This piece was written by Cara Valentino (Senior Manager of the Racial Justice and Equity Program) and Da'Vianna Nelson (Corporate Communications Specialist) and was included in the June 2022 EDIB Newsletter, encouraging us to reflect on our lived experiences with structural and interpersonal bias, and how we can foster a culture of belonging at work and beyond. The opinions expressed in this piece are their own.

Merriam-Webster defines the word accountability as an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions.  

Slavery in the United States began in August 1619 with 20 enslaved people in Point Comfort, Virginia, and would come to last over 200 years. In 1863, amid the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, marking the beginning of the end of slavery. But it would take many more years for the federal government and elected leaders to take official steps toward accountability for this fundamental injustice.  

The United States House of Representatives in 2008 and the Senate in 2009 both produced separate resolutions issuing an apology for slavery.  

In 2021, Congress and President Joe Biden took a step that acknowledged the legacy of slavery by establishing Juneteenth as a federal holiday. June 19 or Juneteenth, also referred to as Freedom Day, is a day of celebration and remembrance to mark the official “endingof slavery in the United States. The annual celebration of the emancipation of enslaved people, Juneteenth stems from an order given by Major General Gordon Granger of Texas in 1865, informing the people of Texas that all slaves were free – two years and five months after the Emancipation Proclamation. Juneteenth evolved from the celebrations that followed the reading of the proclamation and was widely celebrated for more than 150 years before becoming the first federal holiday created since Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1983. 

The response to Juneteenth becoming a federal holiday has been varied, with some feeling like it was an empty gesture to gloss over centuries of the repercussions caused by slavery, some feeling like it was a step in the wrong direction that only encouraged “identity politics”, and others feeling like it was finally an opportunity to celebrate the day as an entire country. However, the combination of recognizing the importance of this holiday, the condemnation of slavery as “America’s original sin”, and President Biden’s executive order on advancing racial equity and support for underserved communities (which included requiring all federal agencies to conduct an Equity Assessment (sec.5)), signals a step forward in demonstrating America’s accountability.  

The ramifications of slavery in the United States are vast, including but not limited to the pain and suffering of those enslaved over the course of 246 years and the health and socioeconomic inequity that remains as a direct effect of slavery for their descendants 157 years later. These devastating consequences cannot be concealed or easily forgiven. Only through time and in combination with change on a systemic and individual level can equity and racial justice truly be obtained.  

Workplaces are an important arena in which Americans can see the effects of longstanding racial disparities and begin working toward equity. As a government contractor, RTI is not directly subject to the Equity Assessment required as part of the Executive Order issued. However, proactively recognizing the need for this type of work in 2020, RTI created its Racial Justice & Equity program chaired by Cara Valentino. By being intentional in the implementation of policies, procedures, and programs to ensure equity throughout the institution for staff members. RTI also established a new research center that will support the Institute in centering equity throughout our research portfolio. These are examples of how RTI is taking steps to increase its own accountability to its staff and the communities and people who are the focus of our research investigations.  

On a systemic level, corporations that are not federal entities or government contractors can also contribute to moving the needle forward and being a change agent in society and our culture, by taking the initiative to investigate their own internal practices through an equity lens. Creating an environment where employees feel like they are not only surviving, but thriving and being heard, cultivates a sense of community, and allows for even more open communication and change to happen. Furthermore, employers embracing Juneteenth as a holiday and adding it to U.S. holiday schedules could be a great way to show their commitment to celebrating and acknowledging the importance of what Juneteenth means, and to promoting a more inclusive and well-rounded internal culture. 

In conjunction with these systemic changes, individuals can hold themselves accountable on a personal level. That means having the hard conversations that require us to investigate and acknowledge our own internal biases, even when we feel we have the best of intentions. And more importantly, that means allowing ourselves to be uncomfortable. Because let’s face it – talking about racism, the horrifying brutality of slavery, and the ongoing effects centuries later is uncomfortable.  

When we unabashedly confront internal biases and engage with our peers listening to comprehend and not just to respond, the real dialogue and sense of understanding begin, and enlightenment and growth can occur. A shared awareness and meeting of the minds produces a launchpad for change. Another way to honor Juneteenth and the significance of the day would be to get involved and find local celebrations and events to interact with local community members on a more personal level. 

Juneteenth becoming a federal holiday is definitely a milestone to celebrate and a day of remembrance that everyone should participate in. However, it is only the first step of accountability in taking action to achieve true racial justice and equity. The next step is on us. Ask the difficult questions and have those growth conversations. Let’s hold ourselves, our community, and the organizations we’re a part of accountable.