“I do believe that by celebrating Juneteenth, we are bringing increased awareness to historical facts that are not commonly taught in American schools to move the proverbial needle forward.”
I Am Merkle is a series of interviews that showcase the individuals who make Merkle a unique and diverse place to work. This month, we talk with Traci West, a leading force behind DEI Communications and our Multicultural BRG. She shares facts about the history of Juneteenth and offers context into how Juneteenth became a paid companywide holiday for dentsu.
What Inspired You to Become a Part of DEI, specifically becoming a leading force within DEI Communications and the Multicultural BRG?
Much of who I am today can be attributed to my paternal grandmother. My grandmother was a great force with which to be reckoned. She and my grandfather were young parents and, in spite of the struggles associated with marrying young and rearing two children, my grandmother put herself through school and went all the way by earning her PhD in Social Work from Howard University. She was the epitome of strength and resilience. My grandmother believed in social activism and being an integral part of the village. She would always say, “If you don’t vote, you cannot complain.” I believe I have a responsibility to actively do whatever I can to uplift my community which includes my advocacy at work via the Multicultural BRG and DEI Comms.
Walk us through your experience of June 2020 and the events that led to Merkle/dentsu acknowledging Juneteenth as a companywide holiday?
Honestly, I think I was stunned after I received the news about our new company holiday. I remember asking the messenger of this news to repeat what he said because I wanted to make sure that I heard him correctly. After taking time to process this information, I smiled and then immediately cried happy tears. I couldn’t believe that the petition from my colleague (Ashley Philip at iProspect) and me to dentsu’s executive leadership team had been approved. I remember calling Ashley and saying, “Did this just happen?” The executive leadership team not only listened to our pleas, but they acted swiftly to make Juneteenth a permanent company holiday beginning in 2020, and for that I was thankful.
This was the first time in a very long time that I had some real degree of hope that America was ready to move past its racist ideologies by leaving behind dogma associated with White superiority. Juneteenth was less than a month after the brutal murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer on May 25, 2020. I do not believe George Floyd’s death was in vain. Perhaps the purpose of his murder was to create an irrefutable racial reckoning for people outside of the Black community that racism in America was still very much alive and thriving. Yes, Black people all over America are still being subjected to racial inequities, especially at the hands of law enforcement. Although the video footage of George Floyd was difficult to watch and even harder to digest, the movement by corporate America that ensued shortly thereafter to create diversity, equity, and inclusion, both within and outside of the workplace, was something to behold. For the first time in my life, I had an inkling of hope that my children might experience a better America than what I, and my ancestors before me, have experienced.
What do you hope individuals understand about Juneteenth and what does Juneteenth mean to you?
That’s a bit of a loaded question. The most obvious answer is, June 19, 1865 (Juneteenth) is a day for which I am eternally grateful because it commemorates the day when every enslaved African American in this country was finally informed that they had been emancipated. On a personal note, the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13 Amendment meant that my great, great grandmother and grandfather would not have to live their lives as enslaved people. For some reason, people tend to view slavery in America as something that happened so very long ago, but when I think about it in these terms, I realize that the abolishment of slavery was not as long ago as some people might believe.
Of course, I’m happy that my ancestors were no longer subjected to the horrible atrocities associated with being enslaved people in this country. Yet, the illusion of freedom is still something that’s lost upon me. The word “freedom” is such a specious concept for many underrepresented groups in this country. What does it mean to be “free” in a country that has implemented myriad policies to derail people of color from truly living a free and full life? There is still so much work to be done to reverse the systematically racist policies that are embedded into the very fiber of America, like those found in housing, policing, education, and the legal system. I don’t have false expectations of these policies being eradicated in the near future, but I do believe that by celebrating Juneteenth, we are bringing increased awareness to historical facts that are not commonly taught in American schools which can serve to move the proverbial needle forward.
How do you celebrate Juneteenth?
Sadly, I did not grow up celebrating Juneteenth because neither of my parents knew about this part of our history despite their parents having been actively involved in the Civil Rights movement. I did not learn about Juneteenth until my freshman year of college.
Last year was a bit of a bust because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2019, I celebrated Juneteenth by taking a trip to the National Museum of African American History (NMAAH) with my daughters. This year, I intend to start the day by revisiting the NMAAH, but I also want to gather with friends at some point during the day to have a barbeque replete with grilled food, a traditional red colored drink (strawberry soda for the kids), red velvet cake, card games, and some good music - maybe Frankie Beverly and Maze.