Juneteenth is the oldest nationally celebrated day which commemorates the end of slavery in the United States. It marks the date- June 19, 1865- when federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas to enforce the abolition of slavery, more than two and half years after the Emancipation Proclamation had been issued by President Abraham Lincoln.
Juneteenth has not been honored as a federal holiday or taught in history classes throughout much of the country. This weekend marks 155 years of freedom for the descendants of enslaved Africans. While some progress has been made, there is still a struggle to realize “liberty and justice for all” in American society. As protests continue throughout the country and across the globe demanding an end to anti-black violence and injustice, it allows us an opportunity to act and make real, lasting change.
So how do we get there and what will it really take for us to make democracy and the tenets of America accessible to everyone? I believe there are three major areas of focus we should consider: the individual, the unit and the organization.
Start with yourself: If you are wondering, “What should I do or what can I do?” then I recommend you start with yourself first. Do a self-assessment of what you know about black history and culture, anti-racism and the legacy of slavery in American society. There are a number of critical articles and books which give an important overview of how deeply racist many economic, social and political policies, practices, and programs are in the United States and how many have systemically excluded black people. Make a commitment to learn about black people, history and culture through adult schools, online courses or reading groups. Saying “I don’t know” or “It wasn’t taught” is no longer an excuse anyone can continue to make. Create a personal reading list and development plan that further enhances your knowledge of African-American history and culture.
Commit to educating your unit or team: Each of us exists within some sort of unit: I would like for us to consider what personal and professional units we are associated with. On the personal side, it could be a family unit, a group of friends, or members of a group or social club you are associated with. In the professional realm, it could be your divisional unit or a particular segment of your professional association. All of these units and connections provide a rich opportunity for learning and development. During family social gatherings, plan to watch movies or commit to reading specific books together, so that there is a learning opportunity for everyone. In work settings, commit to reading articles and scholarly pieces which highlight how bias works and ways to perform work which embrace an anti-racist lens and praxis.
Are work policies inclusive?
How many black people are recruited, hired, retained and promoted?
Are black people represented in key leadership roles and is their pay equitable to their peers?
Every unit should have a learning plan and plan of action to ensure there is equity. For the black people who are a part of your team, has anyone asked them if they feel like someone is invested in them and their success? If so, is there demonstrated support, on-going education, and opportunities for mentoring, growth and professional development? Make a commitment for your family and work units to actively monitor progress of the learning plan and plan of action to embrace a model of equity. Hold the unit accountable by having a monthly and annual review, and emphasize collective accountability to ensure that this remains a priority for everyone.
Hold your organization accountable: Many institutions and corporations have functioned for decades in American society with little examination as to how their policies, practices, and programs impact or exclude black people. In addition to collecting data on the number of black employees and their leadership within your organizations, make sure to assess the overall climate and analyze qualitative experiences of black people.
Are black employees overrepresented in administrative roles compared to executive level roles?
Are there partnerships, coalitions, or alliances with national organizations which include black professionals?
Are there internship programs which hire black college students or research funds which support faculty and staff from historically black colleges and universities?
Are there training programs or pathway initiatives which provide opportunities for learning and exploration to diversify management and leadership, especially in areas that are historically not diverse?
Too often there is solely rhetoric with empty, symbolic gestures in corporate settings. These practices do little to promote and sustain structural or institutional change, and often lack ongoing commitment to recruitment, retention, and advancement of black workers. If each workplace commits to creating an equitable workplace, we may actually see real change. Equity assessments should be included in overall performance evaluations and measured regularly (each month with an annual review). This ensures that your organization maintains clearly stated benchmarks with action plans. If more organizations prioritized these approaches, then we would see greater success in the active recruitment, retention and promotion of black workers.
As we celebrate Juneteenth, my hope is that this moment will allow us to think critically about how American society has benefitted from the labor of enslaved Africans and what we need to do in order move forward as a society from the historical vestiges of slavery. We are living in a moment which demands reflection, reform, and action, in addition to the celebration of black culture and history.
It is 2020. This Juneteenth is a moment to bring about transformative change. Will we rise together, and make America what it ought to be- a place where black people are free and enjoy “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” or will we allow another moment in time to pass us by and not realize the freedom dreams of the enslaved Africans who built America with their blood, sweat and tears?
This is our Juneteenth Moment. Let’s make freedom, equality and justice for all a reality!
Dr. Karen Jackson-Weaver is an Associate Vice President in the NYU Office of Global Inclusion, Diversity & Strategic Innovation and a historian specializing in religion, ethics, and political affairs. Connect with her on LinkedIn or follow her on Twitter at @KJWeaverPhD.