Regaining our Humanity: Reflections on Juneteenth

A year ago this month, Juneteenth became a national holiday commemorating the ending of slavery in the United States and celebrating freedom, education, and achievement. In signing the bill, President Biden said this: “All Americans can feel the power of this day and learn from our history.”

In the face of the recent shootings in Buffalo and Texas and the ongoing trauma that communities of color are experiencing, the sentiment leaves me wondering. Have learned anything from our history? Has there been any progress in the last year? Or during the last two years of “racial reckoning?”

What can we as individuals do to make a difference? What can organizations do? How do we protect our individual and collective humanity by not becoming overwhelmed and impervious to the acts of hatred and violence aimed at Black, LatinX, Asians and LGBTQ communities? It is critical we convey ways to share the impacts of such acts on individual communities and our society. Reconciling the means by which our society has to continually reinvent and recalibrate the definition of the American dream with it’s supposed freedom and individual rights for all. And question why freedom and these rights are distributed, received and protected in our country in much greater capacity for certain groups and not for others. The transference of this very same dilemma has become evident in the corporate world with mirrored inequity, disparity and continual reinvention and recalibration of DEI ambitions in organizations in the wake of the constant social issues we are facing. And, in the face of these questions, at the end of the day, what can organizations, you and I do about it?

It is challenging to talk about these issues, but we must. We must have the courage to do so — amongst our friends, neighbors, family, and coworkers. How can one claim to be an ally, a DEI champion or even someone who believes deeply in the American values and not talk about the pain, the suffering, and the trauma that we are all present and witnesses of?

In reflecting on these questions personally and professionally, my aim is to create pathways of understanding and practice that individuals and organizations can use to harness the energy to effect real change. Because that is what it means to be an advocate, an ally and purveyor of progress. That is what society needs from us and our humanity demands of us.

For the collective

We need to address racism with the seriousness of facing a pandemic because it is a social pandemic. It’s systemic and deeply woven into the everyday realities of being American. Enacting a “George Floyd Day” or renaming a street isn’t going to cut it. We must address the root causes of violence and talk about the persistent mindsets involving prejudice, separatism, elitism, and marginalization of communities based on color, sexuality, or country of origin. We need to educate our youth about the legacy of violence in the US, and we need to educate our friends, families and, even, ourselves to constantly put the mirror up so we can face our past and chart a different path for the future.

From an economic and social justice standpoint, we need to put into place programs, practices and systems that foster equity and bring communities together instead of dividing them. Proactively identifying opportunities to educate, advise and implement interventions that drive equitable outcomes from a social, economic and health perspective.

For businesses and organizations, it is actively reinforcing their values and their purpose while integrating diversity, equity and inclusion into their ‘why’ for existence. Building the capabilities of leaders and managers by equipping them with the tools and training to help people connect in more meaningful ways. Progressing these efforts through a shared understanding of the lived experiences of each person and being able to heal discourse around the grief and trauma suffered within communities impacted by hate and violence. Because, in the absence of that, we are cultivating cultures of learned avoidance and that is the opposite of change.

To enable this, emotional intelligence and empathy need to be a core capability in our leaders and managers. Not requiring these critical skills in our world today and not specifically training and recruiting for them is to create a culture of apathy, disconnect, and complacency. That is how we slowly lose our energy and commitment to act and progress with tactics that are tangible and hold society accountable. There is a dire need to transition from being just a moment but instead to a movement that incites sustainable change in our organizations and in our world.

For the individual

For each of us individually, before we take action, we must take a moment to connect with our very own humanity. To sit still and process the magnitude of what is occurring so that we act with courage and confidence in knowing that change can and will happen with our collective efforts.

In that vulnerable space of our humanity also lies the potency and power to act, to drive change — whether that be through community activism, educational reform, or organizational diversity, equity and inclusion actions that can make a difference. This is what it means to live a life of true freedom, enacting our civil rights and liberties to pursue progress.

We must have the courage to feel, connect and demonstrate individual and collective responsibility to protect, advocate and champion for the rights and freedoms of all. And then we must act. This is healing. This is evolving. This is the spirit of Juneteenth.

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Wema Hoover

Wema Hoover is an executive Diversity, Equity & Inclusion practitioner. She has over 15 years of experience leading global DEI teams across Fortune 500 Company.