On January 4, 2018, I received an email invitation to City Year’s Martin Luther King Day event (right). The subject line of the email was “Free Family Event: Martin Luther King, Jr. Day!” Candidly, I thought nothing of it and didn’t open the invitation until after I saw that I’d received multiple inquiries, complaints and statements of indignation about it.
After clicking on the invitation, it became clear why people were outraged. Dumbstruck by the offerings (published below this article), I sent the following email to Pawn Nitichan, Executive Director of City Year NH, yesterday, at about 4:30 PM.
I’m writing to let you know how disappointed, disturbed really, I am with City Year’s Martin Luther King Day event. I’d not seen the invitation until yesterday and specifically went looking for it after it was brought to my attention by multiple people over the past several days. Had I seen it earlier, I would have written sooner. In short, as someone who has informally studied Dr. King for many years and drawn inspiration from him, I do not believe he would approve of the seminars included in your program.
Dr. King is known for many things, not the least of which is his “I have a dream” speech. As with most prominent people or speeches, the soaring rhetoric is better remembered than some of the more substantive portions of the speech. Among the more important parts of that speech are the following series of sentences:
“In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.
“We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protests to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to distrust all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny.
“They have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone. And as we walk we must make the pledge we shall always march ahead.”
Many of these seminars are “wrongful deeds.” “Active by standing?” “Micro aggressions?” “Unpacking Whiteness?” They would seem to run afoul of Dr. King’s message in the above passages from his iconic speech. Such discussions, in my experience, rely on the premise that the vast majority of white people are “privileged” and prejudiced and must be confronted if racism is to be eradicated. As such, they necessarily ignore Dr. King when he said:
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
Clearly, these seminars aren’t capable of teaching people to consider the content of an individual’s character if they’re premised on the inherent, if unknowing, bigotry of white people. Moreover, people and organizations across the country have fomented discord and hatred across the country by attacking school campuses, businesses and entire communities using these same, or substantially similar topics, like “white privilege.” They also are premised on the idea that only white people can be or are prejudiced.
Call me old fashioned, but asking someone where they’re from and or complimenting them on their language skills indicates interest and conveys congratulations. They are not “microaggressions.” Call me crazy, but the “active bystanding” we see across the country, where people whose speech is “unacceptable” are shouted down so they cannot be heard is hardly tolerant of differences. And, perpetuating the idea that people of color are generally oppressed by “white systems and institutions” falsely furthers the unshakable victimhood that persists in many minority communities; a victimhood that often leads to despair, anger and violence.
When I think of all that could have been done to honor Dr. King in this community with its more than century old legacy of diverse people living together, however imperfectly at times, I am truly shocked to see a lineup of divisive seminars that seem designed to convey the idea that newcomers and minorities are actively oppressed by “white” institutions and systems. There are so many successful people that could have been highlighted (e.g., Dr. Vargas), so much progress that has been made (e.g., AP Class enrollment), so many programs that could have been pointed to (e.g., Manchester PD community outreach) it blows my mind, truly, that these seminars were chosen to celebrate Dr. King.
I am contemplating issuing a statement about this but will wait to hear from you first. It’s hard to bring people together when they’re being set apart against one another or otherwise demonized. What’s next? “Safe spaces” and “Free Speech Zones?”
Richard H. Girard
Committee Member at-Large
About twenty minutes later, Nitichan called me and we spoke for almost an hour. She thanked me for sharing my thoughts about the workshops, stating she had no idea how politically charged the topics were. City Year’s intent, she said, was to hold workshops that would open communication on important topics, not be divisive or politically charged. She emphasized that City Year has always worked to bring people together, not set them apart or against each other. She also said that City Year considered those offering the seminars “credible,” saying they had track records of opening communication between groups.
As the discussion progressed, she came to understand how politically charged and divisive the topics were and said she would review the materials the presenters planned to use. I asked her for a statement in reply to my email, explaining that not only had I heard from so many people about the event, but also had such strong feelings about it that I was planning on publishing my own statement on the matter.
In the statement, they quote from the mission of NH Listens’, presenter of the “Unpacking Whiteness” workshop, but don’t address what they will present. Thankfully, one of the people who alerted me to the material copied the content (again, published below), because it disappeared from City Year’s Web site. Only a blank registration page comes up when the original link is clicked.
