Juneteenth is not just Black history, it is American history. Over the past year, in the wake of countrywide Black Lives Matter protests, many U.S. organizations have taken to acknowledging Juneteenth, or June 19, the anniversary of the day in 1865 when the last group of enslaved Black Americans were freed by Union troops.
Although President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation ending slavery in the Confederacy in 1863, many southerners sought to evade the executive order by moving enslaved people to Texas, the most Western of the slaveholding states. However, Union troops pursued them, arriving in Galveston in the summer of 1865 and finally freeing more than 250,000 Black Americans. Enslaved people were then formally emancipated and slavery officially abolished by the 13th Amendment in December 1865.
That’s why it’s so important for employers to acknowledge and honor Juneteenth and other cultural holidays celebrated by those not in the majority. When celebrating Juneteenth this year and going forward, we recommend taking four steps to make it a DEI-enhancing experience for your organization.
Organizational leaders should reflect and share how their personal and family histories, experiences, values, and identities connect to these events. For example, if you are just understanding the importance of Juneteenth, take it as an opportunity to be vulnerable and share what you’ve learned with your group. Then go a step further by inviting conversation with your teams.
Juneteenth is not only a celebration of freedom, but also one of opportunity, equity, and access. That must not be lost. June 19 events also present an opportunity for companies to reckon and wrestle with their own DEI goals with an eye to access and advancement for professionals of color. It’s a time to think harder about supporting and recruiting through historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), tribal colleges and universities (TCUs), and Hispanic-serving institutions (HSIs) as well as racial identity-based professional organizations. It’s also a time for leadership to examine how they can become more active allies and accomplices for colleagues of color. And it’s a time to not only “talk the talk, but walk the walk” by funding resources and initiatives that expand promotion and leadership opportunities for Black and brown employees.
To make Juneteenth and other cultural holidays meaningful in the workplace, we challenge organizations and employees to utilize this time off to advance their knowledge and deepen their awareness. Companies might suggest or sponsor visits to one of the more than 160 Black/African-American museums, sites, and cultural centers across the nation, distribute critical texts that detail the United States’ legacy of systemic racism and oppression, or encourage participation in local Juneteenth celebrations and patronage of Black businesses in your cities/communities. Companies’ shift from passive to active commemoration of Juneteenth and other cultural holidays signals purpose and relevance rather than hollow recognition.
Encourage using the power of empathy to acknowledge what this marginalized particular group – enslaved Black Americans – went through, what their liberation meant for the country, and what that kind of progress means for us all. There is room for everyone at the DEI table, and when we advocate for change, it inherently raises all the boats creating a more inclusive environment for all. At the same time, we should recognize that people have multiple identities, not just based on race and gender but also sexual orientation and even backgrounds and interests, such as being a veteran, immigrant, artist, or fitness enthusiast.
Because many employees can become frustrated by one-off or “token” DEI celebrations, we also, of course, encourage companies and teams to follow all the advice above year-round, not just on certain days. The work of DEI never stops. But the more we recognize holidays like Juneteenth as unifying opportunities, the further we can travel on this necessary journey.
Adapted from SHRM.