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Making Black History

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February 1st marks the start of Black History Month, a month-long celebration of innovation despite, or perhaps in spite of, a history of racism that persists over 400 years later. Our celebrations of Black History Month provide an opportunity to open hearts and minds to ideas, practices, and processes that lead to success and survival beyond insurmountable odds and tell the Rosa Parks of the world who have integrated bus seats and C-suites, I see you. This month is an opportunity to shape our collective future from the stories of our collective past by creating space to unlearn ways of thinking and being that undervalue Black candidates and employees. In other words, Black History Month is an opportunity to invest in the growth of companies' diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) strategies by making a commitment to make Black history.

Celebrating Black History Month requires companies to go beyond the transactional tradition of solely consuming pain-filled stories. This year, companies must excavate the nuances of struggle and conflict that perpetuate Black disparity– the Black disparity that exists across hiring, salary, and promotion rates. Imagine having to work harder than your white counterpart to secure a job that you are underpaid for, all while the employer markets their DEI values. This is the reality that caused Black America to recognize the similarities between the knee on George Floyd’s neck and the knees on the necks of Black workers, which led to nationwide diversity efforts that proved that fighting for diversity is worth it. However, companies still struggle to unlearn traditions that have created intentional actions that (re)produce despair.

Post-George Floyd activism in the workplace driven by the Black Lives Matter movement created a wave of change that made Black history. Once this wave disrupted the shores of comfort attached to white privilege in the workplace, it unearthed trauma at the intersection of racism and the workplace such as pay disparity, interview bias, and career progress.

When the experience within the workplace reflects racist experiences outside, we must confront how complicity is both sustainable, impacts corporate cultures, and leverages an emotional tax on Black workers. Black History Month presents an opportunity to incorporate accountability processes that align business and diversity objectives. For example, an exploratory conversation on race and emotional tax hosted by leadership can create an opportunity to rethink compensation and benefits packages that better reflect the holistic needs of employees. Companies can address emotional taxes by building compensation into salary packages and career laddering processes. They can do this by developing open-forum types of programs that create space for feedback on how to meet the emotional needs of Black employees.

Companies should create a platform for Black employees to articulate company goals to meet their needs. This can be an employee resource group function that also offers an opportunity to work with employees to identify shared goals, incentives to achieve those goals, and rewards for achieving them. These goals can include time off, bonuses, self-care stipends, gifts, learning and networking opportunities to upskill, among others. This should also include processes to recognize and respond to moments of personal/community pain and trauma as unforeseen events arise, including healing circles, open forums, solidarity statements, individual and group therapy, and sustainable mindfulness programming.We encourage companies to have these types of difficult conversations in an effort to better understand and respond to the evolving emotional needs of employees of color.

Relevant and nuanced lessons from our collective past can help to recognize the connections between unconscious bias and segregated C-suites. Understanding the problem by bringing unconscious biases to our conscious awareness through Black History Month Programming is hard. Doing the work to collect hiring, employee feedback, promotion, and payscale data and developing data-informed accountability processes is harder. However, doing the work is much more rewarding than the alternative of perpetuating corporate apartheid that reproduces ideas and behaviors of the past. Crossing the bridge between learning and implementation creates collaborative interactions that build trust, expand capacities for learning and doing, and increase productivity. As you think through this year’s programming, please consider the following programming and strategy ideas:

Black History Month Programming

Black History Month program topics should reflect business interests so that learning objectives align with company goals. For example, this is the time of year that many people like to reflect on the words of Martin Luther King Jr. Companies should consider programming that reads the entirety of “Three Evils of Society,” “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” and/or “I Have A Dream,” to discuss the significance of these words and how they relate to company objectives. Black History Month programming must focus on relevant historical facts that help employees and leadership consider how racial discrimination is sustainable through normal “colorblind” practices, processes, and policy. Therefore, it is important that programming be intentional and recognize responsibility for racial disparity through live interactive group settings. This will create an opportunity for employees to see themselves as a part of an iterative corporate strategy that responds to learning outcomes and company/community needs.

Black History Month Strategy

Black History Month Programming should be strategically organized to achieve DEI business objectives, which will inform intentional action that is the result of meaningful programming. Conversations about historical figures and events should align with business interests in a way to inspire critical thought and strategic action. All programs should end with what employees would like to do to get involved and should create opportunities for collaborative action after a consensus has been built. This will form the baseline strategy for celebrating Black history at your company. Consider this example: A. Philip Randolph was a union organizer who organized the 1941 March on Washington focused on desegregating wartime industries. However, wartime integration efforts did not desegregate wages and opportunity. Through this lesson in Black history, your organization can address lingering issues like racial wage disparities and how they are sustained through unconscious bias.

The Black History Month of 2022 must chart a roadmap to destinations we have yet to reach. 2022 should be the year that companies across the United States work collectively to make Black history through intentional and sustainable action. If Black people are overrepresented within low-wage and entry-level positions, companies need to consider transparent career laddering processes that promote opportunity where it is otherwise absent. Data collection efforts must also reflect a need to measure the interaction of people and processes that maintain racial disparity. If representation declines as candidates advance through hiring processes, it is important to understand the implications of bias within your hiring processes. This analysis of bias should also be used to analyze hiring processes, compensation packages, promotions, and retention data. If there are hiring, promotion, and/or wage gaps, it is important that processes be built to bridge those gaps with projected business and demographic growth in mind. Black History Month is an opportunity to insert value in spaces where undervaluing talent is normalized.

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