Jun 18, 2021

Juneteenth: Commemorating the United States’ Second Independence Day

Chanda Hand shares her perspective on the history and significance of Juneteenth, and how we can challenge ourselves to create meaningful change.

By Chanda Hand

Emancipation Day March 1905

Emancipation Day, Richmond, VA, 1905. Source: Library of Congress.

This week, the US Senate and House of Representatives voted to make Juneteenth (fact sheet) a national holiday — 160 years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. This move to recognize our nation’s “second Independence Day” is a powerful and important step.

In 2020, amidst the unrest following the murder of George Floyd and refocus on the impacts of systemic racism, many companies used Juneteenth as a point of reflection. Many laid out concrete actions to help eliminate racial challenges and make a more equitable and inclusive society. 

I joined Zymergen a little less than a year ago, and much of my focus has been on driving and tracking these kinds of changes. Like Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I) leaders at other companies, my scope is broad and the challenges are deep. But I have a clear mandate and very strong support. It’s not performative — we are working hard to make real changes.

Sheeva Haghighat, Technology Product Manager at Zymergen

The impact of my work isn’t always easy to explain, but my professional journey can illustrate why what I do is important. I joined Zymergen first and foremost as a technical professional. I also happen to have spent large parts of my career working on culture initiatives, both as a ‘volunteer’ and then as part of my official scope. I am also a Black woman. As companies have worked to address issues of bias, race, and inclusion, we have to ask: Should any one of those definitions I use to describe myself be more or less important in a professional setting? Or asked a different way: Should I minimize certain segments of myself to prioritize other, more universally accepted segments? If we are doing it right — and everyone can bring their full self to work — then the answer is no.

As part of our work, we are constantly challenging assumptions and asking tough questions like these. It’s one of the many ways we pressure-test our progress as a company. DE&I is a simple abbreviation, but each letter represents critically important focus areas with different ways of measuring progress. Like my personal example above, we shouldn’t prioritize or minimize any one segment over the other. It’s an “all-in” exercise, whether you’re looking at a single company or a broader community. To that point, the DE&I council we created has a mantra: “Our success requires full engagement from across our business.” 

Sheeva Haghighat, Technology Product Manager at Zymergen

Juneteenth has gained more visibility in recent years because race, equity, and systemic challenges facing people of color are part of a larger global conversation that has sprung up (and is getting louder). While it is good to see the holiday become an anchor point to remind companies, communities, and individuals about the changes we still need to drive, it is also a time to reflect and celebrate. I encourage everyone to use this holiday to not only think about the origins of Juneteenth, but also to understand people around you and ensure you are doing your part to make a more inclusive society every day of the year.

Chanda Hand leads Zymergen’s efforts in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI). Learn more about our approach to diversity, equity & inclusion, our values and vision, and life at Zymergen.