Black History Month: Continuing the Conversation
I recently asked a CEO who is a good friend of mine, “What are you doing for Black History Month?”
He looked at me and said, “Actually, I didn’t even think about it.”
That right there is an opportunity wasted.
What can leaders do to recognize Black History Month?
Every February is an opportunity to connect with your employees and to generate avenues for discussion that increase productivity. (Of course, you can do this in any month, but let’s focus on February for now.)
And trust me, your employees know that it is Black History Month. They are either following your lead and avoiding it or they are following your lead and enjoying it. The choice is up to you.
So with that in mind, here are a few things you can do with your employees to celebrate Black History Month in February — and continue the conversation afterward.
1. Talk about it.
If that sounds simple, that’s because it is. Mention that it’s Black History Month. Just throw it out there.
Let me put it this way: If you ignore the contributions of African-Americans to American history, then you are part of the problem, not part of the solution.
An opportunity exists. You can’t miss it. So, be aware of it. Prepare for it. Talk about it. Ask about it.
And don’t just ask the black employees. Ask everybody. Lead your employees by showing what questions you have!
2. Do not waste the opportunity.
Black History Month is an opportunity for you as a leader. You lose credibility if you fail to take advantage of relevant conversations. You can lose trust. You can also lose an employee if you fail to highlight the obvious.
Hell, even the NHL celebrates Black History Month!.
As an NFL player, I used to feel terrible if I squandered an opportunity — if I missed a block on third-and-goal or if I failed to take the right angle on a key fourth-quarter play.
A missed opportunity can be frustrating. It can even have long-lasting effects. Well, you have an opportunity here. Your employees, your fellow leaders, even your family at the dinner table – they are all aware of the opportunity presented by Black History Month and the discussions you can have.
3. Encourage participation.
Give every employee a chance to make a short presentation on a black historical figure who is meaningful to them.
Perhaps they identify with Jesse Owens or Marian Anderson or Michelle Obama. Whatever their passion is – sports, music, politics or anything else – encourage them to learn and share with the team.
In addition to creating awareness and generating discussion about black historical figures, this will provide insight into employees on a personal level that provides a point of connection.
Perhaps you never knew that Ryan Harris loves inventions. But after I speak about Garrett Morgan, you will not only know that he invented the traffic light and the gas mask, but also that I am passionate about science.
If someone speaks about Arthur Ash or Serena Williams you can chat about tennis next time at the water cooler.
Yes, we can learn about those who came before us, AND we can also learn about us. Black History Month is an opportunity to celebrate not just black culture in America, but also our shared history as people and our shared interests as coworkers. When we do this, we begin to see each other as human beings and less as the color or race that we come from.
On my radio show (10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Altitude), every single day of Black History Month we’ve picked a different contributor to sports from our shared African-American history.
One of the things that our listeners love is learning about the greatest pioneers in their favorite sport – people like Willie O’Ree, the first black NHL player, who I had the privilege to meet. When you talk about legends like Willie O’Ree, you also learn things like he was blind in one eye.
Even when we are uncomfortable, we are advancing conversations on race and beyond. We learn about the feats of other people that can give us confidence and support in our lives as we battle our personal struggles and strive to achieve our goals.
On the other hand, when organizations choose not to continue the conversation surrounding Black History Month, it forces the employees to ask several key questions:
- Did my boss not bring up Black History Month because they don’t know it’s Black History Month?
If so, that’s a sign of ignorance.
- Did my boss not bring up Black History Month because they didn’t want to offend anybody?
Umm, what is offensive about celebrating Black History Month?
- Did my boss not want to celebrate Black History Month because they were uncomfortable?
Well, part of being a leader is the ability to guide us through uncomfortable situations.
We have an opportunity to recognize the breadth of the contributions of African-Americans in our society. Appreciating Black History Month is one of many steps we can all easily take.
My son asked me a few weeks ago, “Dad, why are you always the only black person in the room?”
That’s a tough question for me to answer.
But even when a topic is tough, or complicated, or makes you feel uncomfortable, a true leader must find a way to address the situation.
Coaches in the NFL NEVER miss an opportunity to address a strength or a weakness.
Remember, you do not always have to have all the answers. But when it comes to race dynamics and historical figures, and specifically to Black History Month, you must always continue the conversation.