“The Hope for Freedom is Contagious”

| Jun 19, 2023

Editor’s note: To commemorate Juneteenth, National Partnership President Jocelyn Frye joins Aimee Peoples – our Vice President for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Anti-Racism – for a conversation on what the holiday means to her and to the work of our organization.

Aimee’s questions appear be in italicized text, while Jocelyn’s responses are not italicized.

Aimee Peoples: Jocelyn, thank you for taking time to have this conversation to celebrate and reflect upon the importance of Juneteenth. I’d like to start by asking you about your first experiences with this holiday.

Many Americans, including Black Americans, only recently learned about Juneteenth and its significance. Do you remember how and when you first learned about Juneteenth?

I don’t recall exactly when I first learned about Juneteenth. I know that it was years ago, and I remember thinking that the day is such a pivotal part of our history but yet nobody talks about it – it’s really a critical moment that matters enormously if we are to have an accurate understanding of our past.

That’s why it’s so important that Juneteenth has gained wider recognition in recent years. Juneteenth is a really sobering reminder of how crucial it is not simply to know history…but to know the complexity of our nation’s history…and to know that it’s not always as clean and simple as we like to imagine it. And I think our country really needs to be reminded of our real history at this moment.

Right now, there are a bunch of folks across the country who don’t want us to learn about and reflect upon the hard parts of our history. They’re trying to curtail our understanding of that history, ban books, and mischaracterize the push for equity and diversity. And I actually think they’re fighting so hard because they understand the shameful parts of our history really well – and understand how they continue to benefit from that history, even while denying its ongoing effects.

They particularly don’t want us to recognize the prevalence and deep roots of anti-Black racism throughout our history and how it has been used to perpetuate a status quo that continues to be inequitable for Black people to the present day. They realize that – when we fully understand our past – it requires us to take action to make changes…to make things right.

Aimee: Speaking to the topic of how America grapples with our long history of systemic racism, there are a lot of mixed feelings around Juneteenth being named a federal holiday in 2021. What are your thoughts around Juneteenth being named a federal holiday? And how would you respond to people’s thoughts around the significance of the timing?

Overall, I think it’s a positive that Juneteenth is a federal holiday. As with all federal holidays, while some people may just focus on the fact that it’s a day off, it’s important to use the day to deepen our learning and understanding so that we’re clear about the reasons Juneteenth was made a holiday in the first place.

Systemic racism remains entrenched in too many aspects of our lives and still results in the mistreatment, disenfranchisement, and death of Black people. The murder of George Floyd and the ongoing activism of the Black Lives Matter movement drew fresh attention to the reality that – notwithstanding the progress we’ve made – racism and racial injustice continue to be part of the fabric of our nation. So, while Juneteenth is about the past, it also must be about the present – and the annual recognition of Juneteenth as a holiday is an opportunity to remind us about the present-day work that is still needed.

Given that, we should use the opportunity of Juneteenth to promote greater learning about our history and about the ongoing need for our society to keep taking steps to advance racial equity – and to identify concrete solutions to make meaningful progress.

It’s incumbent upon all of us who realize the significance of Juneteenth – collectively, as a community and as a nation – to be vigilant about spreading awareness about what the day represents…and why it’s so important and relevant today. Because, while Juneteenth is a moment for celebration, it’s also a moment for reflection.

Aimee: Let’s talk more about what it looks like to recognize Juneteenth and honor its significance. What are your thoughts on meaningful ways to celebrate and commemorate Juneteenth? Using the MLK Jr. Holiday as an example, we know that the way national holidays are honored, commemorated, and celebrated can evolve over time and come to mean different things for different people.

I think that, in some respects, Juneteenth is a different type of commemoration compared to a holiday like Martin Luther King Jr. Day – which has become a day of service and is often focused on celebrating both the legacy of an extraordinary leader for our country and also the achievements of the civil rights movement.

Juneteenth is less about a person, and more about a moment…a moment when freedom became a reality rather than just a promise. It’s also a reminder of the power of resistance and the power of freedom when it is finally earned and recognized.

There are some in our country who are desperate to hold on to a form of mythology about the Civil War and our history…that, once the Emancipation Proclamation was signed and slaves were freed, everything magically became okay for Black people.

But we know that it wasn’t enough for someone to just sign a piece of paper. In order to make changes to a status quo and a system that was built upon racism, discrimination, and deeply-entrenched biases, you have to be really intentional about undoing the harms of our past. That takes time, and clearly we still have a lot of work to do.

That’s why our celebrations of Juneteenth should center around discussing – and enacting – solutions that can root out systemic racism in all aspects of our society.

