Special Emphasis Observances: Mend Them or End Them

Can we do away with the following months or at least change the way we commemorate them: Black History, Women’s History, Asian Pacific American Heritage, Hispanic Heritage, National Disability Employment Awareness and Native American Heritage? Why. Rarely do these observances focus on what executive orders, public laws, federal regulations and Presidential proclamations require- the improvement of equal opportunity and program delivery.

The last Hispanic Heritage Month event I attended focused on salsa dancing and how to make quesadillas. The last American Indian Heritage Month event I witnessed featured powwow dancers and Indian tacos. Both of these communities suffer from chronic long-term under-representation and disengagement in the federal government and yet these 2 observances missed out on opportunities to improve the equal opportunity and program delivery to these under-served constituencies.

If we can’t end them can we mend them? When these events focus on what I call food and entertainment, they actually reinforce bias by convincing participants that various subordinate groups and cultures are no more than culinary delights and tickle me theater.

I have attended dozens of these events and planned numerous more. I would try to tailor my programs to the equal employment or program needs of my community. If it is under-representation, bring in some folks to speak about recruitment of the under-represented group. If it is invisibility at the leadership level, talk about why the pipeline for these positions excludes members from the affected group. If it is program delivery, get some external representatives from the distressed population on the agenda to share best practices.

Many of these observances miss opportunities to cross-pollinate other special emphasis programs. One year to the dismay of many American Indians, I held a program on Black Indians. Another year to the consternation of the same group, I sponsored a program on the Two Spirit People in conjunction with Gay Pride Month.

As the federal government becomes populated with multiracial Gen Y’ers and Z’ers, these mono-racial celebrations do not make sense for these post-racial Feds. As our customers change so should our special emphasis events.

Even though these observances are supposedly based on fairness and equity, a pecking order exists dependent on the month of the celebration. Hispanic Heritage Month spans portions of two months, September and October. While its counterpart, November National Native American Heritage Month, falls victim to Veterans Day, Thanksgiving and use it or lose it leave which essentially leaves only two weeks for its commemoration. It is also a period when many American Indians take leave to attend their own Tribal fall harvest ceremonies. Other celebrations like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Birthday, Black History, Women’s History and Asian Pacific American Heritage, National Disability Employment Awareness Months have month long remembrances.

Perhaps one way to celebrate diversity is to merge these observances into a compressed schedule like Diversity Week. Imagine a week long program with multiple ethnic food choices (diversity a la carte) like you find in your neighborhood mall food court. At least we could get out cultural bellies full, even if our cultural brains remain empty.

Leave a Comment

One Comment

Leave a Reply

Mark Hammer

How does one retain the “specialness”? It’s a challenge. On the one hand, instituting a cutoff that grandfathers in *some* events/observances, but not others, is both discriminatory, and also likely to foster conflict and divisions (“How come *them* and not *us*?”) – the very antithesis of what such observances are meant to do. On the other hand, there are only 365 days in a year, and the number of demographic groups and special observances one could create is endless. Having a special day every single day kind of cheapens the whole thing. And, in a way, so does having an annual event, but so does having a one-time event. You simply can’t win.

None of this is any sort of argument AGAINST having special-emphasis observances (great term, BTW; I like it). But it does highlight that any organization or community that wishes to have them, or is tasked with planning them out, has a big challenge in making it *feel* special, rather than turn into just another mass e-mail and poster by the elevator.

I do like your idea of combining events into broader-category ones. That accomplishes the dual goal of recognition without giving poreference, and not saturating the schedule. It is, after all, important for such events to be noticed, and have impact.