Yes! The Focus is Blacks for Black History Month – 5 Best Practices for Celebrating Heritage Months
Each year in February, Black History Month kicks off the year’s series of heritage months. Women follow in March, Asians in May, Latinos in September and October, and Native Americans in November. Workplaces have evolved beyond marking these months by merely serving collard greens or tacos in the cafeteria.
Today, many organizations host events for employees, clients, and the community to celebrate our diverse culture and people. The structure, format, and goals of history-month events vary. Some focus on educating the public on historic achievements or celebrating artistic contributions, while many employers have started leveraging them as opportunities for staff to network or gain skills. Most of these events are well organized, but a few completely miss the mark. It is noticeable when heritage celebrations have had significant thought put into their planning, and when they were pulled together in the final hour.
As heritage events become more commonplace each year, it is time to consider best practices. While there is not a “right” or “wrong” way to approach celebrating history months, attendees need to walk away feeling enriched and like they spent their time wisely. They need to include some basics.
After observing a series of unfortunate events this year, we decided to offer this guidance. Here are five tips to consider when planning any heritage-month event. While speaking in the context of Black History Month, the core principles are universal.
1. You Must Have Black People on the Panel!
Sadly, this does not go without saying. Including a solid representation of black people as featured speakers, panelists, or performers should be an obvious “non-brainer.” It is perfectly acceptable to incorporate non-blacks. In fact, it may even be preferred in order to promote events that are more inclusive and speak to a broader audience.
However, it may not feel like a thoughtful Black History Month event if the audience is not hearing from actual black people. It may also offend the people of color who attend. It is highly recommended that the demographic being celebrated make up at least a majority of those presenting to the audience. This is an imperative!
If an event is highlighting blacks’ heritage, then we must make sure to feature black people. The same goes for an event about Latinos, millennials, veterans, or any other group. If people are not hearing from the group of the hour, then what’s the point?
2. Yes! Focusing on Black History Is A Non-Negotiable
At the end of the day, we are celebrating Black History Month. What does this mean? This means the event should somehow focus on the history, legacy, contributions, culture, or impact of blacks on society, and what that means for everyone in the United States.
One of the more recent disappointing Black History Month events was one where the panelists talked about a broad potpourri of topics – none of which focused on issues touching on or involving blacks in America. Not only did the discussion lack a clear agenda, theme, and direction, but it also fully fell flat by failing to foster dialogue about anything remotely related to black people or black Americans.
Black history or the legacy of blacks in the United States should not be randomly weaved into the event. Topics relating to black people and their history need to be the central focus of the heritage-month event since that is its baseline purpose.
3. There’s More to Black History than MLK & Rosa Parks
The contributions of trailblazers like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks are undoubtedly pivotal and worthy of ongoing praise. However, black history in America spans over 400 years – with countless people adding to our country’s rich culture, advancements, and legacy. By focusing on a handful of notable people over and over, we run the risk of discouraging participation as people “check out.” People lose interest when they are not learning anything new or hearing fresh information.
Black History Month grew out of historian Carter G. Woodson’s and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History’s creation of “Negro History Week” in 1926. They chose February as the week to celebrate black history since both Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln were born in February. This information is rarely known by most people. Not only is there an interesting history behind the creation of Black History Month, but there are fascinating people spanning centuries to explore.
Not expanding the list of who we celebrate ignores the contributions of inventors (e.g., Garrett Morgan, Sr. – inventor of the stoplight and gasmask), scientists (e.g., Mae Carol Jamison – first black woman in space), artists (e.g., Ann Lowe – fashion designer who designed Jacqueline Kennedy’s wedding gown), and other civil rights leaders (e.g., Loren Miller – who wrote most of the legal briefs in Brown v. Board of Education that ended racial segregation). The stories of unsung heroes and pioneers should also see the light of day. The goal should be to broaden our knowledge since knowledge is power, and not to merely reinforce what we already know.
Moving forward, we should also integrate the contributions of less known pioneers and contributors so their legacies can also enrich our lives.
4. Black History Month Is For Everyone – Consider Mass Appeal
Many Black History Month events appeal primarily to blacks and other underrepresented minority groups. This results in audiences and attendee lists being predominantly comprised of blacks and people of color. This means that those in the majority are not sharing in our nation’s rich culture and taking advantage of opportunities to connect with diverse colleagues. This needs to change.
Black History Month is not just for black people. Events should be inclusive since black history is American history.
We should encourage a shift towards a more inclusive approach by being more thoughtful in the planning phase, and should be more strategic in marketing events to broader groups. We should leverage heritage celebrations as opportunities to connect, educate, and transcend across different groups so we can understand each other better.
The goal should be to promote inclusion so everyone feels ownership of what is being celebrated – namely our collective history and how our various contributions make us all Americans together.
5. Have An Agenda! Develop An Obvious Theme & Purpose
When leaving an event, people should feel either uplifted or like they learned or experienced something new. It should be thought provoking and enriching. They also need to leave knowing what the event was about, and why certain topics or speakers were included. The best way to achieve this is to have a clear theme and an agenda, which requires having a plan and a thoughtful strategy for the event.
When we think about what we want people to have as their takeaways and how we want them to experience and consume the information presented, we can design events where the purpose is not only clear to the attendees, but it inherently resonates with them.
Many of these tips have broad application outside of the scope of Black History Month. These best practices sound basic and simple. For some people, they may even appear rudimentary. The majority of events are well organized and extremely impressive – with people feeling empowered at the end. This article is not about those well-planned events. This was written for the minority of events that fall flat of the basic purpose of any heritage-month event so there are fewer disappointing events in the future.
Our hope is that organizations that need guidance and struggle in knowing what to do for a history-month event will consider these fundamentals before planning their next heritage-month event. If so, they can design more enjoyable events for attendees across all demographics, and that encourage people to keep coming back for more!
The Azara Group (TAG) is a consulting firm that promotes the development of leaders in an increasingly competitive and diverse marketplace – providing strategy consulting services and leadership training services to advance professional and life success. TAG leverages expertise in career strategy, diversity, negotiation skills, and business acumen to provide strategic advice and consulting services to help people and organizations get what they want, achieve their goals, and advance their business and career objectives. TAG also helps companies better attract, retain, and promote diverse talent, and develop robust diversity platforms and strategies to create a more inclusive workplace.
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