Aimee: Speaking of those kinds of solutions, advancing racial justice is a core component of the National Partnership’s mission. As we mark Juneteenth, we know that freedom from slavery is the bare minimum of what citizenship means for Black people, and that there has been a continued fight to achieve true equity since emancipation. How do you see our organization’s work as connected to this ongoing fight?

I think the Partnership’s work, and our mission, must focus on continuing to prioritize equity and being very intentional about addressing racial justice issues – when it comes to both our externally-focused policy work, and to our internal operations as an organization.

This means that we have to be inclusive and precise at the same time – we must combat all forms of racial injustice and address the hurdles confronting all people of color. And we also have to be very clear about examining and understanding the unique challenges that Black people face…whether those are health-related challenges, work-related challenges, or in any aspect of life.

In particular, we must understand the intersectional experiences of Black women. We must grapple with strategies that can help resolve their problems in our economic and health justice work.

Greater pay transparency, for example, can help unearth racial and gender pay differences, pinpoint which occupations or jobs have the most problems, and improve Black women’s employment outcomes overall. Increased investments in maternal health – such as broadening patients’ access to a diversity of health care professionals or expanding their health insurance coverage – can help improve Black women’s maternal health and hopefully their maternal health outcomes.

This emphasis on equity is reflected in the research that we do, the policy ideas we come up with, and the outside partners we interact with. But I also think that our commitment to equity must be reflected in how we build and grow our organization.

I’m interested in exploring ways to create more opportunities for people from diverse backgrounds to become involved in policy work, to help build capacity in the field. And I want to find ways to invest in our staff to provide them opportunities to deepen their own expertise on racial justice matters, so that it can inform their current work.

We’re currently working on two ideas.

The first is partnering with an HBCU [historically black colleges and university] to create an internship to give students an opportunity to work at the Partnership over a summer or semester to develop their research and policy experience – and, hopefully, encourage them to pursue a career in the women’s rights space.

The second is creating an opportunity for a few Partnership staff to participate in a civil rights trip in the South to advance their understanding of racial justice work – both in terms of its history and its present challenges.

I know these are initiatives we’ll continue to work together on, Aimee – and I’m excited for us to share more details about them very soon.

Aimee: I’m really excited to continue that work as well! Let’s close our conversation by looking back on the first Juneteenth. It’s been documented that enslaved people in Galveston, Texas were already celebrating days before Union General Gordon Granger arrived with news of the Emancipation Proclamation via General Order No. 3…that they’d already heard rumblings and were hopeful and had a sense that freedom was coming. What gives you hope in our current fight for equity?

What gives me hope is remembering that our nation’s history is very much a story about the inevitability of progress – in the fight for equity, for freedom, for fairness, and for justice. That progress often has not come easily or consistently; there have been many steps forward and many steps backward.

But I think that we can draw hope and inspiration from engaging in the fight…and continuing to push forward or push back, even when the decks seem stacked against us. Because – whether we are on offense or defense – we are still building and showing our strength, our resolve, and our power.

For me, Juneteenth is a reminder of what real progress – and freedom – must look like…that it has to be inclusive and intentional, and that it often requires us to fight for it at every step of the way. The fact that we have to fight should not surprise us. It should be expected.

All of these reminders are especially important today because the truth is that, for too many folks, progress and freedom are elusive concepts…nothing more than an empty promise. And, for many of us, the fights we keep facing are discouraging and exhausting. The opposition has enormous resources – not only financial but also structural, with long-established social and political institutions and networks which control the levers of power that are designed to maintain their status quo. It can feel like we face almost insurmountable odds.

Yet, we have to keep in mind that a big part of the reason why we often confront such a virulent and hostile opposition is because they realize the power of our ideas and the potential of the communities and causes that we’re fighting for. They want to sow chaos and fear so that we will stop fighting altogether.

In the face of such opposition, I always find hope when I look around and see who is in this fight with me. I’m inspired by the staff at the Partnership and the things we’re able to accomplish together.

The powerful lesson of the story of the first Juneteenth is that the hope for freedom is contagious…that even the promise of it can be energizing.

I have confidence and optimism in our ability to achieve freedom and equity for ourselves and for others – however long it takes – because the seeds of these fights are at the heart of what it means to have a healthy democracy and are deeply rooted in our history. That’s why understanding and remembering and knowing our history through commemorations like Juneteenth is so important.

Aimee: Thank you so much, Jocelyn, for taking part in this discussion. Have a joyous Juneteenth!

Thank you, Aimee! This has been a pleasure and I appreciate all that you are doing to keep us on track at the Partnership.

Happy Juneteenth!