February is Black History Month (BHM), when the US celebrates African Americans’ contributions and achievements throughout history. This is an opportunity for HR to collaborate with their people to promote an understanding of the month’s history by creating thoughtful programming that celebrates Black cultures and fosters inclusivity. But before we dig into that, let’s take a look at the history of Black History Month.
Why do we celebrate Black History Month?
Black History Month began in February 1926 as Negro History Week, an initiative by writer and historian (and founder of the Journal of Negro History and the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, or ASALH), Carter G. Woodson. Woodson believed that education and awareness of history were the only ways to achieve equity and equality across society. He dedicated his life to ensuring people everywhere—no matter their race—had access to education, stating, “[r]eal education means to inspire people to live more abundantly, to learn to begin with life as they find it and make it better.”
According to the Zinn Education Project, Woodson’s Negro History Week initiative was adopted by schools across the United States but was mainly limited to Black neighborhoods. Demand for more education around Black culture, literature, and history grew along with the Black middle class throughout the 1920s. Black communities established nationwide Negro History Clubs and new ASALH branches. Over the years, the excitement around Negro History Week programming grew, too.
Soon, the broader American public was interested, too, and “progressive whites joined Negro History Week with National Brotherhood Week.” By the 1960s, several states had extended Negro History Week into Black History Month. The month eventually became nationally recognized, and every US president since 1976 has endorsed it.
How can we celebrate Black History Month at work?
There are many ways to celebrate Black History Month at work. Before you start brainstorming about promoting Black History Month activities, it’s important to make sure the planning process and events are as collaborative as possible.
If your company has a Black Employee Resource Group, ask them for their input. If your company doesn’t have one, send out emails or post on your internal comms tools to find people who are passionate about BHM and want to be a part of the planning process. However, while you should always encourage people to participate, be mindful and never assume someone wants to get involved just because of their cultural background or skin color.
With that in mind, here are some ideas to help you create meaningful Black History Month programming for your people. With a bit of tweaking and a solid internet connection (thanks, Zoom!), you can adapt all of these for remote and hybrid work setups.
1. Bring in speakers and create a space for people to listen and share
Many companies celebrate Black History Month by inviting speakers to share stories and experiences around race and Black identity. Promoting diverse voices creates a space for inclusion, understanding, and empathy. Involve people and open up the conversation to anyone who wants to participate by sending out a company-wide email asking for speaker and topic suggestions.
This kind of programming can take on many formats, from panel discussions to roundtables to workshops. Choose the topic beforehand, and let people know what to expect so they can feel prepared to share and ask questions.
2. Spotlight employee stories
Companies don’t need to look far to find great voices to highlight. People are a company’s greatest assets, and BHM is the perfect time to celebrate Black team members and their work. Companies can share posts or videos internally on their own websites or newsletters. They can also share externally on social media (but always ask people what they’re comfortable sharing and where).
For example, Comcast NBCUniversal has set itself apart with its Black Employee Network of Engineers (BENgineers) conference. The conference dedicates an entire series of programs to Black History Month. It creates a space for Black technologists to “share experiences, create connections, and explore” the impact of their professional innovations and contributions. In past years, the company has partnered with JFF, a US nonprofit organization dedicated to driving transformation in the American workforce and education system, on a report showcasing top Black talent and innovators in tech and digital careers.
3. Ask team members to take the lead
We’ve said it before, but your people are your greatest resource for creating programming with a lasting impact. If your company has a Black ERG, ask them if they’d like to take the lead on this one while providing organizational support and budget.
Blue Cross and Blue Shield hosts myriad events celebrating Black culture and history. For over ten years, BCBS’s national Black Employee Network (AABEN) has led in creating educational programming on awareness of Black culture. Events they’ve held have covered Black music, dance, and literature. Educational panels cover African American history, Black identity, “and how corporate America can be more inclusive of cultural difference, to hearing directly from Black leaders who share their career journey and lessons learned.”
You can also tailor the programming for remote and hybrid work structures. You can ask Black team members to curate a Spotify playlist based around a theme of their choosing, such as “songs I grew up listening to.” Another option is hosting a remote cookout: Ask Black team members to share their favorite recipes, create a cookbook, and then have people recreate their favorite dishes at home. You can also create a dedicated Slack channel for everyone to post photos and comments.
