- Associated Press - Thursday, December 14, 2017

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) - New Hampshire is joining most other states in having a dedicated civil rights unit within the attorney general’s office, while also creating an outside council to recommend steps to combat discrimination and promote diversity and inclusion.

Republican Gov. Chris Sununu announced the new unit and advisory council on Thursday, saying the changes will help ensure the state lives up to its “Live Free or Die” motto. Led by Seacoast NAACP president Rogers Johnson, the council will hold a series of community forums around the state and make recommendations by June 1.

“The number one word here is communication. We have to make sure people know the avenues they can pursue, allow that communication to go forward and to be blunt, have real action behind it,” Sununu said. “This is not a study that will come out in June and sit in someone’s desk. This is about having real action and taking real positive steps that aren’t just for the short term but build on the long term to make sure our state truly is the Live Free or Die state.”

Attorney General Gordon MacDonald said the new civil rights unit will reinforce the work his office already does in enforcing anti-discrimination and civil rights laws, while expanding its duties to include educating the public and training local officials on issues such as cultural competency eliminating implicit bias. It will be led by Assistant Attorney General Elizabeth Lahey, who said the public outreach component will be particularly important.

“Many members of our community tirelessly dedicate their lives to achieving equality, representation and inclusion for all. And there are also many members of our community who are disproportionately affected by racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, xenophobia, transphobia and ableism,” she said. “These are the most important voices in determining the most pressing issues facing our state and therefor it will be the unit’s priority to build relationships and strengthen existing relationships with these individuals and organizations.”

Fred Ross of Dover, a retired teacher and former Seacoast NAACP president, described the need for the unit and council as “a lot greater than you know,” but said he was elated at the steps being taken. Education is the key, he said, for children and adults alike.

“I’ve found the majority of people are good people, and that’s why I say education is where it’s at,” he said. “As long as they can draw a breath, they can learn.”

The new unit at the attorney general’s office follows several investigations earlier this year involving civil rights issues, MacDonald said, but is not being created directly in response. Regarding an incident that attracted widespread attention in Claremont, where teenagers were accused of taunting a biracial boy with racial slurs and pushing him off a picnic table with a rope around his neck in August, MacDonald said a report detailing the office’s exhaustive investigation is forthcoming.

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