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How 14 Black creatives got 800 companies to honor Juneteenth

Meet the designers whose activism got companies to commemorate the end of slavery.

How 14 Black creatives got 800 companies to honor Juneteenth
Swan Dotson, Phil, Emily Cunningham, Eric Ellerbee, Jena Dominique, Xavier Cunningham, Selena Davant, Tamika Tannis, Brian A. Watson, Denvre Dargan, Camille Dargan, André Singleton, Kirsten Grumney , Dorian Dargan, Adjoa Quansah, Dwayne Reeves, Joy Ekuta, Ajene Green, Meadow Dotson, Miles Dotson, Saji Girvan, Sarah Abdelaziz, Ariel Belgrave Harris, Jerel AllenChinua Green [Photo: courtesy Hella Creative]
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If you have the day off of work on June 18 or 19, you can thank a small collective of Black artists and creative professionals in the Bay Area who call themselves Hella Creative.

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Over the past year, propelled by the murder of George Floyd, about a dozen members of Hella Creative launched a campaign to educate the public about the significance of Juneteenth, which is the day in 1865 that the final enslaved people were freed in the United States. The group also lobbied companies to give employees the day off to commemorate it and immerse themselves in Black history.

These efforts worked: More than 800 companies have pledged to make Juneteenth a paid holiday for workers. Yesterday, President Biden signed a bill enshrining the day as a federal holiday, which makes Juneteenth the first holiday that acknowledges America’s history of slavery and celebrates the contributions Black Americans have made to this country.

Retrospect, Left to right: Quinnton Harris, Joy Ekuta, Ajene Green, Chijioke Amah. [Photo: Breyona Holt of Exquisite Eyes Studios/courtesy Hella Creative]

Joy is an act of resistance

The origins of the campaign came out of a desire to create a space for joy in the Black community, says Quinnton Harris, who launched Hella Creative along with tech executives Brian A. Watson and Miles Dotson. After graduating from MIT, Harris pursued a career in advertising and UX design, working for large companies like Digitas and Publicis, before launching his own experimental studio called Retrospect. When he landed in the Bay Area he was eager for community, so with Watson and Dotson he built a collective of Black creatives including photographer Ashleigh Reddy, model June Johnson, and media executive Martina Abrahams.

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Last summer, he and the other members of the group were grieving over George Floyd’s death. They were used to meeting up regularly for house parties, but with the pandemic raging, they felt isolated. “We were so lonely,” Harris says. “So we pledged to meet virtually once a week to have a sense of community and fellowship together. We were in pain. Some of us were crying on the call, and we kept saying, ‘We don’t want to feel like this.'”

[Image: “Midnight Jubilee” by Bay Area artist Joonbug/courtesy Hella Creative]
But over time, they felt sadness wasn’t the only response to the systemic racism and brutality that was on display all around them. Harris says it was important to acknowledge and process grief, but it was also important to make space for Black joy. “I love the quote, ‘Joy is an act of resistance,'” he says. “It is so true. We are not defined by trauma and oppression done to us: We can also choose to be defined by our joy.”

One member of the group, a photographer named Adrian Octavius Walker, mentioned that his birthday was June 19 and he was used to celebrating Juneteenth with his family. And suddenly, the members of Hella Creative began to explore the history of the day. Many weren’t particularly familiar with it; Harris himself had only heard about it in college.

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The day commemorates June 19, 1865, when the Union army arrived in Texas to announce that the Civil War had ended and enslaved people were now free. It was two and a half years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Some believe enslavers deliberately withheld the news to keep their plantations running; others believe federal troops waited to let slave owners reap their last harvest before communicating that slavery had been abolished. Since then, Black Texans have celebrated Juneteenth with elaborate parades, cookouts, and parties, much like the rest of the nation celebrates the 4th of July. “There are so many times in my life that I haven’t felt American, whether that’s in the workplace or in white spaces,” Harris says. “When I learned that Juneteenth was a celebration of Black liberation, it felt so right.”

[Image: courtesy Hella Creative]

The grassroots campaign that went viral

Initially, Hella Creative members pledged to take the day off work for Juneteenth to focus on self-care and finding joy. But it occurred to them that they were in very privileged positions, since most of them had jobs at tech companies, which offered them job security and paid time off, or were successful entrepreneurs who had control over their schedules. So they began reaching out to their own employers as well as other companies in their networks to ask for Juneteenth to be a company holiday. They created a website called Hella Juneteenth that explained what the day was all about and invited companies to add themselves to a running list of organizations that would give employees a paid day off to commemorate it.

[Image: courtesy Hella Creative]
The tipping point came when Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter and Square, caught wind of their efforts and tweeted that both his companies would make Juneteenth a holiday, linking to the Hella Juneteenth site. Suddenly the floodgates opened, Harris said. Hundreds of companies added themselves to the list—from established firms like Nike, Mastercard, and Ralph Lauren to small startups.

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[Image: courtesy Hella Creative]
But perhaps most compellingly, all of this corporate activism has had an influence on the government. Juneteenth became an official state holiday in Texas in 1980, and since then, people have repeatedly called for the day to become a national holiday. In 2016, for instance, then-89-year-old Opal Lee set out from her home in Forth Worth, Texas, with the goal of walking to Washington, D.C., to convince legislators to create the holiday. That effort didn’t work. But this past week, the Senate agreed, without debate, to pass a bill declaring June 19 a federal holiday, and the House of Representatives approved it by an overwhelming vote of 415 to 14. Yesterday, President Biden signed the bill, which means that all federal employees get the day off. This may also nudge corporations to give their workers the day off.

[Image: courtesy Hella Creative]
Juneteenth is a new holiday to many people, who may not know the most appropriate way to celebrate it. This is something the group address on its website. For the Black community, they suggest this is a time for self-care, celebration, joy, and savoring freedom. And for allies, they say it might be a time for reflection, supporting Black-owned businesses, and learning about Black history. “Juneteenth is about the freedom and liberation of Black people,” says Harris. “And we want people to feel free to celebrate it however they like.”

Over the past year, Harris has felt compelled to use his creative skills to do a different kind of work. He cofounded Retrospect with other members of Hella Creative—Joy Ekuta, Ajene Green, and Chijioke Amah—to create a studio that would do everything from branding to apps to UX design, all of which would be grounded in the experiences of the Black founders and focused on social impact.

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With this company, Harris wants to shift from thinking about the Black community as a monolith to recognizing the diversity of experiences contained within it. He points out that all the members of the founding team have very different experiences as Black people living in America. While Harris describes himself as a Black American, Green is from Jamaica, Ekuta was born in Nigeria, and Amah is American-born Nigerian. He hopes Retrospect’s work can acknowledge and celebrate this nuance. “We represent a very wide range of Black within the Black diaspora,” Harris says. “The diversity within the Black experience is so expansive.”

About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a senior staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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