Juneteenth

Juneteenth

18 June 2021

by Razan Abdelgadir (Engagement and Inclusion Partner, OJ)

Tomorrow (June, 19th), marks the first time Juneteenth is a recognised public holiday in New York. Later today our New York office will be sitting down with Derek Lipscomb (Founder and Educator at The Work, New York) to become more educated on the history of Juneteenth.

In today’s blog, Derek provides an insight into what The Work does, the meaning behind Juneteenth, and how we can all drive the necessary conversations around race.

Derek, what is The Work and why was it launched?

After George Floyd’s murder in May 2020, I recognized there was a need for spaces to discuss action steps across racial lines. Many Black and Brown people were handling their own emotional trauma surrounding the civil unrest in America. Those wanting to learn from BIPOC (black, indigenous, and other people of colour) perspectives needed spaces they could do research for themselves, or what we have called ‘The Work’.

In short, the goal of the work is to build a racial literacy toolkit for anyone wanting to navigate racial discussions in any space; from casual talks in the workplace to teaching children about diverse perspectives. 

The Work aims to help start and sustain the conversations around race and social justice.

What is Juneteenth?

Juneteenth, also called "Emancipation Day" or "Jubilee Day", is a celebratory holiday in the United States signifying the liberation of enslaved people following the Civil War in 1865.

Though the Emancipation Proclamation had been signed by Abraham Lincoln in 1863, some slave owners retreated to Galveston, Texas, where they felt the Union soldiers would be less likely to find them, however, on June 19th, 1865, Major Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston with 2,000 Union troops to enforce the peaceful transition of power as well as the emancipation of enslaved people in the area.

Since then, Juneteenth has been primarily seen as an Independence Day for Black Americans, and while Texas made it an official holiday in 1980, more states have begun to discuss treating Juneteenth as a national holiday following George Floyd's murder and the subsequent international protests. 

Why is Juneteenth significant?

While Juneteenth is used to commemorate the freedom and liberation of enslaved Black Americans, the underlying significance talks about the need for solidarity in knowing one's own past and history.

Many Black Americans cannot trace their lineage back past the Civil War, so Juneteenth allows there to be a singular holiday for acknowledgement of the past. It is a celebratory holiday as much as it is a reflective one. It is generally considered as the first major Black holiday in the United States, but it also tells a story of how America is not always receptive to change.

For me, teaching about Juneteenth to my students generally entails questions of fairness: “Why weren’t the slaves freed immediately?” or “What happened once they were set free?” and dealing with an honest look at how America grappled with a newly freed population that is now supposed to integrate with those that enslaved them.

This dynamic is still being discussed today and it is a contentious topic for many. Juneteenth aims to have everyone take some time to recognize how far we have come since June 19th, 1865, but also how far we have yet to go.

How can people become more educated on race?

There are plenty of resources that surround discussing race. Some utilise history or religion as a segue into racial discussions, while others are focused more on story-telling and narratives to allow a glimpse into different perspectives. Whatever you decide, try finding authors that can help you build a wide range of understanding rather than a narrowed point-of-view around how to talk about race.

It is always important to start with oneself when thinking about race and identity. Questions you can ask yourself: Where did I grow up? Were there others that looked like me? Who were my parent’s friends with? Who did they have visiting them? What was the makeup of my school? Was I reflected in the curriculum? There are many more questions that one can ask themselves about their upbringing and how they discussed race in their families.

Some people may have found themselves completely new to the idea of race and have often been considered "colour-blind" when it comes to race. The issue here is that if you cannot see race, you cannot see me, and while the intention is to say "race should not matter", the impact is that "race does not matter", and that can have detrimental effects on individuals in the workplace and beyond.

Getting comfortable with understanding and navigating your own race allows a better form of engagement when wanting to discuss topics related to racial relations.

Remember to be patient with yourself and others as you continue to learn and be okay with changing your viewpoints when presented with new information.

How can we all drive the necessary conversations about race?

With any conversations around race in the workplace, it is important to recognize, "Who are the gatekeepers in my organization as it adheres to race?". It can often be easy for support around racial conversations to start from the bottom-up with employees that are happy to take on the extra burden of creating spaces to discuss race.

While these are excellent short-term solutions, for those that want to begin to build relationships with colleagues, a better long-term strategy is to think about this work and what it looks like from the top-down; How does the C-Suite feel about race? How and when do they discuss diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) initiatives with their cohorts? How transparent are they around communicating those initiatives to the wider population?

While grassroots efforts in the workplace are always encouraged, having top-down support allows there to be a more interwoven aspect to DE&I within a company's community. Professional development, book clubs, speakers, and self-reflection exercises are some of the way’s companies have begun to lean their constituents into the discomfort around discussing race as a community.

We often wait until a catalyst (unarmed police killing, inequitable legislation, the leaving of a POC colleague, etc.) to begin taking racial discussions seriously, but we can all be proactive instead of reactive when it comes to setting up structures to pre-emptively talk about race.

It can become difficult to have these conversations if relationships have not been built first and much of this work requires collaborations and genuine relationships to sustain itself. We always want to make sure we are aligning our intentions with our impact. 

As a business we are on a journey with diversity, equality, and inclusion and we recognise that whilst we are taking steps to push the agenda, there is still so much more than can be done. It is vital that we continue to educate ourselves and our employees if we are to drive the necessary conversations around social injustice.