By: Phil Sletten (LNH '18) - Policy Analyst, NH Fiscal Policy Institute
Our setting was Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire, which, according to the local State Historical Highway Markers, was the State Capitol during the Revolutionary War and the site of the signing of the first state constitution in January of 1776. After scrambling to find parking, we stationed ourselves in one of the larger music rooms at Phillips Exeter to discuss the characteristics of our own communities in small groups. The common themes we heard include the common themes included differences between different constituencies within communities, which were especially apparent in municipal and school district deliberations, and some key differences in experiences between disparate parts of the state. These early conversations provided strong foreshadowing for the day’s conversations.
We then heard from the engaging Steve Norton (LNH ’07), the former executive director of the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies and someone who has likely thought about what New Hampshire is more than almost any other human. With the Center’s most recent update of New Hampshire’s demographics in hand, we discussed some of the characteristics of the state, ranging from migration flows to government funding mechanisms. Steve sought to bust some myths and challenged us to identify why, given the state’s favorable aggregate statistics relative to other states, we might be concerned about New Hampshire’s future. His comments spawned discussions of governing structures affecting how local government decisions are reached, and how regional differences and proximity to the Boston metropolitan area affect economic success. With the rural part of the state having never left the Great Recession and still losing employment, according to Steve, New Hampshire faced some hard decisions. He encouraged us to muse about whether the state would be bold in seeking solutions, but reminded us that, despite an ability to raise revenue from a relatively high-income population when needed, New Hampshire opts to limit spending. Steve left us with a few closing observations, as our discussion had driven what I expect was his planned course of topics well off track, before we headed outside on a classic October day, one that Stephen Reno pointed out should prompt the Phillips Exeter administration to take pictures of campus.
Outside, we were lead through a thought-provoking exercise by classmate JerriAnne Boggis (LNH ’18) in the first presentation from one of our peers. JerriAnne is the Executive Director of the Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire, and through both the outdoor exercise and her subsequent indoor presentation sought to expose us to the state’s, and perhaps our own unconsidered, cultural roots. Outside, we lined up shoulder to shoulder, where we all started with the theoretical same amount of advantages or disadvantages: equals on the same playing field, starting from the same line. We then stepped forward or backward from the line depending on our answer’s to JerriAnne’s questions, which she read off of a list. The questions were designed to reveal what advantages (forward steps) or disadvantages (backward steps) we had: whether someone’s family owned a business; had we been discriminated against based on dress, gender, or race; how many parents were in the household growing up; whether you were brought to art galleries or events as a child; and other questions that, based on how people reacted, forced them to consider their privileges. JerriAnne later told me she had many more questions to read, but she stopped us before getting to the end and asked us to see where we were relative to our classmates, presumably knowing that just the portion of questions she provided would prompt deep discussion. In reflecting on the exercise, some toward the front (stepping forward usually indicated more privileges, while stepping back indicated fewer) noted they had not realized their privilege or the challenges other people had to face relative to them. Those in the back, which quite notably included our classmates of African American descent, commented that they also had mixed feelings about stepping back as many times as they did. Some of the questions were discussed further as we headed back inside for JerriAnne’s presentation on some of the history of African Americans in New Hampshire. We learned about Wentworth Cheswell, who was one-quarter African American and became the first African-American person to hold elected office (of which he held many) in what would become the United States. We also learned, less proudly, of the slave trade in Portsmouth and the bodies that had been buried and unceremoniously paved over before being discussed by sewage pipe workers. JerriAnne told us about a school in Canaan that mixed both races and genders; however, the school building was physically hauled by townspeople and their oxen to a swamp and burned because of the popular distaste for the mixing at the schools, particularly because European-American women were serving food to African-American men. The conversation that followed JerriAnne’s presentation centered around how hidden some of this history is in New Hampshire, relative to its prominence in other parts of the country, and how neglecting to include it in the state’s history does not serve anyone well. Why study history if we do not learn from it?
Stretching our legs again, we ventured to the Exeter Historical Society to embark on an informative walking tour of the town, continuing to learn from the history in our backyard. We saw the old mill buildings and sites of both industry and town civic life established centuries ago, and saw the “new” church and town hall, both of which were built in the 19th century. Our guide, a wonderful woman full of jokes and anecdotes paired with fascinating historical facts, pointed out where the munitions captured from the British in Portsmouth in 1774 were stored before they were shipped south to be used in the Battle of Bunker Hill. We learned a bit of Abraham Lincoln’s historical connections to Exeter and about one of the founding moments of the national Republican Party, which happened in a building across the street from our tour route. The bits of history provided also gave snapshots into the lives of our predecessors. Who ever thought a banker from Exeter would chase bank robbers to Rhode Island using the trail of taverns reporting someone ordering milk as a beverage?
Returning to the indoors, we were both enlightened and regaled by the former commissioner of the New Hampshire Department of Agriculture, Steve Taylor, who also had long records of service in local government. His stories and perspective brought some of the old-fashioned stories and lore of rural New Hampshire into focus. He shared a classic tale of Plainfield and Cornish refusing to share a road grater and insisting on each having their own machine, stories of feuds between local organizations being passed down for generations, anecdotes describing the relationships between the municipal and state governments, and a joke or two about what New Hampshirites considered “from around here” when visitors to the state asked about a village four miles away. He noted that the television, similar to the internet today, was a disruptor that allowed people to be entertained and content in their own homes, rather than get out and engage in community events, donate to local causes, and contribute in other ways. In what emerged as another theme throughout the second half of the day, this story of reinvigorating local engagement wove through many discussions; perhaps the internet, as potentially a collaborative tool, has encouraged more engagement than television did, but both might make the proverbial “community barn-raisings” a little less frequent or well-attended.
Finally, we broke into small groups to consider what New Hampshire was, and where we wanted the state to go. Discussions wound around the state’s beautiful natural features, governing structures, proximity to Boston, and quality of life. My classmates noted the challenges of the political divide, the differences in experiences between urban and rural New Hampshire, and the need for New Hampshire to be an open and welcoming state to all of its residents. My big takeaway was that we seemed to want to have a nimble, modern, and economically and culturally vibrant and welcoming state without losing those things that have traditionally been an advantage for New Hampshire, such as the lack of traffic, the beautiful landscapes, the attractive local education systems, and the high quality of life with relatively easy access to amenities. Building this state is a tall order, and one that creates tensions internal to the vision itself at times. But working through these issues is key to understanding the sort of state we have, the one we want, and how to get there.
For a session day with a relatively nondescript title, we certainly did a lot of describing. I expect our descriptions will only be richer and more detailed as our session days continue.