(Publisher’s note: Since this article was published, City Year has restored the event to its Web site. In doing so, it has changed the title of the “hip hop” seminar to reference “young people of color” instead of what’s below. It has also provided links to the organizations presenting the workshops, but it has not provided the materials they will use, as requested.)
In response to my questions about why the material was removed, Nitichan said it was because the classes were small and they didn’t have room for a surge in last minute registrations. She also said that City Year did not vet the materials that would be presented in the workshops, trusting the presenters would be positive and fostering of appropriate dialogue on the difficult topic of race.
If that belief is sincere, then the presenters should make all their workshop materials available to City Year and City Year should republish the workshops with their summary descriptions and all of the topics and materials that will allegedly be used. I was unequivocal in making that suggestion and am concerned that it wasn’t accepted.
Without repeating what I wrote in my email to Nitichan, (here’s a link to the Dr. King speech referenced in my email), 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. Either way, there is reason to be manifestly displeased, even disgusted by them.
Manchester didn’t ask for refugees and immigrants to be settled here nor were its businesses recruiting them to fulfill any worker needs. The State Department and its associated resettlement agencies decided Manchester would receive thousands of people from dozens of countries, speaking well in excess of one hundred languages (dialects included), and bringing cultures and customs that, in some instances, are incompatible with Western living. The impact on schools, neighborhoods, social services and the community in general has been profound. 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. The language explaining the workshops makes clear that “white America” created systems and institutions designed to keep “people of color” oppressed. It made clear that, if you’re white, you’re privileged and if your not, you’ll essentially be a victim of the system for your whole life.
Not to mention, if you ask someone where they’re from or compliment them on their English skills, you’re guilty of a “microaggression,” which is considered “hate speech” and routinely used on college campuses and elsewhere to accuse people of everything from cultural insensitivity to racism.
I have worked with Nitichan closely over the past two years and have been a strong supporter of City Year. I respect both her and the organization she leads. I believe they’ve been a valuable asset in our schools and have worked hard to fund their work. That said, if celebrating diversity and bringing people together was their aim, and, for the record, I not convinced it wasn’t, then showcasing the people, institutions and efforts that have had great success in working with Manchester’s new populations would have been the way to go.
Imagine a workshop where Superintendent Dr. Bolgen Vargas, a Dominican immigrant, shares his story and gives insight into how he went from not speaking a word of English as a 17 year old immigrant to being one of the most respected educators in the country.
How about a workshop where the Manchester School District showcased its efforts to open educational opportunities, not just to minority students, but also to poor white students?
Why not have a workshop where the Manchester Police Department can highlight its many community engagement efforts?
Where are the workshops featuring immigrants like Mary Georges or Eva Castillo-Turgeon (who, by the way, assures me that active bystander training is “a pretty inoffensive training that teaches how to safely intervene if someone is being bullied or picked on.”) and their efforts to help newcomers become acclimated to their new home? Many others come to mind, like State Rep. Jean Jeudy.
I don’t think Dr. King would approve of topics that inherently leave one group of people “accused” and all others “victims.” I think he would marvel at how far we’ve come, celebrate the successes and build on them to disprove the idea that the cover of the book matters. Yes, we still have work to do. We will always have work to do because people are people and that’s the way it is. But, breaking people into camps that can be generally summed up as “perpetrator” and “victim” and painting them with broad brushes would seem to turn Dr. King’s admonitions on their heads as they appear to:
- “…satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.”
- depart from “…the high plane of dignity and discipline.”
- “…lead us to distrust all white people…” despite the many “…white brothers…” who “…realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny.” (As I firmly believe.) and
- reject the idea “…that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.” (As I also firmly believe)
And, most importantly, if one believes in “microaggressions” or the need to “unpack whiteness” or “Combat the Criminalization of Black, Brown, and Red Youth,” it seems utterly contrary to Dr. King’s dream that his:
“…four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
Dr. King’s dream is not possible when people are summarily assigned to groups and given characteristics that fit a narrative. His dream is only possible when we truly take the measure of any individual, race, color or creed notwithstanding.
Manchester deserves better than workshops built around the inflammatory terms and rhetoric of those who use racism as a brickbat. For all it’s justly done to assist its newcomers, Manchester’s earned it.
