Juneteenth, or June 19, became a federal holiday last Thursday after Biden signed a bill into law that made it official — becoming the first new federal holiday since Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1983. This monumental event signals cultural change in the U.S., and organizations are encouraged to do more than take the day off to emphasize the importance.

Before diving into how employers can take action to make celebrating Juneteenth more impactful, it is important to understand the history behind Juneteenth.

Also known as Emancipation Day, Jubilee Day, and Black Independence Day, Juneteenth is recognized as a date in which slavery ended in one of the last remaining U.S. cities, Galveston, Texas. On June 19, 1965, General Gordon Granger led 1,800 Union soldiers into Galveston and delivered Order No. 3, which says:

“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.”

While President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1963, it wasn’t until years later that freedom reached the westernmost Confederate breakaway state, Texas. 

And so, Juneteenth, now officially a federal holiday, has become a historic landmark for African Americans and people of color.

Organizations looking to participate in Juneteenth celebrations can do so in more thoughtful ways. An article written by Ella F. Washington and Jasmine Sanders, published in the Harvard Business Review, identifies four steps for doing so. With these four steps, organizations can give celebration to Juneteenth in a way that lasts longer than the holiday itself and further helps advance the cultural shift. 

To help employers create genuine recognition for the holiday, Trusaic has summarized the four steps below:

Step 1: Dedicate time for spreading awareness

Organizations are responding differently to the celebration of Juneteenth — some are taking the day off, others are facilitating group discussions for sharing information about the holiday. 

Regardless of how your organization is partaking in Juneteenth however, use it as an opportunity to bolster your diversity, pay equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts. Discuss how the holiday has impacted you and invite others from your workforce to join the conversation by sharing how it has affected them. This will foster a more inclusive work environment.

Step 2: Recognize Juneteenth in the larger picture

The HBR article says, “Juneteenth is not only a celebration of freedom, but also one of opportunity, equity and access.” The authors go on to say that “June 19 events also present an opportunity for companies to reckon and wrestle with their own DEI goals with an eye to access and advancement for professionals of color.” 

What this means for your organization is that the holiday can be a tool for assessing how your organization is managing its DEI goals and initiatives. The landmark decision to make Juneteenth a federal holiday speaks to a larger cultural shift taking place across the U.S., and organizations should leverage the opportunity to expand workplace opportunities for employees that have historically been marginalized and underrepresented. A great place to start is to review your current workforce makeup, pay policies, and hiring strategies to ensure your organization is harboring a diverse and equitable environment. 

Step 3: Focus on the message behind Juneteenth

Your organization can create meaning in celebrating Juneteenth through educational activities that expand employees’ understanding of the holiday. The authors encourage organizations to be active in their recognition of the holiday and promote engagement in activities that spread awareness, such as sponsoring trips to African American museums and cultural centers.

The HBR article specifically says, “Companies’ shift from passive to active commemoration of Juneteenth and other cultural holidays signals purpose and relevance rather than hollow recognition.” Organizations that focus on the meaning behind Juneteenth can further perpetuate change and position themselves as DEI thought leaders.

Step 4: Recognize the importance of intersectionality

Intersectionality is defined as the “interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group” and while an event such as Juneteenth pays particular recognition to African Americans, this is an opportunity to demonstrate empathy amongst workers and colleagues. “There is room for everyone at the DEI table,” as the HBR article states, adding “And when we advocate for change, it inherently raises all the boats creating a more inclusive environment for all.” 

In short, Juneteenth, while aimed at a particular subset of Americans, possesses the power to bring people together through shared experiences. Encouraging those sentiments and attitudes in the workplace is critical for organizations looking to foster more diverse, equitable, and inclusive workforces. 

And so, the historic moment when Biden and a bi-partisan congress signed Juneteenth into law as a federal holiday, signals a point of critical change in U.S. history. Organizations should leverage this opportunity to revisit their DEI goals and initiatives and focus on uniting their workforces on all fronts.

If your organization needs assistance achieving its DEI goals, check out our professional consulting services and DEI software, PayParitySM.

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