“Our organization wants to celebrate [X] Heritage/History Month, but we are not sure how.”
This has been an increasingly common concern we hear from clients.
Heritage month celebrations in the United States were established by congressional proclamations during the 20th century. Now, they are celebrated throughout the year, commemorating the histories and contributions of historically marginalized communities to this country.
Celebrating heritage months as an organization can be tricky. Leaders are often afraid to come across as inauthentic or opportunistic and worry about causing more harm than good by missing the mark in celebrating these heritage months. As a result, many organizations and leaders, with the best of intentions, end up doing nothing at all.
As with any other form of DE&I work, there are no easy solutions or shortcuts. Successful DE&I initiatives require commitment and hard work. However, when done right, heritage month celebrations can help build trust with those people who matter most to your organization. Moreover, when the recognition and celebration of non-dominant identities becomes a natural part of an organization’s culture, that organization will become more inclusive and employees will become more engaged in their work.
In thinking about celebrating heritage months at your organization, there is a simple, yet powerful mindset that can help leaders and organizations approach this challenge: Meet the expectations of those people who matter most to you.
I will unpack what this means by using this year’s Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage (AAPI) Month as an example and offer practical advice for how you can celebrate heritage months the right way in your organization.
Shifting Societal Expectations: A Historical Problem Brought to the Forefront
At Logos Consulting Group, we teach clients that trust is the natural consequence of promises fulfilled, expectations met, and values lived. When it comes any form of DE&I work, having a current, up-to-date understanding of societal expectations is essential in thinking about meeting stakeholder expectations.
For the AAPI community, the rise of anti-Asian hatred since the beginning of Covid-19 has continued into 2022. According to the NYPD Hate Crimes Dashboard, 158 incidents of hate crimes against Asians were reported between March 2020 and December 2021. Hate crimes against Asians increased so much so that the New York Police Department created an Asian Hate Crime Task Force.
However, nothing we are seeing today is new. Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have suffered from systemic racism and oppression throughout the history of the United States. People from India were brought into colonial Virginia in the early 1620s as servants and slaves. The 1871 the Chinese Massacre resulted in 10% of Los Angeles’s Chinese American population being killed. The Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 prohibited all Chinese immigration to the US. The 1924 Immigration Act was an explicit race-based immigration ban against Asians. The Japanese internment between 1942-1946 resulted in 120,000 people of Japanese descent being incarcerated in US concentration camps. And these are just a few examples of this systemic anti-Asian racism and oppression from US history.
What makes matters worse for the AAPI community is the “model minority” myth, a perception of universal acceptance and success of AAPI people who bear few traumatic racial struggles. As a result, their plight is often absent from racial justice discussions, and their suffering and contributions are often missed or glossed over in textbooks.
This systemic racism and erasure have set the tone for the AAPI community in the US for generations. Many Asians, Asian Americans, and Pacific Islanders have walked around in American society with their heads down, mouths shut, and a persistent sense of otherness and inferiority. The rise of anti-Asian hate has finally, for good or for bad, shed a light on the elephant in the room.
Since the Atlanta shooting in March 2021, we’ve witnessed an outcry against Anti-Asian hate from across the country. For the first time in American history, advocacy for AAPI racial justice has been placed at the forefront of social discourse. Therefore, an expectation has been built in the AAPI community and with their allies – an expectation that their employers, partners, companies, and favorite brands will speak out and stand in solidarity with the AAPI community.
Opportunities and Risks
Given this shift of societal expectations, the 2022 AAPI Heritage Month becomes a critical moment. If organizations fail to meet those new expectations of the AAPI community and its allies, it will lead to a loss of trust among those who matter. However, if organizations succeed in meeting these new societal expectations, the trust and confidence of those who matter most will be maintained or even strengthened.
We can make this argument for all other heritage or history months. In this moment when ideologies in the US have become deeply polarized and when many ethnic cultures have been politicized and weaponized, it takes so much energy for people outside the dominant culture to check their identity at the door when they come to work.
Celebrating heritage months opens a door for necessary learning and honest conversation. It makes people in historically marginalized groups feel like they can be heard and that it is safe to bring their whole self to work.
If we don’t intentionally include, we will unintentionally exclude. Once an inclusive culture is in place, all of the positive benefits of an inclusive culture follow, such as increases in productivity, morale, creativity, collaboration, and so on.
Dos and Don’ts for Heritage Months
Given these new societal expectations, below is some practical advice to help you think about how your organization can celebrate heritage months:
- Show you care
In thinking about meeting stakeholder expectations, one common expectation is that all stakeholders expect you to care.
The first thing organizations and leaders can do to show they care is to utilize heritage months to facilitate learning about the history and culture of the specific community being celebrated. For example, an organization can host a screening of a relevant documentary or organize a book club or common read of a book the subject.
The second way organizations can show they care is to build understanding and advocate for solidarity, during heritage months and beyond. Using the AAPI Heritage Month as an example, you can host town hall meetings or facilitated conversations and invite AAPI employees to share their experiences and stories. As leaders, you can also personally reach out to your AAPI team members to offer support or appreciation of their contribution to the team.
- Address violence and oppression, while celebrating progress
Heritage months are to be celebrated – recognizing each community’s contribution to this country’s history and rejoicing in the richness and uniqueness of each cultural identity. However, we cannot celebrate cultural differences without addressing ongoing violence and oppression. Heritage months are also a reminder that we still have work to do to ensure justice and equity for all people in the US.
One way to address ongoing violence and oppression is by simply acknowledging the ongoing challenges faced by the group and announcing and/or reminding people of what action the organization is taking to address these challenges and ensure equity within and beyond the organization. For example, AAPI Heritage Month can be a great time to launch an AAPI employee resource group (ERG) or a mentorship program that focuses on sponsoring AAPI employees.
- Be consistent
As I noted before, all DE&I work takes commitment. Leaders and organizations need to be disciplined and consistent in celebrating all people of all identities throughout the year. Once you start celebrating heritage months, a new expectation will be formed among those who matter to you. For example, if you publicly acknowledge AAPI Heritage Month this year, the Indigenous people within your organization or among your customer base will expect you to acknowledge Native American Heritage Month in November as well.
Consistency also means that even when heritage months are over, your commitment to those communities should remain until the celebration of difference becomes a natural part of the organization’s culture.
- Avoid window-dressing.
Window-dressing is best understood as performative advocacy that does not pair with tangible action or the delivery of promises made. While making big promises and statements may feel right in the short-term, in the long run window-dressing further alienates marginalized groups and cultivates a toxic culture. Every statement or newsletter you push out makes implicit promises to those who matter to you. If you feel pressured to make a statement on a social issue without being prepared to follow through with real action, you are not ready to make that statement (yet).
The American identity was shaped collectively by a variety of races, ethnicities, backgrounds, and many other nuanced identity factors. And this is what makes the United States unique.
In the United States, we can hold pride in our uniqueness and in our diversity, while also holding and acknowledging the atrocities and injustice that are also core to this nation’s history.
This duality is also true for heritage months – heritage months come with opportunities and risks, enormous responsibility and tremendous potential. If done right, heritage months can help to lift the sense of otherness and alienation among marginalized groups and foster an inclusive culture in your organization.