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An Ally’s Guide to Celebrating Black History Month at Work

Dora Segall
By: Dora Segall
Feb 8, 2021 • 8 min read

An ally’s guide to celebrating Black History Month at work

February can serve as a potent reminder of the centuries-long struggle it has taken for Black Americans to assert basic rights. However, racial disparities in the workplace, including higher unemployment rates and underrepresentation in senior-level positions, still exist today. COVID-19 has only exacerbated such inequalities. With this in mind, we’ve come up with a guide by and for allies to honor Black history at work this month.

woman standing beside person holding flag of America

The Origins of Black History Month (BHM)

In 1915, historian Carter G. Woodson and four others founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH), laying the foundations for African American Studies. Ten years later, they announced a Negro History Week in February. This week was planned to coincide with Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass’s birthdays. The event was extended to a month in 1976 when President urged Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”

Celebrating BHM Online

Virtual celebrations are the name of the game this year. One advantage of honoring Black history while working from home is that it’s easier to coordinate events with your staff and any out-of-company facilitators. Examples may include Black speakers, authors, artists, corporate professionals, and more.

man in black jacket and pants sitting on bench

Add Educational Resources to Your Website

Publishing information about Black history and contemporary issues on your company site is a great way to engage staff, clients, and customers. Some information you might want to feature could be key Black historical figures, racial equity statistics, and a list of organizations to which readers can donate resources or volunteer time. We recommend accompanying any facts with photos and infographics — these will make your content more eye-catching and thought-provoking. Try distributing BHM content across your website — don’t just shove it away on a separate tab. Including a few key tidbits and links on your homepage and where ever else it seems appropriate will make content more visible without detracting from your company’s primary mission.

Bring in Guest Speakers

You’re probably no stranger to Zoom webinars at this point. Now is your chance to use your skills to promote diversity and inclusion! Try hosting an online event that gives Black voices a platform. You can use this event as an opportunity to bring in either a diversity and inclusion expert or simply someone with a personal experience to share. Another idea is to bring in a poet or storyteller. An artistic angle can engage employees in a unique and impactful way. Just make sure not to put any employees of color on the spot. This is not only likely to make them feel uncomfortable rather than heard but can also potentially qualify as workplace harassment.

woman in white tank top and white shorts standing on gray concrete road during daytime

Plan a Workshop

A great way to actively engage employees in diversity and inclusion is by setting aside time to trouble-shoot any ongoing or potential race-related issues in the workplace. You can hire an outside facilitator to oversee a BHM workshop, or you can do it on your own. Just make sure to do a lot of preemptive research if you’re attempting the latter. Your workshop can encompass anything work-related. From anti-racist employment practices as a whole to exclusionary behavior that is an active problem at your own organization.

To make your workshop a team effort, allow employees to vocalize their thoughts and brainstorm solutions. Take these comments into account and incorporate them into a coherent plan that you create by the end of the session. This process will ensure that your company or organization is invested not only in understanding Black history but in making your workplace a better environment for current and future coworkers.

Start a Social Media Campaign

If we weren’t already glued to our phones pre-pandemic, we are now out of necessity. Posting BHM-related content to social media is a great way to take advantage of our digital-centered world. Your company can start a social media campaign where someone posts a new BHM-related fact to your Instagram story each day. You could also link followers to new online resources on Twitter once a week.

Whatever approach you take, make sure to strike a balance between historical, informative, and present-day, action-based content. A well-rounded social media campaign will inform users while also empowering them to do something about racial inequity while maintaining your company’s voice and mission.

woman in black top using MacBook

Celebrating BHM In-person

Honoring Black history in-person is more limited now than it has been in years past. Nonetheless, there are a few specific ways in which you can and should celebrate Black History Month if you have employees coming into a physical workspace.

Put up Visual Cues

If you have staff or customers coming into your workplace every day, you can focus on Black history this month by filling the space with relevant posters and product designs. For instance, if your employees work in an office, fill one wall with a timeline of Black Americans’ milestones. You can also put up a list of workplace statistics and tips related to professional diversity and inclusion.

If you run a store, you can engage employees and customers alike by providing pamphlets or other kinds of literature on BHM at the checkout counter. Information to include could be local, Black-owned and operated businesses and organizations in need of volunteers or a historical overview of Black Americans in your industry. If your own company already works to promote Black Equity, this is also a great opportunity to explain that side of your mission.

Back History Month

Donate Profits to Organizations Focused on Racial Equity

Although your business should always be striving to promote racial equity, you might not always be able to raise money for non-profits working to assist Black Americans. February is a great opportunity to take some time to do so. Pick an organization whose mission supports Black Americans and speaks to your employees (you can even open up the floor to suggestions for and vote on where to send donations!).

