Juneteenth Is a Time for Celebration, Dialogue and Action

Juneteenth Is a Time for Celebration, Dialogue and ActionWith Juneteenth National Independence Day now a U.S. federal holiday, and many organizations recognizing this important day in American history, there are more opportunities to make it a meaningful learning experience and celebration on a personal and organizational level.

Organization leaders can be especially effective when they share their personal stories related to the day and to DEI overall. If you are still learning about the day’s importance, you can share vulnerably with your team about your learnings. If the day impacts you personally, and you feel comfortable, you might share how you plan to mark it and what it means to you. Taking a big event and making it personal can help people consider its implications more fully.

The history

June 19, or Juneteenth, marks the anniversary of the day in 1865 when Union troops freed the last group of enslaved Black Americans. As such, it recognizes a pivotal moment in history for all Americans, yet it is a part of history that many white Americans only learned about recently. While President Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 is often taught as the end of slavery in the Confederacy, reality was quite different. One way that slave holders sought to avoid compliance with the law was by moving enslaved people to the most western slaveholding state: Texas.

Union troops advanced to Texas and arrived in Galveston in the summer of 1865, formally emancipating more than 250,000 Black Americans still held there. Slavery was then officially abolished by passage of the 13th Amendment in December 1865.

Juneteenth, sometimes called Jubilee Day, is often considered the country’s true Independence Day since Black Americans were excluded from the 1776 Declaration of Independence. Congress established Juneteenth National Independence Day as a federal holiday in 2021. A survey led by organizational psychologist, Ella F. Washington, Ph.D., CEO of Ellavate Solutions DEI firm, found the number of American workers familiar with Juneteenth has grown from 41% prior to 2020 to more than 70% today.

By recognizing and honoring Juneteenth, employers can help educate people of all races and backgrounds of both the ongoing struggles and progress among Black people. Here are some ways you might embrace the day.

  • Share your story. Leaders who are white can set a powerful example by sharing candidly with their teams about their growing understanding of the persistence of bias and racism within our society. By sharing your lack of knowledge around Juneteenth until fairly recently and your appreciation for it today, you model for others a willingness to learn and grow. “You might be surprised how much employees engage, either relieved they aren’t the only ones who hadn’t previously recognized the holiday or eager to share the knowledge they do have,” Washington says.

Providing a platform for Black team members to share their experiences celebrating Juneteenth and what it means to them if they choose to can also help them feel seen, heard and better understood.

  • Make larger connections. While Juneteenth refers to a specific moment in history, it speaks to more significant issues around equity and discrimination. The holiday can spur organizations to offer unique programming, facilitate a shared book reading, host special speakers or sponsor employee attendance at a local African American museum or cultural center. It can also prompt leaders to evaluate current DEI goals and progress for all underrepresented and marginalized team members. “It’s also a time for current (probably white) leadership to examine how they can become more active allies and accomplices for colleagues of color,” Washington says.
  • Go wide and deep. Sometimes, acknowledging a holiday unique to specific groups of people can cause others to feel left out or even resentful. Be intentional and proactive about sharing the message that DEI efforts with a focus on advocating for change create a more inclusive environment where everyone feels they belong and can contribute fully. It’s also important to acknowledge the complexity of all people and develop a workplace culture where employees get recognized for their multiple identities. “Any DEI event should celebrate the fact that we all bring many different perspectives to our workplaces,” Washington advises.

Just as our human tendency toward conscious and unconscious bias rarely takes a break, our efforts to promote deeper understanding of one another’s lived experiences and the barriers faced must also be ongoing. Events such as Juneteenth help us mark significant moments in our shared history, and they become even more powerful when we use them to engage in deeper conversation and to work together to create a more positive future for everyone.