Although Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, the news didn’t reach the enslaved people located in Galveston, Texas until June 19, 1865. Recognized as the official end of enslaved people in the U.S., this day has been celebrated for years in the Black community as Juneteenth. But in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement that took place in 2020, wide-reaching recognition of Juneteenth surged, particularly within the tech industry.
Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter and Square, was the first major CEO to announce that Juneteenth would be a paid holiday for employees. Soon after, many of tech’s largest companies announced their respective plans to commemorate the day. Various other industries jumped aboard too, with Juneteenth providing an additional moment for companies to take stock of their awareness of challenges facing the Black community, lay out their commitments to taking positive action to address these challenges, audit their own Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Belonging (DEIB) initiatives, and even, celebrate the day on their marketing and social media channels.
While recognition of such a historic day is necessary – and to state the obvious, long overdue – especially as Black and other non-white male communities continue to be marginalized, it’s all too easy for companies to appear opportunistic, or worse, tone-deaf. Participation here is not a one-and-done, token action. Tech companies need to ensure they take more actions to make real change in addressing racism in tech, not just on June 19, but throughout every day of every year.
I am fully aware that if a leader of any company, tech or not, is only now awakening to racism in this country, you might be wondering how exactly to combat racism in your workplace, and you may feel like you are walking into a minefield. It is critical that you don’t shrink back. If you do your homework, take an authentic and thoughtful approach, and adhere to the following recommendations, you can begin to honor Juneteenth with the respect it deserves. Below are some best practices:
Decide to and take action and make a 5- to 10-year plan. This doesn’t mean you take 5 to 10 years to get started. It means you set aggressive goals tied to a strategy, with set metrics to be shared internally and externally, understanding one or two token gestures are not likely to be enough. Your plan should include education about the impacts of racism, inclusive of anti-Blackness, both historically and present-day, both on Black employees and all employees in general. Books such as “The Black Tax,” by Shawn D. Rochester, “The Sum of Us,” by Heather McGhee, as well as other books authored by Black Americans can serve as excellent resources on inequality and the lessons that generations of Americans have failed to learn about its negative effects, both on the Black community and our nation as a whole.
Be prepared to answer for past missteps. Every company has made mistakes. Be bold, unafraid (or do it afraid!), and resolute that you, as your company’s leader, will become accountable to stay the course, continue learning, and take appropriate steps to improve your company’s practices and racial climate. Don’t let fear be a deterrent. Make a plan to address naysayers, including your “frozen middle” – the middle level of employees that are historically the most reluctant to change – which may rise up to reject DEIB initiatives.
Continuously evaluate and score. Make equal pay, promotion evaluation, disaggregated data collection, and other methods of continuous evaluation of where your company scores on issues of racial, ethnic, gender, representation, age, and any other characteristic which has been used to create a marginalized cultural impact on segments of your population. Economic injustice is one of the first and most pervasive results of racism and bias over which you can immediately correct within your company. Maintaining disaggregated data on salary and promotions by gender, race, ethnicity, and identity will help expose the areas that need your immediate attention. When you identify issues, address them.
Create a buddy system. Sometimes the basics learned in elementary school can be applied in the workplace. Having a buddy system where you coordinate efforts and ideas, if possible, with other like-minded leaders can support your progress and keep you from giving up should difficult challenges arise. Linking up with your peers can help keep you honest, accountable, and focused on the road ahead.
Look beyond your company and employees. While incorporating DEIB within your business’ walls is imperative, it is also important to include additional outreach that will impact the communities from which you draw your business success. Advocate for equal pay, daycare services, voting rights, equitable education funding, college debt cancellation, non-racist policing, and other social and economic justice legislation. By doing so, you are using your platform to help accelerate needed change in our nation’s communities and setting great examples for others to follow.
Tech leaders have the opportunity to honor Juneteenth the right way this year, starting a trend for every year after. While reflection and education are one part of it, the real honor in commemorating Juneteenth is through concrete actions that help remove systemic barriers and move Black communities forward.