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Juneteenth is now a recognized holiday for some Philly companies. What’s next?

Local employers are making the date that marks widespread freedom from slavery in the U.S. a holiday, for the first time ever. Here's why, and what the reaction has been.

Philadelphia Juneteenth Musicfest & Parade, June 2018. (Photo by A. Ricketts for Visit Philadelphia)

This editorial article is a part of Racial Equity Month of's editorial calendar.

Following worldwide protests after George Floyd’s killing, many local companies and organizations have decided to make Juneteenth a holiday and give their employees the day off.

Juneteenth is a nod to June 19, 1865, the day enslaved people in the farthest parts of the Confederacy finally learned that the Emancipation Proclamation had been passed two and a half years earlier. Many Black communities in the U.S. mark the day by celebrating culture and connection, though it’s not recognized as a national holiday.

Gov. Tom Wolf designated it a statewide holiday, Juneteenth National Freedom Day, in 2019. This Tuesday, Mayor Jim Kenney designated Juneteenth a city holiday, and City offices and facilities will be closed to the public. Across the U.S., leaders at corporations and big tech companies such as Nike, Twitter and Spotify have declared June 19 a paid day off. parent company Technically Media recently added the day to our list of permanent company holidays, too. Vincent Better, our VP of Philadelphia Initiatives, is a longtime volunteer with Philly’s Juneteenth parade and festival organizing committee and said the date is important because it recognizes that freedom was not experienced simultaneously by all formerly enslaved people, a fact omitted by many school systems and textbooks.

“The recognition of Juneteenth by companies,” Better said, brings wider awareness to “this historic milestone. Crucial elements of Black history continue to be omitted from formal education at all levels. Public and privately held companies which acknowledge this day not only do so in honor of our heritage, but also provide an opportunity for all people to become exposed to and understand the significance.”

Many private businesses and organizations are still adjusting to how they can honor Juneteenth, with mixed reactions.

ShopRunner, a Chicago-based ecommerce company with a local Conshohocken office, recently made Juneteenth a company holiday. In an email, Chief People Officer Lindsay Verstegen told that the move is part of an ongoing journey of inclusion. CEO Sam Yagan published an open letter on June 2 regarding the company’s response following Floyd’s killing and its commitment to anti-racist action, including matching employee donations to Black Visions Collective and donating marketing support to Black-owned businesses.

Govinda Vyas, an integration manager in ShopRunner’s Conshohocken office, told he doesn’t believe it’s enough. According to Vyas, in ShopRunner’s local office, there is only one Black employee in an office of more than 30 people, and they work in a non-leadership role.

Accordingly, making Juneteenth a holiday “is a pretty cynical move on behalf of white-collar companies that don’t employ diverse staffs or empower BIPOC in leadership roles,” he said. “It results in what is essentially a long weekend for an overwhelmingly white staff, while doing nothing of substance to dismantle systemic racism or police violence.”

Verstegen said the new company holiday is just one of many steps ShopRunner is taking to nurture inclusivity and diversity in commerce and technology, and that ShopRunner has annual companywide discussions about the demographic data of its employees, “but also the ways we’re addressing our own internal systems to ensure equality is at the center of design of our hiring, promotion and compensation decisions.”

“We have historically made a point to be transparent about our journey through diversity, equity and inclusion,” she said.

For its part, University of Pennsylvania issued a statement Tuesday encouraging all nonessential faculty and staff to take a break from their work to remember the meaning of the day. In the note, signed by President Amy Gutmann, Provost Wendell Pritchett, EVP Craig Carnaroli and SVP and Chief Diversity Officer Joann Mitchell, Penn said it believes pausing work on June 19 will give employees the space to consider solutions for a better future.

One comment on its tweet announcing the policy links to a petition with more than 12,000 signatures asking the institution to adjust its campus policing policies. It’s a reminder that Penn has been criticized in recent weeks for its connection to the Philadelphia Police Foundation, now under scrutiny in the wake of mass protests against police brutality for its reported funding of SWAT team equipment, drones and the like.

(Comments on Mayor Kenney’s tweet announcing Juneteenth as a City-recognized holiday also included calls to defund the police, alongside thanks and criticism of Philly’s murder rate.)

Elsewhere, companies and orgs pointed to an internal or industry-wide commitment to diversity and inclusion as a motivator for formally acknowledging the holiday.

Investigative news org Spotlight PA said Friday that it would be giving staff off to observe the day.

“We believe it’s important that news organizations and companies begin to recognize important milestones outside of the traditional holiday framework,” a tweet read.

Renewable energy company Inspire announced Monday that it is making Juneteenth an official company holiday. VP of People Christine Ponzio told via email that advocacy for justice and equality for Black lives is in direct alignment with the company’s ongoing work as a mission-driven B Corp.

“Making Juneteenth an official holiday at Inspire is one step in our journey to listen, learn, and grow to become a strong voice for diversity and inclusion in our organization, the tech industry, and across the country,” she said.

Ponzio says that employees have responded positively to Juneteenth becoming a company holiday and that is part of a continued effort to remain committed and take action.

“We have created a dedicated page on our company shared knowledge platform (Notion) to share the history of Juneteenth, and aggregate resources and insights that our employees actively share on our company Slack channels,” she said. “We have also further invested in employee resource groups (ERGs) including our BIPOC ERG that serves as another source of insight and education.”

With protests still happening each day, the work to fix a system that has disenfranchised Black people for hundreds of years is ongoing. Giving employees a day off from work to reflect on Juneteenth may be a small step, but it is a step forward nonetheless.

Michael Butler is a 2020-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Lenfest Institute for Journalism.
Companies: / Inspire / City of Philadelphia / University of Pennsylvania
Series: Racial Equity Month 2020

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