Heritage Months: Temporary Celebrations or Yearly Discussions

As feds, we are entering the heritage month season. January brought Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday. February has ushered in Black History Month and March will soon deliver Women’s History Month. In my conversations with employees about these events, I sense a malaise has seeped into these celebrations that dilute their effectiveness in promoting diversity and inclusion. Besides the trend that these observances rarely address the improvement of equal opportunity and program delivery for the particular community being spotlighted, they also miss opportunities to examine the impact larger systems are having on the community under scrutiny.

Leaders who plan these programs would be well served to look at ways social justice teachers and educators approach these recognition events. By adopting some of their innovative techniques, I think the federal community could inject vitality into heritage month observances that produce yearlong impact rather than monthly check the box moments.

Paul Gorski of EdChange talks about a frequent mistake planners of special emphasis observances make. He calls it the Heroes and Holidays approach.

As a federal employee, you have seen the heroes and holiday approach manifest itself in several ways:

• Huge posters of people like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. or Rosa Parks adorned the lobby of federal buildings setting the tone for the commemoration.
• Program agendas that feature cultural emphasis through costumes, foods and music.

Gorski claims these types of celebrations reinforce the very bias event planners are trying to eliminate:

• By defining the particular community in strictly cultural terms, the commemoration celebrates the subordinate group outside of the federal government context to improve the equal opportunity and program delivery for said group.
• By concentrating on heroic contributions of historical figures from the subordinate community, learners are deprived of any real life lessons of the subordinate group in the here and now.
• Framing these events as special celebrations, ignores the more transformative measures needed to bring essential yearlong reform to the equal opportunity and program needs of the subordinate groups.

Emily Chiariello of the Southern Law Poverty Center’s Teaching Tolerance Program has an excellent list of questions that should be asked before planning any special emphasis observance:

• Identity-What attitudes are prevalent in your workplace regarding the subordinate group?
• Diversity-How are current experiences of the subordinate group in your workplace different from others?
• Justice-What bias and injustice does the subordinate group experience in your workplace?
• Actions-What actions do individuals and groups in your workplace need to take to challenge inequality experienced by the subordinate group?

Heritage month celebrations are an important part of any federal diversity and inclusion program. The cold hard truth is we have only a few months of the year to bring attention to the authentic discussions that need to take place regarding the conditions and needs of underserved communities and customers.

Remember, the dialogue we have in February and March will influence the conversations we need to have for the rest of the year, if we have the conversations at all.

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