June 16, 2021

How Your Company Could Celebrate Juneteenth

Juneteenth is almost here and it’s time to commemorate the emancipation of enslaved people in the U.S. Although the holiday is celebrated every year on June 19th and is 156 years old, how to celebrate it is not common knowledge. Due to recent civil unrest following the death of George Floyd and calls for social justice, companies have had a heightened sensitivity to the African American experience and have made efforts to show their support. This article aims to provide a guideline for companies to celebrate and remember Juneteenth.

What is the Juneteenth tradition?

Traditionally, Juneteenth is celebrated in the black community with street fairs, parades and concerts. Education and celebration being the cornerstone for all events and practices. For example, due to the holiday’s southern roots, barbecue is a must and red foods like strawberry soda, red drinks and red velvet cake are meant to symbolize ingenuity, resilience in bondage and honors the blood that was shed by African Americans during the slavery era.  At some point there is an accounting of the history that lead to the event to include an excerpt from the Emancipation Proclamation and/or a reading of the ratification of the 13th amendment, which formally abolished slavery in the United States. It reads:

"Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction."

Depending on where you live in the United States, Juneteenth was (or was not) well known. For example, Joy Yvonne Jones, president of the San Diego Black Artist Collective said this about her Juneteenth experiences growing up.

“Growing up in Houston,” says Jones, “Juneteenth was always a huge deal, that involved the entire city. It was a big day. There was a downtown parade, and people were given the day off from work. I thought it was a national holiday!

“When I moved to San Diego in 2016 (her husband of six years is a Marine stationed at Camp Pendleton), I saw that there wasn’t much happening here for Juneteenth. I’ve been talking about a Juneteenth Festival ever since.”


The Politics of Juneteenth

As to be expected in this age of political hyper-partisanship, Juneteenth became an issue of currying favor with voters. President Trump sought to take credit for bringing Juneteenth to the mainstream. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, this was reported.

On race issues, Mr. Trump said a black Secret Service agent told him the meaning of Juneteenth as the president was facing criticism for initially planning to hold his first campaign rally in three months on the day.

The rally is scheduled to be held in Tulsa, Okla., where, in 1921, a mob of white residents attacked and killed black community members, destroying a thriving black business district.

Holding a rally on that day, particularly as racial protests continued throughout the country, was insensitive, African-American leaders told Mr. Trump. He eventually pushed the rally back a day to June 20.

“I did something good: I made Juneteenth very famous,” Mr. Trump said, referring to news coverage of the rally date. “It’s actually an important event, an important time. But nobody had ever heard of it.”

Mr. Trump said he polled many people around him, none of whom had heard of Juneteenth. Mr. Trump paused the interview to ask an aide if she had heard of Juneteenth, and she pointed out that the White House had issued a statement last year commemorating the day. Mr. Trump’s White House has put out statements on Juneteenth during each of his first three years.

On the other side of the political spectrum, several people pointed out that President Obama had touted the significance of Juneteenth since his first year in office. To quote USA Today…

According to White House archives, during his time in the Oval Office, Obama made an official White House statement regarding Juneteenth on seven separate occasions, beginning during his first year in office in 2009, with the exception of 2013, based on our research. That year, he was in Berlin on Juneteenth.

Several tweets from the White House's official account also coincided with the statements from past years.

All that being said, no matter who is credited, Juneteenth did not rise to mainstream prominence until recently. One proof of that is the volume of online searches on the subject. According to Google Trends data, searches on Juneteenth were relatively low until 2018 when a sharp spike was recorded. Last year, searches on Juneteenth trended to its highest recording to date; most notably in the southern states.

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How companies have celebrated Juneteenth

Regardless of the politicization of Juneteenth, some companies have embraced it as a corporate social responsibility initiative. Take for example, Best Buy, who said this in a 2020 press release.

Yet another opportunity to speak up comes in the context of peaceful protests, rallies and community service. Given that this Friday is the celebration of the emancipation of the last enslaved African Americans — known since June 19, 1865, as “Juneteenth” — we have made the decision to give all employees a paid volunteer day that can be used this Friday or any day this year for any of these purposes. Starting next year, Juneteenth will become a formal, paid company holiday. We made the decision to begin this next year only because June 19 is just a few days away, and we wanted to give as much flexibility as possible to accommodate individual schedules. 

 The company PagerDuty said this in a 2020 Juneteenth announcement

“During this time, Dutonians (PagerDuty employees) will be asked to use their voices to advocate for equity and critical reform for the Black community. From education to volunteerism, we’re offering opportunities for all of our employees to contribute and incite change. Specifically, we invite them to: Volunteer with causes that advocate for the rights of the Black community and other marginalized groups, Participate in peaceful activism close to their home…”

Also in 2020, Seam Social Labs hosted a virtual Juneteenth event titled “Vibrations for the Culture” as an opportunity to “honor Black joy and meditate on community health.” The event featured a DJ and keynote speeches from the President of the Baltimore NAACP Reverend Kobi Little and former Ohio State Representative Alicia Reece.

And while many companies gave money and/or offered to match employee donations to social justice causes due to the influence of groups like Black Lives Matter, the timing of the gifts coincided with the Juneteenth celebrations.

Before you do anything, consider this

Any and all Juneteenth activity by your company should supplement your existing Diversity, Equity and Inclusion efforts. Why? If your company has not already made efforts along those lines, your initiatives, no matter how well-intentioned, will be seen as performative. As a result, you might be opening yourself to internal scrutiny and public ridicule. If you do not have a DEI strategy in place, I humbly suggest that you talk to Greg Fontus who leads our internal Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and Retention Services initiatives. Click here to get on his calendar now.

A few more suggestions

In addition to time off, volunteering and financial support, there are other ways companies can honor the memory of Juneteenth. Here are just a few suggestions…

  • Highlight various yearly initiatives and plans your company is doing to support the local African American community. 
  • Highlight and support and black-owned businesses.

More inspiration for how your company can appreciate Juneteenth could be in researching this list of companies and their efforts. If not this year, maybe I will see you on their list in 2022? See you then.

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