Even if the seminars are innocuous as claimed, the organizers should have been mindful of those terms’ meanings in the modern political context. They aren’t secrets and are designed to provoke reactions they then use as evidence of their claims. Maybe I should have left well enough alone, but if we’re going to have discussions on race, it’s important we have them without the roiling rhetoric and that we demand those who use it define their terms and be held to account.
Here’s the complete line up of workshops as posted, but no longer available, on City Year’s Web site:
Manchester – Building Our Beloved Community
January 15 @ 9:00 am – 12:00 pm
“The end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community.”
– Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., December 3, 1956
Join City Year New Hampshire in Building Our Beloved Community this Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, January 15, 2018. Among Dr. King’s most compelling visions is that of a Beloved Community – a community in which people of different backgrounds recognize that we are all interconnected and that our individual well-being is inextricably linked to the well-being of others. It is with this idea in mind that we invite you to a day of remembrance and celebration of our shared humanity.
Monday, January 15, 2018, 9 am – 12 pm
YWCA New Hampshire, 72 Concord St, Manchester, NH 03101
Please bring a donation for the NH Food Bank. Most needed items include canned chicken, canned tuna, peanut butter, jelly, mac n cheese, canned soup, pasta, noodle mixes, and rice mixes.
9 am Registration and light breakfast
9:30 am Kick-off Rally: Building Our Beloved Community
Be inspired by reflections on the Beloved Community, the legacy of Dr. King, and our shared humanity.
10:00 am – 12 pm Diversity, Service and Volunteer Fair
Explore aspects of our diversity through interactive, family-friendly stations; engage in hands-on service projects to benefit the Manchester community; participate in a community art project sponsored by The Currier; and, learn from local non-profit organizations about ways to continue your involvement beyond the day.
11 am – 12 pm Workshops
For those who want to attend a more in-depth training or presentation, a limited number of workshop options are available. See list below and specify your interest in the registration form. Attendance is geared towards teens and up and space is limited at all sessions.
If you have any questions please reach out to Mark Fickle at (603)-218-5086 or [email protected]
Space is limited. All sessions held at the YWCA.
Active Bystander Training, presented by Granite State Organizing Project
Ideal for ages 15 and up; 20 participants
Have you ever been a witness to a situation where you left feeling like you could have done something to help, but were unsure how? This training allows participants to recognize when they are bystanders and learn how they can interrupt harm doing and generate positive actions by others. We emphasize that active bystandership does not mean aggression against the harm doer. It means taking responsible action to help people in need, instead of remaining passive and becoming complicit.
Microaggressions: What They Are & Why We Should be Aware, presented by Rachael Gottlieb, City Year New Hampshire
Ideal for ages 14 and up; 25 participants
Does “No, where are you really from?”, “Your English is really good”, “You’re really pretty for a…” sound familiar? This training brings awareness to the commonplace, verbal and behavioral acts that are insulting towards people of color, whether intentional or not, and gives tips on what to do about them as both players and bystanders. Participants will be able to apply what they learn in this training to their everyday life as they see microaggressions happen and take the initiative to stop them.
Unpacking Whiteness, presented by New Hampshire Listens
Ideal for ages 14 and up; 30 of participants
How do I unintentionally benefit from racism? 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. 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. These systems are subtle and difficult to unravel and understand. Our ultimate goal is for our community to be a place where everyone can reach their full potential. All are welcome.
Gender Identity & The Gender Spectrum, presented by Cadence Pentheny, City Year New Hampshire
Ideal for ages 15 and up; 20 participants
What is the distinction between feminine and masculine? How did we come to a binary system of male or female, and what is the gender spectrum? This workshop serves as an introduction to how complex gender is, the struggles individuals with nonconforming gender identities face within a binary system and why that’s not good for any gender. All welcome.
The Use of Hiphop Rhetoric to Combat the Criminalization of Black, Brown, and Red Youth, presented by Marcos Del Hierro, New Hampshire Humanities to Go
Ideal for ages 10 and up; 25 participants
This interactive presentation will invite the audience to participate in a “cipher,” or hiphop circle, as a way to experience one example of how knowledge is made in hiphop communities. Young and old audiences are invited to engage in a family friendly environment with one of the most influential and funky cultural forces of the last forty years. Modes of expression like mixtapes, rap songs, ciphers, subway art, and hiphop fashion not only set trends, but also address issues like urban blight, political marginalization, racism, and colonization.