Juneteenth serves as an opportunity to reflect on the progress made in the journey for equality and civil rights and to take stock of where there is still work to be done.
Although the Emancipation Proclamation was celebrated on January 1, 1863, it is crucial to remember that for two years after, hundreds of thousands of African Americans remained enslaved. Juneteenth recognizes the challenging road to true emancipation and has evolved into a symbolic milestone for the African American freedom journey.
Despite our aspirations for improvement, a striking parallel emerges between the enduring presence of systemic racism in 21st-century America, and the two-year interval separating the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment. We have made significant strides, but the journey toward true equality continues.
Juneteenth has been celebrated since 1866, but the push to make it a national holiday intensified after the 2020 deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. It culminated in the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, signed into law by President Joe Biden on June 17, 2021, and spurred organizations into action.
I was swept up in this effort in my role as an advocate and coach for diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). My work — originally only partially focused on diversity initiatives — quickly adapted to meet the needs of aging services organizations eager to foster diverse environments. Like many colleagues in this field have experienced, the number of coaching requests related to DEI nearly tripled.
Many organizations, acknowledging a gap, established a diversity statement and perhaps even drafted a plan to implement DEI initiatives. These were noble efforts with the right intentions. But, as with any action plan, it’s essential to remain vigilant in the effort to sustain progress.
As we reflect on the past couple of years, from the time when we declared our good intentions, we should pause to consider what has been achieved since then.
I am committed to the journey of achieving true diversity, equity and inclusion. And journeys of this nature can’t be made with a single report or a desire to want to improve. We must match our intentions with our actions. Even small actions can serve as cues of a commitment to progress.
I help organizations that serve the senior population nurture inclusive environments aligned with their values, many of which focus on Quaker roots. I am inspired by the way Quaker values intersect with African American history and inspire DEI initiatives. The Quakers acted with bravery in their efforts and provided valuable resources that made a difference. For example, the Quaker value of equality influenced abolitionists who ran the Underground Railroad, spurring them to assist enslaved people fleeing for their freedom and teaching them skills they would need to succeed in the North.
By recognizing and appreciating African American history, we take an essential step toward an inclusive atmosphere that promotes well-being and enhances our understanding of the holiday’s significance and the richness of history and culture.
Moreover, it makes room at the table for other marginalized populations, including Latinx, Asian American Pacific Islanders and LGBTQ+ individuals.
I’ve had many eye-opening conversations with leaders in the organizations I support, and they, too, are looking at what progress has been made and how they can continue the positive momentum. In my effort to guide cultural shifts long-term and help organizations take tangible steps towards a more equitable environment, I ask these questions:
• When was your organization’s Diversity Statement written? Is it collecting dust, or is it being put into action?
• What can you do now to create a more equitable environment? What does your leadership in this area looks like?
• Are you where you want to be? If not, how can you get there?
As a DEI champion and an African American woman, I am committed to contributing to a future in which recognizing and celebrating Juneteenth is a valuable component of a rich DEI strategy. It contributes to advancing a more inclusive, equitable, and supportive workplace culture where all employees feel understood. It also honors the contributions that were made along the path to racial equality.
I invite you to join me on this journey. Let’s make a difference together.
Marsha Wesley Coleman is the director of learning and development at Friends Services Alliance in Blue Bell, Montgomery County in Pennsylvania. She lives in Plymouth Meeting, Montgomery County. This op-ed was first published in the Reading Eagle.
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