MANCHESTER, NH – Manchester mayor Ted Gatsas joined the kickoff dinner for local coalition “Love Your Neighbor – Manchester” last Wednesday night at Unitarian Universalist Church on Union Street.
“It’s a great idea to get together,” said Gatsas to the group, “in case there is a problem to rally around that problem to make sure we can fix it.”
The Manchester division of the “Love Your Neighbor” coalition was formed in September to promote unity among Manchester’s residents and create a safe, supportive, and respectful city.
The organization is a spinoff of the original “Love Your Neighbor” coalition, formed in Concord in 2012 after a string of hate crimes was committed against immigrant residents of New Hampshire’s capital city.
Concord resident Honore Murenzi organized the first Love Your Neighbor rallies in response to the graffiti messages that were found scrawled on the external walls of three separate homes in 2011 and again in 2012. The last “Love Your Neighbor” rally, held outside one of the victimized houses on Thompson Street in Concord, brought together several hundred neighbors, officials, and members of the public to voice their support of the family inside the home.
“The graffiti on the house was impactful,” said Peter Cook of Cook Associates in Hooksett, who describes himself as active and involved in diversity work throughout the state. “But what was more impactful was the reaction.”
The alleged perpetrator of the graffiti attacks, 43-year old Randall “Raynard” Stevens, was arrested in October and is currently being held on home confinement in Pembroke.
Due in large part to the “Love Your Neighbor” rallies in response to Stevens’ alleged crimes, many have seen the incident as one of unity and community building for Concord. “In the midst of danger, the community did not react in a divisive fashion. Instead, Concord identified an opportunity and responded with positive messaging and openness for learning,” wrote Concord Police Chief John Duval in a Concord Monitor editorial on October 20.
This summer, Murenzi approached the AmeriCorps VISTA Project in Manchester with the proposal to expand Concord’s “Love Your Neighbor” campaign to new cities. “He had this idea that it would spread to other cities and be a movement,” said Kerri Makinen, an AmeriCorps volunteer and one of the main organizers of the event.
“Manchester is very lucky that they have not had an incident like Concord had that was racially motivated,” said Kristen Treacy, who works for Manchester’s Department of Health and Community Policing Division. “The hope is that if we form a coalition, that will never happen.
“For me, one of the big pushes in my work is to get residents to talk to each other. If you know your neighbors, if you trust them, if you have a relationship with them, the likelihood of having a violent interaction with them significantly decreases.”
The coalition is also intended to provide support in the instance of any sort of hate crime or event of prejudice against the community. “We want to be able to respond quickly if anything happens,” said Makinen.
Members from a number of Manchester organizations attended the potluck on Wednesday, including representatives from New American Africans, Welcoming New Hampshire, and the Congolese Community of New Hampshire.
The bulk of the outreach work has fallen on the shoulders of Makinen, who was surprised at how effective word of mouth and personal invitations through email was at reaching the right people. On Monday, during her walk home, Makinen spotted the flyers she had printed up pinned to a bulletin board through a basement window.
“We all just invited people that we work with, people we know, people we see. And that was how this group came together tonight,” said Treacy.
When it was time to dig into the banquet table full of food, every chair was filled.
On January 20, Love Your Neighbor Manchester will host a breakfast open to the community in honor of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. More information about Love Your Neighbor Manchester can be found on their Facebook page.