Create Context for Black History Month Celebrations

The challenge that most organizations face in celebrations of cultural occasions is that they become isolated events. They exist in a vacuum, and as such people feel they can take them or leave them. They may feel that if the event in question doesn’t pertain directly to them, they can simply ignore it. This isn’t because employees are against the topic, but it’s more because diversity leaders have failed to create a context for what’s going on.

As Black History Month begins, there are steps diversity leaders can take to significantly increase the impact of any celebratory activities within their organizations. The following practices should create a proper context for Black History Month — or any other ethnic or cultural celebrations:

Start with the end goal in mind. Diversity leaders should start by asking themselves what they want employees to do with the information they provide at these events. In the case of Black History Month, for example, do employees need to have a greater understanding of the historical contributions of African-Americans? Or maybe the idea is to create a dialogue between different groups around the realities of being African-American or not. The events could also seek to engender an understanding of African-American cultural norms to develop products and services that connect better with customers.

Use it to further dialogue. Cultural events can help employees connect. Organizations need forums that create dialogue and safe ways to genuinely engage each other around differences. Forging a bond that fosters more authentic conversations is an important and worthwhile goal of Black History Month. Some people may see Black History Month as representing aspects of the past that make them feel uncomfortable. Creating the proper context for it can help demonstrate that the celebration does not seek to blame anyone. This means an inclusive approach that creates a safe place for everyone within the event.

Connect celebrations to the broader mission. This requires communicating that organizations benefit from diversity through the talents of a diverse workforce and potentially from the impact diverse markets may have on the business. The challenge is that most celebrations fail to tell that story. This leaves employees with the idea that a celebration is a nice thing to do, but not a critical one. Touting the economic contribution that ethnic markets play in overall business success and linking that to specific contributions made by ethnic employees is a powerful message. Showing the linkage between diversity and revenue generation as part of a cultural celebration creates an effective demonstration of why diversity matters.

Create a call to action. Once you’ve explained the relevance of the celebration and connected it to the overall mission of the organization, diversity leaders must create a call to action. Cultural celebrations should lead people to actively seek out relationships they don’t have. It’s important to create an expectation that the celebrations will foster the interactions that then ensure deeper learning and understanding can happen. That means more explicit discussion around what diversity leaders expect people to do while they are at the celebration as well as once they leave.

The information presented in any celebration needs to find its way back into the work of the organization. A key question that needs to be answered is: How will what you learned here influence what you do? Employees who join in the celebration of Black History Month or any other cultural occasion must live beyond the moment; what they learn must influence their actions as they do real work.

Gary A. Smith is the founder and senior partner of Ivy Planning Group, a management consulting and training firm. He can be reached at