Juneteenth: More Than a Holiday for Some Employers

Matt Gonzales By Matt Gonzales June 9, 2022
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Juneteenth: More Than a Holiday for Some Employers

​On June 17, 2021, President Joe Biden signed a bill recognizing Juneteenth, the celebration to commemorate the end of slavery in the U.S., as a federal holiday. It became the first new national holiday since the creation of Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1983.

"By making Juneteenth a federal holiday, all Americans can feel the power of this day, and learn from our history, and celebrate progress, and grapple with the distance we've come but the distance we have to travel," Biden said during a press conference at the time.

Juneteenth celebrates the emancipation of the last enslaved Black Americans. On June 19, 1865, about 2,000 Union troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation, which had taken effect two years prior. Texas was the last Confederate state forced to free enslaved people of color, officially ending slavery in the U.S.

In May 2020, the murder of George Floyd sparked protests nationwide and brought Juneteenth back into public discourse. That year, hundreds of companies—including JPMorgan Chase, Lyft, Nike, Spotify, Target and Uber, among others—began celebrating Juneteenth.

How Companies Are Celebrating

Once Juneteenth became a federal holiday, many more companies began honoring the occasion with a day off for their workers. Some employers are also leveraging the holiday to educate and raise awareness about racial barriers that continue to exist today.

Walker Sands, an integrated marketing agency in Chicago, is launching an internal podcast series of short conversations with three of its Black employees who will outline the history of Juneteenth, why it is important and how to celebrate the occasion.

The company will also be hosting a presentation with Brittany Applegate, a brand marketing consultant, who will discuss the evolution of Juneteenth. The event is designed to spark a passion for the holiday, an appreciation for the journey to national recognition and a desire to celebrate the day's role in Black history.

"In many ways, Juneteenth is a reminder that even though significant progress has been made toward building more diverse and inclusive company cultures, barriers still exist," said Allison Ward, chief people officer for Walker Sands. "It's up to us as HR professionals to evaluate our systems and processes in order to remove said barriers so that everyone can thrive at work."

15Five, a San Francisco-based performance management company, will also release podcast episodes that will cover topics such as LGBTQ rights and Juneteenth to educate their employees on the plights of these underrepresented communities.

The company's Black employee resource group will also host a companywide watch party of the Juneteenth episode of the TV show "Blackish" and use part of the workday to discuss what they learned from the episode.

Cara Pelletier, senior director of diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) at 15Five, views Juneteenth as more than just a holiday.

"To me, Juneteenth is a reminder that there's a difference between legislated equality and lived equality," she said. "In our communities and in our organizations, we should always be asking ourselves whether our laws and our policies apply equally to everyone and, if not, how we can work to ensure fairness, equality and freedom for everyone."

Yrthya Dinzey-Flores, vice president of DE&I and social impact and sustainability for software company Justworks in New York City, said her company is partnering with a Black employee resource group to host charitable, educational events on historical milestones for the Black community.

"We plan to include information about Juneteenth on our website that will provide context on Juneteenth and explain why it matters to us," Dinzey-Flores said. "By sharing information, educating our employees and speaking about Juneteenth, we're ensuring that the day is not forgotten."

DE&I consultants are doing their part as well. Shirley Davis, a Florida-based global workforce expert and author of Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion for Dummies (Wiley, 2022), will offer educational programs and deliver keynote speeches about Juneteenth. Each year, she contributes to articles, writes blogs and participates in podcasts on the topic.

"I believe it is every American's responsibility, especially leaders, to learn about and acknowledge our painful history because it is our American story, just as we remember and look back on Independence Day, President's Day and others," said Davis, whose birthday falls on Juneteenth. "The American Dream belongs to us all."

Change Requires Action

Opal Lee, a 95-year-old Texas activist who spent decades campaigning to make Juneteenth a federal holiday, told The Associated Press in 2021 that Juneteenth becoming a nationally recognized occasion is significant but that the country still has a long way to become a truly equal society.

"We don't want people to think that Juneteenth is a stopping point, because it isn't," Lee said. "It's a beginning, and we're going to address some of the disparities that we know exist."

The federal government has passed several measures to reduce these disparities. In January 2021, Biden signed Executive Order 13985, "Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government." The executive order mandated that each federal agency produce a plan for addressing barriers that limit full and equal participation for underserved communities.

The American Rescue Plan, signed into law in 2021, has supported Black business owners and families by:

  • Expanding access to wealth creation through small-business ownership in Black communities.
  • Providing cash relief directly to low- and middle-income Americans, which cut Black child poverty by 40 percent.
  • Leveraging federal procurement to reduce the racial wealth gap for Black entrepreneurs.

"To honor the true meaning of Juneteenth, we have to continue toward that promise because we've not gotten there yet," Biden said at the Juneteenth press conference. "[Vice President Kamala Harris] and I and our entire administration and all of you in this room are committed to doing just that."


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