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Juneteenth is not just a ‘day off’—it should be ‘day on’ aimed at education and community

The head of People at Iris explains how no matter what position you hold, you can make sure your organization thoughtfully incorporates the significance of this holiday.

Juneteenth is not just a ‘day off’—it should be ‘day on’ aimed at education and community
[Photo: Go Nakamura/Getty Images]

This year, most businesses in the United States will observe Juneteenth as a federal holiday . . . finally. But Juneteenth is much more than a day off–it’s an opportunity to facilitate education and learning for everyone. A chance to ensure that our broader communities understand the significance of this historic day and how it links to today.

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HR is uniquely positioned to help facilitate education and growth. And some of us (myself included) believe that this is the ideal time to host presentations and experiences related to African American heritage, highlighting art, music, dance, and culture. A chance to show our coworkers the important connections between African American culture and history. But it’s certainly not the only way to commemorate Juneteenth. What’s most important here is that we don’t treat it like a day to just sit at home. There’s a responsibility that comes with it.

And this is the responsibility of HR exclusively. We can all play a part. When things are important to you, you take the time to learn them. We all have a people-forward responsibility to learn, know, and appreciate more about our colleagues, what matters to them and what impacts their lives.

So, how can you—no matter what position you hold—make sure that your organization thoughtfully incorporates the significance of this holiday into this day off? How can leaders better support people to educate themselves? 

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Make Juneteenth participatory

Begin by providing your employees with a resource guide of Juneteenth events and festivals that they can attend in their area. Recognize it, of course, but also go one step further to help them make it a day of involvement and participation. If you’re able, host your own event or facilitate a day of volunteerism.

Educate yourself

Everyone, especially those in positions of leadership, is a student in their own right, but we tend to forget that. Every leader has a responsibility to educate themselves on what matters to their team members. They shouldn’t rely on colleagues from minority groups to inform them or help them gain that understanding conveniently. 

Research and growth are the best ways forward. Make sure you’re continuously researching issues that are important to others, especially if you hold a seat in the C-suite or HR. You owe it to yourself and your organization to learn more, and do more. Familiarize yourself with what matters to your entire team. 

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And there will be times when we must make ourselves uncomfortable, because the issue of inequality, particularly in light of our history, must make us uncomfortable in more ways than one. So, let’s be open to having candid discussions about the challenges that still affect us as a society, as well as what we can do to help promote real progress.

If you’re not sure where to start, look up companies or agencies that commemorate Juneteenth to get a sense of how the day is observed. You can also reach out to African American organizations and nonprofits in your area and invite them to come speak and share. Events and workshops don’t just prioritize education but emphasize participation as well.

Follow through

Recognize that learning takes time. The things that are important to you and your team require consistent commitment and attention. Celebrating Juneteenth is a process, not a one-time event. You must follow through. Spread the Juneteenth spirit throughout the year.

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And I’m not just talking to U.S.-based businesses. I can’t tell you enough how frustrating it can be to hear that a company or brand isn’t speaking out or getting involved because they’re “global,” and the topic is perceived as an “American issue.” Having headquarters outside the U.S. is the norm in most industries, but it’s no excuse not to educate yourselves and your teams.

If diversity and inclusion are a primary focus for you, then you have the responsibility to understand all the markets you’re operating in. Black Lives Matter, for instance, is not an “American-only” issue. Neither are human rights.

Raise your hand to support progress

If you believe your company is not doing enough to commemorate Juneteenth or other diversity-themed holidays—such as Asian American and Pacific Islander Month, Hispanic Heritage Month, or Pride–make sure to raise your concerns with human resources. Then raise your hand to offer to support and progress discussions into actions.

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When the enslaved African-American community of Galveston, Texas, heard the Emancipation Proclamation on June 19, 1865, they were overcome with an unimaginable sense of joy. But that moment also marked the beginning of a long struggle for social justice that continues to this day. Let’s not regard Juneteenth as a recurrent point on the calendar conveniently marked as federal holiday. Let’s see it as part of a long historical process that keeps transforming our society—one which we must understand, recognize and participate in.

 Mary Finch is the head of People, Americas at Iris.

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