Once you’ve decided on an organization, explain to customers or clients that you will donate a portion of their next purchase to that non-profit. You can provide information for them to read about the organization, a great way of giving them agency over their money while spreading BHM awareness beyond your own company. You can also set up a jar for additional donations.

If you want to go further than donations, you can start a staff fundraising campaign for the organization you’ve chosen. We recommend keeping donation amounts private to not draw attention to salary differences, but you can give someone a button or tee-shirt after they donate any amount. Competing over an altruistic cause fosters goodwill and a sense of excitement. All while assisting meaningful work against local or national racial disparities.

Host a Black History Game Night, Film Screening, or Book Club

One advantage to working from home is that a long commute can’t deter us from going to an event that we might find interesting. As an employer, you can take advantage of this by offering a fun virtual activity that will double as a BHM learning opportunity.

Black history trivia is a popular choice for many companies and organizations. It fosters learning while also allowing for friendly competition. You could also choose a more artistic or literary activity! For example, screening a film that centers on a Black experience or a BHM-themed book club. A book club is a great way to engage employees on Black history during discussions. Still, it can also impact the workplace. If a large portion of your staff is reading and talking about the same book, their conversations are sure to reach other employees and get them thinking about racial equity on the job.

You can schedule either mandatory BHM events during the day or optional ones after hours. We recommend a mix of both so that all employees will learn at least a little but dive deeper if they have some extra time.

Back History Month

Ally Yourself with Black Owned-and-Operated Organizations

The best way to instill real change in society is by supporting those with the power to spearhead it. Working with and on behalf of Black-owned businesses and organizations can lighten the load they may be carrying and bridge the barriers that often separate organizations like theirs from white-dominated ones.

There are all sorts of ways you can partner with Black-owned organizations and businesses. If your company is a jewelry store, you could prioritize Black artisans in your next product line. If you remodel homes, you might collaborate with a non-profit which provides housing placement to low-income residents from Black-majority neighborhoods.

Distribute Educational Literature

This goes back to our in-person brochure suggestion. If you want your staff and clientele to learn about Black history and work to improve diversity and inclusion, the best step you can take is providing them with the means to do so. We’ve already covered the posters and pamphlets you can have available to employees and customers in a physical workplace. If your staff is working from home, though, you can distribute information via email instead. A daily or weekly newsletter is a great way to give employees access to new knowledge.

Back History Month

Give Employees a Way to Share Their Thoughts and Experiences

Employees should always be strongly encouraged to disclose any race-related problems they are encountering in the workplace. That said, BHM is a chance for you to prioritize Black voices. Send out an email to all staff to see if anyone would like to share a race-related challenge they have faced recently or in the past. We recommend asking via survey so that respondents can open up anonymously.

Bringing in a guest speaker is a great way to make your entire staff aware of the issues their Black coworkers and neighbors may be facing in their professional lives. Lots of people make it their job to talk about their experiences to spread awareness.

Consider How to Make your Company or Organization More Inclusive Towards Black Employees and Clients

The first step to improving diversity and inclusion in your company is to understand where you’re at currently. We’ve suggested sending out an anonymous survey as a way of collecting employees’ thoughts and concerns related to race in the workplace. There is always room for improvement.

If you’re an employer, you can also learn a lot about your company’s racial impact just by looking at your staff more closely. Does your company’s racial makeup reflect that of your local area or of the U.S. as a whole? Do you have a greater portion of Black employees in entry-level positions than in leadership roles compared to other employees? Noticing details like this can help you parse out what your organization is doing well regarding race and where you have some work to do. If you’re an employee, you can start with a similar process of analyzing your own behavior. Do you tend to make more of an effort to get closer with coworkers of your own race? Do you tend to look up to white managers more than Black ones? These questions can be difficult to ask, but finding answers is a compelling process for change.

Improve Areas Where You Fall Short

The next step in making your company more inclusive is improving the areas where you fall short. One method for coming up with methods to do this is workshopping, which we’ve already discussed. Another is to look over any suggestions from employees in your anonymous survey (we recommend adding a question just to solicit any potential solutions).

Finally, you can consult an out-of-company advisor. There are lots of people out there who specialize in promoting diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Find one of them, and work with them to see which methods work best for your organization.

Overview

Black History Month is as much about celebrating the past as it is improving the future. After a year of heated protests and disproportionate COVID-19 impacts, we need more than ever to reflect on race and improve Black Americans’ conditions. By bringing that mission into your workplace, you are doing your part in making our nation a better place.

We wish you an educational, peaceful, and celebratory Black History Month!

More to Read:

How To Include Work History on Your Resume

Facts You Should Never Include in Your Resume 

How To Be an Ally This Pride Month

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