4. Volunteer your time and your money
It’s always a good idea for companies to promote volunteering and giving back to the community. It boosts morale and company culture and gives people that can-do attitude that carries over to their work.
For BHM, team up with a local nonprofit for a day of volunteering. Alternatively, you can spotlight different charities helping the Black community. If you’re in the tech sector, there are tons of nonprofits with missions to diversity tech through education and mentoring, such as Black Girls Code, Project Include, Code2040, and The Hidden Genius Project.
There are so many creative ways companies can donate their time and money—from internship programs to employee-led fundraises to creating communities like Meta Elevate, dedicated to investing in Black education, professional training, and Black-owned businesses. Find initiatives that resonate with your people and promote them year-round.
5. Support Black-owned businesses
Supporting Black-owned businesses is another great way to get team members and customers involved. A #BuyBlack campaign can help highlight Black-owned companies and creators and showcase Black-owned businesses your company and people can choose to support.
You can also help support the Black community by sponsoring team lunches and other company events at Black-owned restaurants and event halls. To help remote team members join in, send out BHM gift bags, locally sourced from Black-owned businesses.
6. Hold workshops on unconscious bias and how to promote DEI&B
Black History Month isn’t just about celebrating. It’s about building a culture of empathy and changing the world for the better—at work and beyond.
Hold workshops on unconscious bias that help people recognize and eradicate their own biases. Workshops like this can help break down barriers between people who may not typically speak with or collaborate. They also help encourage people of all backgrounds and races to work together, tell their professional and personal stories, and collaborate.
Another idea is to hold workshops on how to hire a diverse and inclusive workforce. Teach your recruiters and hiring managers how to write job descriptions that attract diverse groups of people, sift through CVs, and interview candidates without letting their unconscious biases get in the way. Awareness of unconscious biases and a company-wide emphasis on diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging can help you build an even more robust workforce.
7. Identify areas for improvement
No matter how well your programs are doing, there’s always room for improving DEI&B across your company. When you assess the efficacy of your programs, the best place to start is with your people.
Conduct an anonymous pulse survey to gauge how your people feel. Do your programs actually promote inclusivity, equity, and feelings of belonging? Reach out to Black team members and ask them if they’re willing to speak on the record about their experiences, negative and positive, and make it clear that you’re open to new ideas and suggestions.
If possible, use HR tech to help collect and analyze data on how your DEI&B programs are performing. What percentage of new hires are Black or other minorities? What percentage of Black or minority employees received promotions in the last year?
Can you improve your hiring process, starting with how you write your job descriptions? How can you attract a more diverse pool of candidates for different positions? Can the language you use be more inclusive?
Can your company offer more flexible work structures, like hybrid and remote work, or flexible schedules? Black professionals and other minorities may find flexibility particularly valuable, especially if they do not live close to the office or are caregivers to young children or other family members in need.
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8. Share inspiring Black History Month quotes
One of the best ways to get your teams excited about Black History Month is to share inspiring quotes from famous Black historical figures, authors, musicians, and visual artists.
Get people from across the company involved, regardless of race or background (or where they are in the world). Ask them to submit their favorite quotes along with portraits of the people who said them. This activity is an excellent way for people to bond over ideas they care about while demonstrating to each other and as a company that you care about everyone’s contributions, background, and history.
Share the quotes with everyone: Collaborate with your marketing team to create placards or posters with the quotes and place them around the office. You can also share them by email or on your social media channels.
Another option is to hold events centered around the quotes. Invite Black authors, musicians, and historians to speak and perform, and encourage team members to participate in the discussions.
Supporting diversity in the workplace 365 days a year
Black History Month is a great time to celebrate diversity and promote Black voices in the workplace, but it doesn’t have to start and stop in February. Inclusive and diverse workplace programming can and should be a year-round endeavor.
This can include promoting Employee Resource Groups to foster inclusivity or encouraging other employee-led initiatives like book clubs or meetups centered around diversity issues. Wherever you start, be sure to keep people involved and give them the support they need to take the lead.