Delta is commemorating Juneteenth with a series of employee events, aimed at sparking conversation and educating its people. The airline’s recognition of the historic Black holiday comes as Juneteenth is officially designated a federal holiday, celebrated annually on June 19.
Olajumoke "Jummy" Obayanju, Director of the National Racial Equity Initiative (NREI) for Social Justice at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, Inc., joined Delta’s Heather Wingate, S.V.P. – Government Affairs, on Wednesday for an honest discussion that was organized by a group of Delta employees committed to engaging, educating and offering resources to Black employees across the airline, as well as advocating for diversity, equity and inclusion.
During the live streamed conversation, Obayanju offered her thoughts about the holiday, insights and recommendations for business best practices.
"Juneteenth is bittersweet for me, professionally and personally. On one end, it's a celebration. It's a jubilee. It's the declaration of the end of slavery for those who were enslaved in Texas, and many of us actually use Juneteenth as the unofficial Black Day,” Obayanju shared. “But the excitement of Juneteenth is contrasted by the structural barriers and systemic racism that continue to pervade our societal constructs – from education to health care and to our court systems."
The mission of NREI is to combat systemic injustice and advance racial equity, human rights, education and economic development opportunities for the Black community. While organizations like this profoundly and positively impact the Black community, it is also the social responsibility of large corporations to advance these communities – which is why Delta took a hard look at its own practices and continues to take strong actions that seek diversity, promote inclusion and create equity.
As many corporations look to take care of their own house, Obayanju shared advice on where to start and best practices.
"Last year, in response to the social unrest, many corporations understandably produced statements and launched initiatives and financially contributed to tons of racial justice organizations. But what I saw was a lot of companies jumping to solutions rather than assessment," Obayanju explained. "I think that you can only launch authentic efforts if you believe in them, and you can only believe in them if you understand them."
Delta has committed to action to become an anti-racist and anti-discrimination organization including creating a more equitable talent experience; closing diversity gaps in representation; bolstering diverse business owners; providing more equitable access to benefits; joining OneTen as a founding member; supporting underrepresented employees; and launching enhanced inclusion training.
During the Delta event Wednesday, Obayanju also noted the importance of understanding that this process is a learning experience for all, requiring conversation and education.
"There is this false idea that companies must be perfect when talking about social justice issues," she said. "But what I think is that folks really want companies to be open and to be honest. There's a desire for humility and honesty over perfection."
Making lasting change within a corporation – and throughout the world – requires us all to come together and work to maintain long-term commitments that will sustain the progression that we've made. Through Delta's continued efforts, the airline strives to do just that: make lasting change.
"The first step to make sure that we can become champions for diversity, equity and inclusion is to ensure that our efforts toward diversity, equity and inclusion are a movement and not just a moment," Obayanju said.
On Thursday, Juneteenth was designated as a federal holiday to be celebrated annually on June 19. The historic designation honors activists such as 94-year-old Opal Lee of Fort Worth, Texas, known as the “Grandmother of Juneteenth.” She championed a decades-long campaign to make Juneteenth a national holiday, and on Thursday, she participated in the Presidential bill signing ceremony at the White House with sponsors and supporters.
In 2016, Lee set out to walk 1,400 miles from her home in Fort Worth, Texas to Washington, D.C. to collect petition signatures and gain support from Congress to name Juneteenth a national holiday. Lee logged 300 miles and quickly accomplished her goal of receiving 100,000 signatures. In fact, she has since received 1.5 million. As a champion for the national holiday, Lee continues to walk 2.5 miles every June 19 to symbolize the 2.5 years that it took for enslaved people in Texas to learn they were free. Celebrations this year will include commemorative walks to honor Lee’s symbolic walking campaign.
Lee views Juneteenth as a unifier, recently sharing, “I don’t want people to think it’s a Black thing or a Texas thing. None of us are free until we’re all free. And we aren’t free yet. There are too many disparities that we need to be about the business of working on together.”
Keyra Lynn Johnson, Delta’s Chief Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Officer, added, “Juneteenth is a powerful reminder that despite the most painful and difficult parts of history, change is possible. While this holiday appropriately acknowledges important history, work remains to live up to the ideals and values related to ‘freedom’ and ‘independence’ in America.”
Interested in conversations like this? Check out Gaining Altitude, a new video series from Delta that tackles conversations worth navigating and connects people while building understanding across the globe.