No to Patterns Sheds Light on the Seacoast BIPOC Experience

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Courtney Daniel hosted the first “No To Patterns” forum this winter at the 3S Art Studios in Portsmouth. David Vargas, chef and owner of Vida Cantina, Shantel Palacio, Principal Advisor at Urbane Advisory, and Wilfredo Arvelo, Executive Director of Crossroads House, served as panelists. (Photo by Robert Cook)

BIPOC panelists in a new Seacoast discussion series expressed optimism about the future even as they outlined the challenges of being among the very few people of color in their neighborhoods and towns when they first arrived in the state.

Seacoast resident Courtney Daniel, a community activist, launched the “No to Patterns” series and held its first event this winter at 3S Art Studios in Portsmouth. Daniel formed “No to Patterns” to address the lack of accommodations available to Black, African American and people of color who live on the Seacoast. Her goal is to create a community of resources for those who are considering moving to the Seacoast area and to nurture those who have called New Hampshire home.

By listening to the stories shared by BIPOC community members on the “No to Patterns” panel and learning about their journeys to create successful businesses and the obstacles they had to overcome, the result is greater understanding.

The three-member panel of Black and indigenous people of color (BIPOC) community members and business leaders who shared their stories about life on the Seacoast included: Wildolfo Arvelo, executive director of Cross Roads House in Portsmouth; David Vargas, owner and chef at Vida Cantina and Orell’s Barbecue in Kittery, Maine; and Dr. Shantel Palacio, the principal advisor at Urbane Advisory and a consulting partner at the Perception Institute.

The panelists described how they went from feeling like pioneers when they first moved to New Hampshire to feeling thrilled they are now part of a new wave of diversity.

“New Hampshire is changing,” says Arvelo. “We have found a community in New Hampshire that talks likes us and looks like us.”

Arvelo says that when he first came to New Hampshire in 2008, he felt like a pioneer. There were very few people of color in the state and young people were leaving New Hampshire at an alarming rate, because they wanted to live in communities that offered more diversity.

Arvelo formed BAPOC-NH, the Business Alliance for People of Color-NH, two years ago to promote diverse businesses in the state. While New Hampshire has made some strides, Arvelo says more work needs to be done, adding that it will be interesting to see what New Hampshire is like in another 10 to 15 years.

Palacio is a former Brooklyn, N.Y., resident who came to New Hampshire a few years ago to complete her doctoral studies. “In the short time that I’ve been in New Hampshire, it has diversified and continues to do so every year,” she says.

During the forum, Palacio said, diversity is gaining momentum in New Hampshire, which will make the state a better place to live. “The train is taking off. If you don’t have a ticket, it’s taking off.”

But she is not sure if New Hampshire will ever become a truly diversified state. “I think it depends on whether politicians, educators and industry leaders truly believe in its own motto about living free — free to access quality education, housing and job opportunities? Free to pursue happiness?”

Palacio points out that “progress is never really a straight line. There’s a push and a pull.”

If New Hampshire is to achieve true diversity, Palacio believes “I think all people, including people of color, should be able to find community and feel safe, doing everything from running a coffee shop, attending school, being with their families.”

Daniel, originally from Georgia, told the audience that after she moved to New Hampshire in 2012, she told her friends and family there were few African Americans here and they asked her why she wanted to stay.

“When you are in the 2 percent, you feel it when you don’t see any other people of color for a long time,” Daniel explains.

Daniel shared that she met other like-minded people after she became involved in her community. “I didn’t want to be that teacher.” But they convinced her that change was possible and that it was worth pursuing.

“The decision to remain in New Hampshire wasn’t a decision I made on my own. It was a collective effort of supporters whom I met once I became active in the community. These connections were the path to create change by building, growing and learning how I could become a resource. It’s not an easy task, but I’m confident with each engagement New Hampshire will be a state where families from diverse backgrounds will look to plant their feet.”

Vargas says he will live in New Hampshire for the rest of his life. Like other members of the panel, Vargas experienced some culture shock when he and his family arrived on the Seacoast. When he opened his restaurant, Vida Cantina, he struggled. Vargas says he was “pigeonholed” by perceptions that a Mexican restaurant is supposed to be fast and cheap. It took time, but eventually the public embraced his cuisine and approach.

A year ago, Vargas held the first Seacoast BIPOC Festival in Portsmouth, and last fall the event was re-branded as the New England BIPOC Festival after it attracted people of color from across the state and elsewhere.

Vargas also recalls when white supremacy flyers showed up in his neighborhood. He knew he had to deal with it and protect his children.

“It’s okay to be brown in New Hampshire,” he says, “and we are going to keep fighting and moving forward.”

When Vargas thinks about what New Hampshire will be like, he looks to his children. “I’m feeling hopeful for the youth today.”

He says young people are more accepting of each other’s differences and care for one another more than the previous generation. When he was growing up in southern California, “nobody talked about these things.”

Arvelo also credits parents for accepting their kids for who they are instead of trying to force them to fit into different categories. The lesson is “let your child be who he wants to be.”

When asked how people can support diversity and the BIPOC community in New Hampshire, Arvelo replies, “Be yourself and be respected the way you wish to be respected.”

Daniel plans to hold a second “No to Patterns” event on May 10 and another panel discussion on August 10.

603diversity Issue7This article is featured in the spring-summer 2023 issue of 603 Diversity.

603 Diversity’s mission is to educate readers of all backgrounds about the exciting accomplishments and cultural contributions of the state’s diverse communities, as well as the challenges faced and support needed by those communities to continue to grow and thrive in the Granite State.

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