We close the divide because we know to put our future first, we must first put our differences aside.”