“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.”
That’s what freedom sounded like on June 19, 1865 in Galveston, Texas. This proclamation marked the official end of chattel slavery in America.
This date, June 19th, became Juneteenth, a celebration of freedom and a recognition that freedom has never come freely. The descendents of those new freed men are still fighting against the bonds of racism, working for systemic change on behalf of Black Americans.
Most Americans celebrate July 4th, America’s Independence Day, without considering that there were hundreds of thousands of enslaved Black Americans living in this country when the Declaration of Independence was signed.
It would be another 89 years before Black Americans celebrated their first taste of freedom as guaranteed by the emancipation proclamation.
In the 157 years following the first Juneteenth, this holiday has become a celebration of freedom from bondage, a time to recognize all that must be done to realize true freedom for Black Americans—and, most importantly, a time for Black Joy.
As we approach this joyous holiday—now federally recognized and a day off work for many—it’s worth thinking about how companies, organizations, and People leaders can do it justice.
Why should companies be invested in Juneteenth?
The effects of hundreds of years of chattel slavery did not cease to exist overnight when freedom was announced in 1865. Its complex legacies are still present in the modern world.
Regardless of who you are, America’s economy continues to benefit from the fact that it was founded on the forced, free labor of enslaved Black men, women, and children.
Although companies may not be directly responsible for slavery, they can be part of breaking the final links in the chain stretching from slavery to the more modern versions of racism.
People leaders can use this holiday as an opportunity to:
- Strengthen their empathetic muscles
- Support Black Joy and use empathy to consider what this joy means
- Learn and understand why Juneteenth is important for Black employees
- Reflect and consider how Black employees are faring in the company or organization
It’s up to People leaders to take point in supporting Black employees on Juneteenth by honoring the heavy history, actively fighting against racism, and most of all, by joining in the joy of this holiday.
How can companies and People leaders do justice to Juneteenth?
Juneteenth shouldn’t be used to check a corporate diversity box.
It should be an opportunity for companies to support their Black employees, and join them in the celebration while simultaneously reflecting on the ways the company can continue to dismantle the effects of slavery, Jim Crow, and modern iterations of America’s original sin.
Giving employees the day off is a very tiny first step.
Here are ways to mark this holiday without sacrificing the heavy history or tremendous joy tied up in it, including:
- Giving Black ERGs and Black leaders the reins to drive how Juneteenth is celebrated
- Knowing why you’re celebrating the Juneteenth holiday as a company, and articulating that clearly to all your employees
- Making it a time for genuine reflection on the status of Black employees in your workplace
- Articulating your company’s stance on racism: Is the stance clear? How are you taking action?
- Making a monetary pledge to organizations that fight racism
- Bringing in speakers and making educational resources available
Consistently invest in Black employees
The struggle against racism is still felt on both individual and systemic levels. Hundreds of years of racism didn’t end overnight with Juneteenth or the Civil Rights movement.
Companies should recognize that celebrating Juneteenth is one step toward supporting Black employees. It’s vital to take consistent action throughout the year, beginning with an official, public commitment to investing in Black employees, followed by a plan in partnership with Black ERGs and Black leadership.
To invest in your Black employees, begin with honest self-reflection, asking questions like:
- Are there Black employees in positions of leadership at your organization?
- What does the wage breakdown look like? Are most of your Black employees making the lowest salaries?
- Are Black employees being compensated fairly for the value they bring to your company?
- Do Black employees feel safe? Can they bring their authentic self to work?
Next, create opportunities for mentorship and support. Take an honest look at hiring and salary practices, and whether Black employees are treated equitably in your company.
Redefine what leadership looks like
There’s a need for more openness and creativity around the kind of people a company is willing to promote into leadership roles. Notions of what a leadership candidate normally “looks like” are based on what leaders have looked like in the past—often white, able-bodied men—which only reinforces the status quo.
To change this, figure out what a role needs to accomplish. Then, stay open to the person who fills this role being different from those who’ve filled it in the past. Challenge your own preconceptions about what a leader looks like.
In addition to challenging norms around leadership, creating a mentoring program for Black employees exposes the mentor to people who may not look like the norm for leadership. By developing a relationship, the mentor may realize that this person is perfect for a role.
Increasing face-to-face time with leadership can help address one of the foundations of Black employees not getting promoted equally.
Although the mentor does not have to be Black, they must be willing to engage in anti-racist work. Putting a Black employee in a mentorship relationship with someone who isn’t engaged in anti-racism will likely be a burden for that employee.
How Black ERGs can lead the way
It’s understandable that ERG leaders and companies want to make people feel comfortable about how Juneteenth is celebrated. However, in many ways, this very concept is incompatible with the goal of this holiday.
Many white Americans are still uncomfortable with confronting the history of racism in America, Black Joy, and the changes to company policy necessary to promote racial equity. People who have always benefited from the status quo are not likely to be happy with challenges and changes to that structure.
With that in mind, give Black ERGs and Black leaders the freedom to celebrate Juneteenth by creating programming in whatever way feels authentic and good to them. Ultimately, as an ERG leader, you’re responsible to the people in your group.
- What feels good to everyone?
- What kind of celebration meets the needs of your particular ERG and the employees of your company?
What this looks like for your workplace depends on the company size, what resources are available, and the individual personalities of the ERG.
Prioritizing Black equity is more important than maintaining comfort.
How can anti-racist allies commemorate Juneteenth?
On June 19th, or whatever day is designated as the work holiday (since June 19th is on a Sunday this year), non-Black allies can also find ways to partake in the celebrations:
- Use empathy as a mind state. Put yourself in the position of feeling immense joy about this day, recognizing that this is a day of both happiness and solemnity for Black Americans.
- It’s good and okay to feel joy, because others are experiencing joy and celebration. Empathy is not only for suffering and negative emotions.
Black history month, Martin Luther King day, and other official recognition of Black history can lean somber and focus on the suffering Black people have experienced. Juneteenth can be a time of reflection and learning, while also being a day focused on Black joy, fellowship, and celebration.
Fellowship and fun
In honor of what Juneteenth means, it’s appropriate to end on a joyful note. It’s hard work to be an ERG leader while navigating the systemic inequalities within workplaces and wider society.
Which is more reason to highlight the fellowship, joy, and fun parts of doing this work. They are necessary for sustaining us as we fight for a better world.
Read this blog next for three powerful ways People leaders can elevate Black mental health.