Regular outreach should occur with the Black leaders and employees in your workforce to keep the dialogue going throughout the year, experts say (Getty Images/Luis Alvarez)
Black History Month, celebrated annually throughout February, is a time of acknowledgment, reflection and celebration of Black people, their contributions, accomplishments, culture and history.
Just as it is recognized in our communities, classrooms and legislatures, so too should it be in our boardrooms and workplaces.
Here are three tips for recognizing Black History Month in your organization.
1) AMPLIFY THROUGH LEADERSHIP
Buy-in from the top is essential to any project’s success, says CPA Jenny Okonkwo, founder of the Black Female Accountants Network (BFAN), particularly those focusing on diversity and inclusion.
“This gives a perception that the initiative has been taken seriously,” she says. “That’s the first step toward employee engagement.”
The organization’s senior leaders must be on board with any Black-centred initiatives, taking an active and engaged role, and assuming responsibility for passing the message down to the employee base. Leaders encourage diversity and foster inclusion efforts by setting the tone, communicating expectations and conveying the importance of the initiative, adds Tamara Glasgow-Cox, former manager*, partner services for the Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion (CCDI).
“Leadership support and participation is a key ingredient for the success of Black History Month,” she says. “It’s a matter of leading by example by fully participating and encouraging.”
Once the message is communicated, others within the organization will be inspired to participate and “show up”. Those who feel Black History Month or the Black experience do not relate to nor impact them will have an opportunity to engage differently and broaden their mindset, while Black employees will sense authenticity and be encouraged to get involved.
It’s a first step toward allyship in the workplace, adds Frederick.
“It’s not just Black employees’ month. Everybody can be a part of Black History Month. Black history is Canadian history,” she says. “Rather than just telling people ‘Happy Black History Month’, there’s a way to feel and recognize it in a deeper and more meaningful way.”
2) ENGAGE THE COMMUNITY
Engaging with the Black community—within and outside your organization—should occur frequently, beyond just Black History Month, says Stachen Frederick, executive director of Frontlines, a non-profit, charitable organization that provides support for children and youth in Toronto’s Weston community.
“There is [often] a sense within the Black community that a lot of times we get ‘tapped’ when it’s Black History Month,” she says. “To dismantle that feeling, corporations, organizations and individuals need to engage [more] with these communities [before and after Black history month]...it’s really about building relationships.” This outreach and subsequent dialogue should occur not only in February, but throughout the year. And these programs should be diverse in dialogue, adds Okonkwo.
“It’s about communication, bringing people in, having brainstorms, sharing ideas, gathering and consulting. That’s a really good way to get people [engaged],” she says. “People are sharing their stories [and] lots of great questions [can] come from the audience.”
Whether it’s a panel, webinar or more informal conversation, hearing the perspectives of people inside and outside the organization gives broader meaning to the conversation, while helping unite teams, bridge gaps and encouraging understanding about Black history and experience. The CCDI recommends distributing employee surveys to elicit ideas that will shape events planned over Black History Month and beyond.
“It is important to be thoughtful about the slated programming, to ensure that the content is impactful and meaningful, and that it also yields social and corporate ROI (return on investment),” says Glasgow-Cox.
3) IMPACT THROUGH PARTNERSHIP
Forming meaningful partnerships with like-minded organizations that represent and support the Black community cultivates trust, legitimizes efforts to engage and results in more meaningful impact, say advocates.
“Joining forces with organizations, such as CCDI [for example], can certainly result in significant benefits that will support the organization on their overall diversity and inclusion journey,” says Glasgow-Cox.
These partnerships, however, must be established with preparation and clear intention, stresses Frederick. Organizations should analyze their values, mission, short- and long-term goals to find commonalities with potential partners and pursue relationships from there.
“What is important to your organization? What do you want to do? Where is your alignment?” she questions. “If it’s youth, look for a charity that supports Black youth. If it’s food security, engage the Black community and look for charities that do this work.” The pursuit, Frederick adds, should not focus solely on what your organization will do for your partner, but rather how you will progress together. Working with youths, for example, could lead to ongoing mentorship and internship opportunities, combining professional development opportunities with the cultivation of future talent.
In other words, the aim should be to take the relationship beyond an annual Black History Month celebration, into longer-term efforts—a common goal using aligned values, such as a commitment to help eradicate racial injustice and make the workplace more equitable and inclusive.
“I look for the type of values (of the organization) that I’m dealing with when we partner with a corporation, and if I don’t see that within the fabric of the organization, that there’s representation [of those values], that is red flag to me,” she says.
“When you look at possible partnerships, you should look for those that create connection points that can lead to a much more beautiful sort of relationship.”
CULTIVATE AN EQUITABLE WORKFORCE
Here’s what you need to know, particularly as a leader, to build an inclusive workforce. Find out what it means to be a true ally in the workplace with these tips. And learn how Wes Hall, Kingsdale CEO and Black North Initiative leader, plans to break down the systemic barriers that have kept leaders from underrepresented groups out of the executive room.
*This article was updated on January 24, 2023, to reflect a change in Tamara Glasgow-Cox’s title.