How your organization can recognize Juneteenth

Juneteenth isn’t just black history, it’s American history. Over the past year, following Black Lives Matter protests across the country, many American organizations have begun to recognize June, or June 19, the anniversary of the day in 1865 when the last group of Black enslaved Americans were freed by Union troops. Some have proposed paid company leave for all employees; others, additional floating vacations to use on June 10 or another day, an event to celebrate June 10 with Black ERG groups or learning sessions for all staff.

For academics and DCI practitioners, it is heartwarming to see this recognition and high energy around a historical moment previously only recognized by members of the minority. However, many black employees and other POCs rightly ask, why now? We believe companies can approach Juneteenth in a way that dramatically improves their diversity, equity and inclusion work. This anniversary is a tangible opportunity to amplify understanding of the unique experience of black Americans and serve as a catalyst for conversations about intersectionality.

History of Juneteenth

First, let’s clarify the the story. Although President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation Ending Slavery in Confederacy in 1863, many southerners sought to evade the decree by moving slaves to Texas, the westernmost of the slave states. However, Union troops pursued them, arriving in Galveston in the summer of 1865 and ultimately freeing more than 250,000 black Americans. Slaves were then officially emancipated and slavery officially abolished by the 13th Amendment in December 1865.

Juneteenth, also known as “Jubilee Day”, is sometimes called America’s Independence Day, since July 4, 1776 symbolizes freedom and justice for only some Americans, not all. This sentiment is deftly captured in Frederick Douglass. Speech of 1852 “The significance of July 4th for the negro”, in which he writes: “This July 4th is yours, not mine. You can rejoice, I must cry.

Of course, the struggle for fairness and justice for black Americans continues to this day. And that’s why it’s so important that organizations begin to recognize June 19 as another pivotal date in U.S. history.

In June 2021, Congress passed legislation to establish National Independence Day of June 17th as a U.S. federal holiday, and every state except South Dakota recognizes it as a state or ceremonial holiday. In our recent US Workforce Survey, only 41% of American workers knew about Juneteenth before 2020; last year’s racial calculation pushed that percentage to 71% in May 2021. For black Americans, the change fell from 67% to 93%. (Awareness of destruction of Black Wall Street during the Tulsa massacre in 1921 has also grown dramatically since its 100th birthday last May.)

Make no mistake, this is progress. For two centuries our educational systems have largely neglected the experience of black Americans. A 2015 study by the National Museum of African American History and Culture and Oberg Research found that American history teachers spend only 8-9% of their class time on black history, and research suggests that what is taught focuses on the trauma of slavery, the struggles of the civil rights movement and mass incarceration, instead of more positive traits like the Harlem Renaissance, the Great Migration and the myriad achievements and contributions of the black community. As black women raised in North Carolina and Alabama respectively, we both grew up hearing about Juneteenth in our family and social circles, but it was never mentioned in our classes or celebrated as a holiday. . As many school districts strive to present a more accurate, representative, and solid narrative of U.S. history now – acknowledging June 19 and the Tulsa Race Massacre, as well as systemic racism – their efforts often meet resistance, as evidenced by recent heated debates on education Critical Race Theory (CRT).

This is why it is so important for employers to recognize and honor June 15 and other cultural holidays celebrated by those who are not in the majority.

Organizational opportunity

In celebrating June 15 this year and going forward, we recommend that you take four steps to make this an EI improvement experience for your organization.

1. Make it personal.

Many of us have spent the past year hearing advice on how to learn about DCI topics such as racial injustice in the workplace. Although this is a fundamental step that everyone should take, it is time to move from general awareness to personal action. Leaders need to reflect on and share how their personal and family histories, experiences, values ​​and identities relate to these events.

For example, if you have come to understand the importance of Juneteenth, take the opportunity to be vulnerable and share what you have learned with your group. Go even further by inviting conversation with your teams. You might be surprised at how much the employees engage, either relieved that they’re not the only ones who haven’t recognized the holidays before, or eager to share their knowledge.

2. Expand the message.

Juneteenth is not only a celebration of freedom, but also of opportunity, equity and access. It must not be lost. According to the Center for Talent Innovation, black professionals occupy only 3.2% of management positions in large US companies and only 0.8% of all Fortune 500 CEO positions.

The events of June 19 also provide an opportunity for businesses to consider and struggle with their own DCI goals to access and advance color professionals. Now is the time to think more seriously about supporting and recruiting through Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs), and Hispanic Service Institutions (HSI) as well as institutions based on racial identity professional organizations. Now is also a time for current (possibly white) leaders to consider how they can become more active allies and accomplices to their colleagues of color. And now is the time to not only “talk the talk, but also walk” by funding resources and initiatives that expand promotion and leadership opportunities for black and brown employees.

3. Improve the meaning.

While recognizing Juneteenth as paid company leave is certainly a step in the right direction, it is not enough. Like Martin Luther King’s day of service, Juneteenth should be honored as a “day in a row, not a day off”.

To make June 15 and other cultural holidays meaningful in the workplace, we challenge organizations and employees to use this free time to learn more and raise awareness. Companies can suggest or sponsor tours to any of the over 160 Black / African American museums, sites and cultural centers across the country, distribute critical texts that detail America’s legacy of systemic racism and oppression, or encourage participation in juinteenth celebrations and sponsorship of Black companies in your cities / towns. The shift of businesses from passive commemoration to active commemoration of Juneteenth and other cultural festivals signals purpose and relevance rather than hollow recognition.

4. Honor intersectionality.

When you highlight a group’s vacation, others may feel left out: “There is no month / day for my identity group so I don’t have the chance to be celebrated. . “

Resist the urge to downplay one group’s experience because others have suffered different injustices. Instead, encourage using the power of empathy to recognize what this particular marginalized group – enslaved black Americans – went through, what their liberation meant for the country, and what that kind of progress means for all of us. .

There is room for everyone at the DCI table, and when we advocate for change, that inherently lifts all boats creating a more inclusive environment for all. At the same time, we need to recognize that people have multiple identities, not only based on race and gender, but also sexual orientation and even background and interests, such as being an elder. fighter, immigrant, artist or fitness enthusiast. For example, June is also Pride Month in the United States, which is the celebration of the LGBTQIA + community. Any DCI event should celebrate the fact that we all bring many different perspectives to our workplaces. Consider celebrating Juneteenth (or pride or any other relevant day for a non-majority group) in a way that allows people to always feel that they can be genuine and complex themselves.

Because many employees can get frustrated with one-off or ‘token’ DCI celebrations, we also of course encourage companies and teams to follow all of the above tips throughout the year, not just some. days. DCI’s work never stops. But the more we recognize vacations like Juneteenth as unifying opportunities, the further we can travel on this necessary journey.


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