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Raise Your Voice and Say It with Me: Black History Matters

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Every February since 1976 citizens across the United States have observed Black History Month. The celebration, which originated in 1926 as Black History Week, commemorates the struggle and celebrates the achievements of Black Americans. 

Ninety-five years ago, Dr. Carter G. Woodson created the celebration to bring people’s attention to the importance of recognizing the accomplishments of the Black community with the hopes it would inspire future generations. Today, the focus has expanded to the study and celebration of Black history along with the objective of transforming race relations. 

There has been a special interest and focus on how we, as leaders and organizations, recognize and observe Black History Month. Multiple events in 2020 put the spotlight on racial and social justice and nudged many people past awareness and into action. Many organizations stepped up, made public statements, drafted new strategic plans, established loftier goals, and pledged to promote more equitable workplaces through representation and outcome-driven goals.  

Leaders are uniquely positioned to advance race relations through the efforts they expend on Black History Month. Those in leadership roles, especially those of you who identify as White, may wonder about your role in Black History Month. Should you attend virtual Black History events, write about it, speak about it, include the topic in company meetings or make some form of declaration about your expectations as a leader?     

The short answer, I submit, is yes. You should be an active part of Black History Month and encourage others, regardless of their racial identity, to show up, roll up their sleeves, and get involved. There is more work to be done.

Black History Month may be a recognition for Black Americans, but the benefit and impact of Black History Month is more universal. Dr. Carter G. Woodson originally proposed this recognition because “those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history.” He was right. You can’t really understand American history in the absence of Black History.   

Speak Up, We Can’t Hear You 

They say actions speak louder than words, but words — the right words — sometimes help form the action. Leaders are chosen to speak up in ways that others cannot. In times of high speed and hyper connectivity, our employees and customers are watching what we do, and hearing what we say (and don’t say). They are observing with great interest how we act, and they know an ally or a poser when they see one. They pay close attention when we raise our voices — even if our voices shake — on issues of racism and social injustice. In a study conducted by WorldatWork in September of 2020, we found that among 5,000-plus respondents, 54% strongly or somewhat prefer their company take an active stance on social issues. Only 21% would either somewhat or strongly prefer for their organizations to remain silent. 

You likely will need to educate others along the way. Even today, we see various reactions about celebrating Black History Month, such as those who push back because we fail to mark a month for White History.

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Carter G. Woodson (1875-1950) was an African American writer and historian known as the "Father of Black History."

First, we must challenge the notion that Black and White are two opposite ends of the spectrum. 

Second, the reality does exist that in the United States, depending on your race, you may have a different experience than others based on your race. Former President Obama spoke about this type of reaction when he said, “It’s important for us to also understand that the phrase ‘Black Lives Matter’ simply refers to the notion that there’s a specific vulnerability for African Americans that needs to be addressed. It’s not meant to suggest that other lives don’t matter. It’s to suggest that other folks aren’t experiencing this particular vulnerability.” 

It was this very issue that Dr. Woodson was hoping to resolve with the launch of Black History Week nearly a century ago. And even then, he hoped it to be a short-term solution that would eventually not be needed “when all Americans would willingly recognize the contributions of Black Americans as a legitimate and integral part of the history of this country.”  

Taking the time to recognize, understand and honor important milestones of Black history such as Martin Luther King Jr., Juneteenth and Black History Month is a good start to show a commitment to equality. And as we then act, and speak up, it will be necessary to reflect on the history of power, oppression and racism along with the awareness of the perseverance and resistance that has fueled progress.   

Driving Change and Reducing Inequalities

2020 was a year in which COVID-19 had a disproportionate impact on the Black community. As COVID continues its destructive path, it is fitting to remember that diving into Black history may surface compelling connections to very current issues. Vaccination, for example, was introduced to the United States by a slave in the early 1700’s. While little is known about Onesimus, we do know he shared his understanding and method of the century’s old tradition of inoculation in Africa by extracting portions of the disease from those infected and scratching it into the skin of an uninfected person. This led to a small trial of vaccination in 1721 when a smallpox epidemic hit Boston. The process worked. This same practice was studied over time and used to inoculate American soldiers during the Revolutionary War.  

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The African-American slave Onesimus (late 1600s-1700s) was the person who introduced the practice of immunization against smallpox to North America.

Part of Black History Month is about learning and acknowledging the historical journey of the United States, but it also should be about our ability to understand what other people go through because of their personal attributes. For example, Bessie Coleman was the first Black woman to receive a pilot license. She had to go to France to do it, and after receiving her international pilot license in 1921 from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, she was celebrated widely upon her return flight to the United States. Coleman broke the proverbial glass ceiling as both a Black and female pilot and went on to perform at airshows performing thrilling in-flight stunts, refusing to perform where Blacks were not allowed, and encouraging other African Americans to learn to fly. When she died, Coleman’s funeral was presided over by Ida B. Wells, who very eloquently described in 1926 why Black History Month matters today. She said, “There is reason to believe that the general public did not completely sense the size of her contribution to the achievements of the race as such." 

We have a unique opportunity to learn about Black History this month, but it doesn’t have to stop there. The contributions of Bessie Coleman and Onesimus are here 12 months a year. As we continue to celebrate and learn about Black History this month, and all months, I hope you will join me here at WorldatWork in finding ways to encourage everyone to bring their full selves to work each and every day.

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Bessie Coleman (1892-1926) soared across the sky as the first African American, and the first Native American woman pilot.

This means ensuring that their personal attributes, such as race, gender and sexual orientation are viewed and leveraged as accelerators of performance and something to be celebrated. Fostering these conversations in the workplace and making it part of the organizational culture, including educating yourself and bringing DEI stakeholders to the table to drive change and reduce inequalities, are great steps forward.   

As we think about Black History Month, keep in mind that there is still so much to do and a long way to go. In part, this effort means coming together to learn and understand various aspects of Black history, but it also means getting comfortable with the concept of having real conversations about what it means to be Black inside your organization.

Aligning your and your organization’s core values to critical outcomes serves as a powerful motivator of change. If every business leader took a stance against racial injustice in favor of equality, including a strong commitment to building equitable workplaces, perhaps we could finally carry out the wishes of Dr. Carter G. Woodson who wanted the need for Black History Month to erode.

About the Author

Scott Cawood Bio Image

Scott Cawood, Ed.D, CCP, CBP, GRP, CSCP, WLCP is the CEO of WorldatWork.


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