My desire to leave Corporate America, just 2 years after entering it, stemmed from an overwhelming sense of discontent with my company’s approach to the private sector’s favorite buzz words: diversity and inclusion. While former colleagues and I could anticipate the occasional seminar on implicit bias, our organization missed countless opportunities to celebrate the experience of its diverse staff and attorneys; Black History Month was no exception.
As a first year attorney, I was shocked by my firm’s failure to even acknowledge the month, and ultimately convinced myself it was my fault. I should have spoken up, beyond the few offline conversations I had with my Black colleagues. Yet in retrospect, that was not my sole responsibility, if my responsibility at all.
Now, to be fair, this year they’ve done a lot better, thanks to the leadership of those same Black colleagues. Unfortunately, I no longer work there to have a vested interest. Moreover, when it comes to the work of effecting racial justice, and valuing all lives and experiences the same, it can’t just be left to Black members of an organization, especially when there tend to be few, if any, among those in senior decision-making roles.
With that in mind, the following are tips for organizations, inspired by the personal experiences of Black professionals like myself, struggling to acknowledge the culture, tradition and experience of those who have been historically marginalized both within and beyond their organization.
1. Acknowledge the month in a company wide email and social media post.
Company wide emails have a way of capturing your attention, if only for a moment, and setting the tone for what matters to an organization’s leadership and what should matter to its staff. If there’s no company wide email mentioning it, one might assume it isn’t all that important; 10 times out of 10, that’s an accurate assumption.
While even Black Americans disagree about whether Black History Month has achieved its intended goal of adequately highlighting and celebrating the black experience in this country, its value is virtually indisputable. Despite the social and political progress of Black Americans, violent retrenchment and the whitewashing (all puns intended) of our collective history threatens to turn back the hands of time when the future is our only hope.
So, if you’re high enough in your organization’s chain of command to have access to the firmwide listserv, don't be afraid to type “Happy Black History Month!” into the subject and body of an email, and press send to your ENTIRE organization. Then copy and paste the same into a post to be shared on Facebook, LinkedIn and every other site you are active on. After all, it’s THE LEAST you can do.
2. Create merch (short for merchandise) featuring a theme chosen by your firm’s Black or minority affinity group (or an ad hoc committee of interested employees) and the company’s logo.
We all have random t-shirts from our company, featuring their logo in unabashedly large print; but the ones that don’t instantly turn into pajamas typically have something meaningful to say. Why not create one for Black History Month? After all, t-shirt culture is real and a great screen tee says alot about your personal style and what message you want to send to the world. Make sure your company is synonymous with celebrating Black history and culture, with style.
While you may want to gift shirts to clients, consider selling them to staff and donating the proceeds to a Black run nonprofit.
3. Recognize Black leaders/employees via the company website and/or social media.
Nothing screams “we care about the contributions of Black people in society” like recognizing the contributions of the Black people in your very own organization. Remember that beautiful website you’ve invested thousands into to serve as your best marketing tool? Or what about that social media page you love to post company highlights on? Consider them bulletin boards for Black staff and leadership during the month of February. You’ll be surprised at how simple gestures of public recognition can boost morale, and demonstrate to the world that Black lives don’t just matter outside the workplace, but inside as well.
4. Send firm leaders and employees black history month gift baskets; include gift cards, trinkets and books from black owned businesses and authors.
Now, this one will take a little more preparation (see #6 below if it feels above you or any other member of your staff’s pay grade). To take off some of the pressure, check out Black publications, google Black owned businesses in your area, or Black owned businesses that sell items that your company’s staff and leadership can always use more of (pens, notebooks, hand sanitizer, coffee and of course food). Toss these items, a gift card to a black owned coffee shop or restaurant along with a note from the company’s President/CEO or Managing Partner into a box with the company logo on it and voila! You’ve just outdone 99% of Corporate America and supported black business in the process. A little thought goes a long way.
5. Recommit to the principles of diversity and inclusion and evaluate black representation among company leadership and staff.
What better way to celebrate Black History Month than examining your ability to recruit, hire and retain (aka PROMOTE) Black talent? While this most certainly should be a priority year round, perhaps you can up the ante and release data each February to demonstrate a sense of consciousness around the issue, and create some healthy pressure to make changes where there is room for improvement. Hint: there's ALWAYS room for improvement.
6. Hire black professionals and creatives to assist with programming in February and year round.
The truth is, many professionals aren’t good at event planning, community organizing and many other things required to properly acknowledge the breadth of Black Americans’ contribution to our organizations, let alone society. So, leave it to the experts, and pay them their fee! Not only will it save you time and stress, but it will demonstrate your understanding of the importance of allowing Black people, and all minorities for that matter, to share their perspective on topics of particular concern to their community, rooted in empirical data and first hand experience, without having to simply volunteer their time and energy. In short, put your money where your mouth is.
7. Celebrate Black history, people and culture year round.
In July of 2020, several months into the pandemic, amidst social uprisings spurred by racial injustice, I hosted a webinar entitled Racial Justice: What Can I Do As an Individual, during a live virtual webinar, streamed by my local bar association. For 40 minutes I harped on 7 ways to fight for racial justice; the 6th tip was to find ways to celebrate black people, communities and culture. To demonstrate how, I played Google’s 2019 Black History Month tribute. In 2 minutes, Google captured the gravity of Black Americans’ role in shaping the course of American and thus world history. It was uplifting and inspiring to see the likes of Beyonce, Prince, Maya Angelou and Malcolm X (El Hajj Malik El Shabazz) heralded as the “most searched” in their respective arena. Yet, while I have hope my suggestions did not fall on entirely deaf ears, reality proves that celebrating Black people and their ability to overcome the unimaginable is often forgotten, while amplifying the tragedy inherent to the Black experience continues to captivate audiences far and wide. Well, I’m here to say enough is enough.
For every heartbreaking headline, there is a story of hope and triumph involving Black people we could all benefit from hearing; not just members of the Black community, but of a diverse global society. If for no other reason, we must resist limiting ourselves to celebrating Black history, and the modern contributions of Black people to the month of February. Instead, consider February the warm up to a year filled with seized opportunities to uplift the Black community.
Hopefully you will find one or more of these tips useful and avoid the common pitfall of under or overthinking how to celebrate Black History Month, and more importantly, Black people, communities and culture on a regular basis. Didn’t get a chance to use these tips last month? Well, thanks to Carter G. Woodson and former President Gerald Ford, there's always next year.
Interested in partnering with Ambur to ensure your organization capitalizes on Black History Month and other opportunities to promote diversity, equity and inclusion? Email Ambur at email@example.com today.