Juneteenth: Did you mark the day?

'We have far to go - but today is a day of celebration'

Juneteenth: Did you mark the day?

June 19th, or Juneteenth, is one of the most important days in the history of the world. Juneteenth, historically known as Jubilee Day, marks the official emancipation of enslaved African Americans in the USA. Despite its huge historical significance, up until earlier this month the day wasn’t recognised as a national holiday – only passing into legalisation after current President Joe Biden signed the much-anticipated bill.

Speaking to the audience at the signing, Vice President Kamala Harris – the very first Black woman to hold said title – explained the real significance of this day.

“We are gathered here, in a house built by enslaved people,” she said. “We are footsteps away from where President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, and we are here to witness President Joe Biden establish Juneteenth as a national holiday. We have come far, and we have far to go, but today is a day of celebration.”

Read more: Diversity in the workplace: How to lead as an ally

And while this is a huge victory for diversity and inclusion – does it really go far enough? How can employers support their people in celebrating this day away from the office? Where does it begin? Well, HRD recently spoke to Kimberly Lee Minor, CEO of diversity consultancy Bumbershoot, who told us that Juneteenth wasn’t really taught in schools – at least not to the extent it should be.

“I learned the significance of Juneteenth in my house, from my family – not from the education system,” Minor explained. “In fact, for the longest time here textbooks, anything that was taught, focused on the majority. It didn't see contributions from Native Americans, any anyone of Asian American descent – definitely no African American content. The little bit that was taught in the schools was even smaller when it came to slavery and what that meant to the African American culture. The schools just didn't address why there was systemic racism or bias - and why people in many of these communities just couldn't seem to get ahead.”

Read more: How to create an inclusive workplace

Celebrating Juneteenth was a huge part of Minor’s upbringing. When she was a young child, her family would host a cookout, coming together to mark the occasion with food and fun. As she got older, Minor started researching more into the events leading up to the day. Eventually, she found organizations that held festivals with educational activities and celebrations of African music.

“They would read from books written by slaves, sing songs from African cultures,” Minor told HRD. “This really promoted a greater understanding of the importance of the day – not only for people then, but for communities living now.”

Now that employees have officially been given the day off work, there’s a variety of ways you can celebrate. For employers, try offering up some suggestions to staff – perhaps there’s some community events going on or a group activity you could organize as a whole. Most importantly, don’t let the day pass without acknowledging it. After all, change is only ever properly established when people take action.

“I think a large part of our problem in being a divisive nation is that sometimes we have no reciprocal experience or understanding of each other,” added Minor. “That’s why it’s so essential to go to a festival and be able to hear these stories, or taste foods that might have been of that time and understand what it felt like to not be free - that has to do something to a person, that has to give them some sort of understanding and empathy. I think that those types of celebrations are really important.”

How did you celebrate Juneteenth this year? How do you plan to celebrate in 2022? Tell us in the comments.

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