Why Juneteenth Matters — And How Companies Are (And Should Be) Celebrating It
An earlier version of this article was originally published on June 18th, 2020
When did you learn what Juneteenth was?
For many Americans, particularly white Americans or those living outside of Texas, the annual holiday celebrated on June 19th isn't something they know about and certainly isn't something they celebrate. And that's a shame. (I, for one, learned about it several years ago on Twitter; none of my primary, secondary, or post-secondary education included even a mention of the day, and it took the tweets of a Black critic to make me look into what the holiday was and why it should be celebrated.)
Many more Americans learned about Juneteenth for the first time in 2020, when the holiday fell on day 20-something of nationwide protests over police brutality and the murders of Black Americans like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
No matter when you first learned about the holiday, it's important to understand not only its roots, but why it's so important to celebrate today.
We'll talk about what Juneteenth is and why it matters, and then we'll cover something we care deeply about as an organization committed to Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging: why companies should recognize it and how some of them are already doing so.
A Brief History of Juneteenth
Some people understand Juneteenth as the celebration of the end of slavery. But that's not quite it.
Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. That was technically the day slavery ended in the U.S.
But enslaved people in Texas didn't know that until two and a half years later, on June 19, 1865, when Union General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas and told still-enslaved Black people there of their freedom and of the end of the Civil War. (Some historians note that slave masters may have withheld the information from their slaves in order to get another harvest out of them, and others highlight the lack of Union troops in the state to enforce it.)
The day turned into an important holiday for the Black community in Texas and beyond, particularly so after 1872, when a group of Black community leaders bought 10 acres of land in Houston and created Emancipation Park.
Now, big cities—including Atlanta, Washington D.C., and Houston—hold large events, parades, and festivals celebrating the day, and individual families and communities often gather to share food and celebrate.
Juneteenth is currently celebrated as a holiday in 46 states and D.C., though it's not a federal one and comes with no guaranteed time off.
It might be a paid holiday in the future, though, particularly if individual states and companies keep moving to make it so on a smaller scale. The governor of Virginia stated this week that he wanted to propose legislation to make Juneteenth a paid state holiday, and big companies like Twitter, Nike, Postmates, and the NFL have made the day a company holiday.
What Companies Are Doing — And What They Should Be Doing
Before diving in and highlighting what companies are doing, I want to share an important framing, inspired by this LinkedIn post by Aaisha Joseph: no amount of PR-friendly corporate statements or flashy moves will make up for investing the time, effort, and money in pursuing actively anti-racist policies at work.
That means that without a thorough policy review for unfair hiring, evaluation, or promotion policies; without doing a salary analysis and salary adjustments to identify and close the wage gap between Black and white employees; without asking for diverse slates of candidates in your hiring and creating environments for those candidates to succeed and move up the ranks of your organization; and without putting Black employees in leadership positions (and ensuring they're not pushed off the "glass cliff" while doing it), saying you're anti-racist—or celebrating Juneteenth—isn't enough.
It's a start. But we all need to push our companies to keep going long beyond that.
That being said, let's take a look at ways that some companies acknowledged their mistakes and took steps to create more inclusive workplaces by commemorating Juneteenth in 2020:
- Reddit made Juneteenth a company-wide day of education and activism, and they're encouraging employees to clear their meetings and instead spend the day engaging meaningfully with Black history.
- Amazon is also encouraging employees to cancel meetings and spend the day focused on "online learning opportunities" and "reflection," per CEO Jeff Bezos's memo to staff.
- Facebook is taking a similar approach and cancelling all meetings to engage "in conversation about the history, experiences and issues that Black Americans still face."
- Adobe is giving employees the day off to focus on reflection and advocacy.
- Autodesk, part of a group of companies participating in the #RecoverStronger Initiative has made the day a company-wide holiday
- Packet has also made the day a company-wide holiday
- PagerDuty is giving employees the day off and asking them to get involved through identified resources focused on giving money, volunteering time, advocating for justice, and educating themselves and others.
- Lyft is making Juneteenth a paid holiday now and in the future.
- The New York Times is giving employees the day off and giving a flex day off for employees who need to cover news that day.
Many of the above companies have also given money to racial justice-focused organizations, lifted up the voices of their Black employee resource groups, and committed to revising their internal policies and procedures to create a more inclusive workforce.
If you or your company are looking for other ideas of things you can do, consider:
- Digging into anti-racism resources as a team. Center your next team meeting around one of the films, books, articles, or chats on this list we've put together.
- Listening directly to Black people about their experiences. Join us for our chat with artist and activist Maryella Marie on the Black Experience, or listen to other interviews or news stories from these past few weeks featuring Black voices.
- Speaking up to HR and asking them to do more. As our former Director of Global Diversity and Inclusion, Dionna Smith, shared in a chat-and-learn, "If you ever had a fighting chance to have your company pay attention to Black issues and how it affects a company, it's now. Don't give up easily on this. There is no middle road on this, and you have more leverage than ever."
- Making a diversity scorecard for your organization. Dionna addresses what that should include—from special project distribution, leadership makeup, and attribution—in this video.
- Offer extended self-care options. Can you offer or expand therapy benefits? Racism is traumatic, and your Black employees or coworkers may need extra help right now.