Jump to section
What is Juneteenth?
Juneteenth, observed on June 19th, commemorates the emancipation of enslaved Black Americans and the official end of chattel slavery in America. On that historic day in 1856, a proclamation from the Executive of the United States declared slaves to be free.
This significant event symbolizes the ongoing struggle for freedom and equality, highlighting the resilience of Black Americans who continue to fight against the bonds of racism and advocate for systemic change.
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 Juneteenth, now a federally recognized holiday and a day off work for many, it’s crucial for companies, leaders, and individuals to reflect on the true essence of this day.
Why should companies invest in Juneteenth?
The effects of hundreds of years of chattel slavery did not cease to exist overnight when freedom was announced in 1865. These deep-rooted legacies persist in the modern world, shaping our society and institutions.
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 bear direct responsibility for slavery, they have a vital role to play in dismantling the enduring chains that connect that dark past to present-day manifestations of racism.
For People leaders, this holiday presents a valuable opportunity to:
- Strengthen their capacity for empathy, recognizing and understanding the significance of Black Joy
- Learn why Juneteenth holds profound importance for Black employees and their lived experiences
- Reflect on how the company is fostering an environment where Black employees can thrive and address any disparities they may face
On Juneteenth, it’s up to People leaders to honor the heavy history, actively combat racism, and above all, embrace the joyous spirit of this holiday alongside Black colleagues.
How can companies support Black employees on 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 how the company can continue dismantling the lingering effects of slavery, Jim Crow, and present-day manifestations of systemic racism.
Granting employees the day off is a small initial step, but there are additional ways to honor the significance of this holiday without diminishing its historical weight or the immense joy it represents.
Consider the following actions:
- Empower Black Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) and Black leaders to lead the Juneteenth celebrations. Give them the autonomy to shape the events and activities, ensuring authenticity and inclusivity.
- Clearly articulate the reasons for celebrating Juneteenth as a company and communicate this purpose to all employees. Foster understanding and create a shared sense of importance and meaning behind the holiday.
- Use Juneteenth as an occasion for reflection on the status of Black employees within the company. Assess and address any existing disparities, provide opportunities for growth and advancement, and create an environment where Black employees feel supported and valued.
- Take a firm stance against racism and clearly communicate the company’s position. Articulate anti-racist values and back them up with concrete actions and policies that promote diversity, equality, and inclusion.
- Make a financial commitment to organizations actively fighting racism. Support initiatives and causes dedicated to dismantling systemic barriers and promoting racial justice.
- Bring in speakers and provide educational resources that facilitate learning and dialogue around the history, significance, and ongoing struggles related to Juneteenth and the Black experience in America.
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 vanish overnight with Juneteenth or the Civil Rights movement.
Celebrating Juneteenth is a meaningful step toward supporting Black employees, but it should be accompanied by sustained action throughout the year. This begins with making an official and public commitment to invest in Black employees, followed by developing a comprehensive plan in collaboration with Black ERGs and Black leadership.
To effectively invest in your Black employees, begin with honest self-reflection. Ask important questions, such as:
- Are there Black employees in positions of leadership within the organization?
- What is the wage breakdown? Are most Black employees earning the lowest salaries?
- Are Black employees being fairly compensated based on their value to the company?
- Do Black employees feel safe and empowered to bring their authentic selves to work?
Additionally, create opportunities for mentorship and support. Evaluate your hiring and salary practices to ensure equitable treatment of Black employees. Foster an inclusive work environment where Black employees have equal access to growth and advancement opportunities.
To promote diversity in leadership, challenge outdated stereotypes of what a leader should look like. Be open and creative in selecting individuals for leadership roles rather than basing decisions on past norms that reinforce the status quo.
Instead, focus on the accomplishments and goals that a leadership role requires. By breaking this cycle, you can challenge preconceived notions and embrace individuals who may differ from previous leaders, cultivating a more inclusive and diverse leadership environment.
In addition to challenging norms around leadership, implementing mentoring programs for Black employees can be highly beneficial. These programs expose mentors to people who may not fit the traditional leadership mold, allowing them to recognize the potential and suitability of these people for leadership roles.
Increasing face-to-face interactions between Black employees and leadership addresses unequal opportunities, fostering a fairer promotion process by better understanding their capabilities.
While the mentor in a mentoring relationship doesn’t have to be Black, they must be committed to anti-racist work. Partnering a Black employee with an unengaged mentor can hinder their growth and development.
The importance of Black ERGs in Juneteenth celebrations
Black ERGs are vital in leading the way toward meaningful Juneteenth celebrations and promoting racial equity within companies.
Understandably, ERG leaders and companies want to make people feel comfortable about how Juneteenth is celebrated. However, in many ways, this 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.
Give Black ERGs and Black leaders the freedom to celebrate Juneteenth by creating programming in whatever way feels authentic and meaningful to them. Ultimately, as an ERG leader, you’re responsible to the people in your group.
The nature of Juneteenth celebrations within your workplace will depend on factors such as company size, available resources, and the unique personalities within the ERG.
Remember that prioritizing Black equity should take precedence over maintaining comfort, as true progress often requires challenging existing norms and structures.
How can non-Black allies commemorate Juneteenth?
On June 19th, non-Black allies can actively participate in Juneteenth celebrations alongside their Black colleagues. Here are some ways to engage:
- Cultivate empathy: share in the immense joy and significance of Juneteenth for Black Americans, embracing empathy as a mindset of understanding and celebrating together.
- Embrace celebration: unlike somber commemorations, Juneteenth is a time for Black joy, fellowship, and achievement. Non-Black allies can actively engage in the festivities, fostering a spirit of celebration
- Foster learning: use Juneteenth as an opportunity for personal growth and education. Reflect on the holiday’s historical significance and deepen your understanding of its cultural importance. Listen to the stories and experiences of Black colleagues.
- Respect the purpose: approach Juneteenth with reverence, recognizing it as a time for Black Americans to honor their history, celebrate freedom, and reflect on the ongoing struggle for racial equity.
Sustaining resilience in the fight for equality
In recognition of the significance of Juneteenth, it’s fitting to conclude on a joyful note. Serving as an ERG leader involves navigating the challenging terrain of systemic inequalities in the workplace and society.
That’s why it becomes all the more essential to emphasize the fellowship, joy, and enjoyment of this role. These elements are vital for our well-being and sustain us as we strive to create a more equitable world.
By embracing the uplighting qualities of our work, we find the strength and resilience needed to continue our fight for a better future.
Read this blog next for seven powerful ways leaders can be allies to black employees.