Independence Day.

For decades, Independence Day has been celebrated as the holiday that commemorates the Declaration of Independence and freedom from British tyrannical rule. For Americans, it is a day of celebration that marks the transition from being the colonies to the United States of America. However, a country can not be truly free if slavery exists in its borders. Eighty-seven years after the Declaration of Independence, President Lincoln ratified the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring that all enslaved peoples in Confederate states were free. On June 19th, 1865, enslaved Texans received this news… two and a half years after their freedom had been granted by the Emancipation Proclamation.

Juneteenth is the holiday that commemorates this momentous occasion: it is a celebration of the end of slavery in the United States, it is a representation of Black freedom, it is the true Independence Day.

In recognition of Juneteenth, our Civics Program Director, Rashid Duroseau, organized More Than Just A Moment, a community conversation that focused on the state of Black life in America. Featuring a panel of professionals in various fields, we heard from:
1. Dr. Menna Demessie: Vice President of Policy Analysis and Research, Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, Inc.
2. Dr. Sacha Balmir: Internist/Nephrologist, New York and New Jersey
3. Dr. Sheldon Applewhite: Assistant Professor of Sociology in the Social Sciences & Human Services Department, Borough of Manhattan Community College
4. Paula White: Executive Director, Educators for Excellence
5. Shaniqua McClendon: Political Director, Crooked Media

Their profound insights on Black life within the context of their respective fields showed us that there is always more to learn and there is always something we can do to contribute to the fight for social justice.

First and foremost, there are many ways to approach civic engagement and Dr. Demessie said it best, “As we think about civic engagement, it’s not just going to the voting booth and voting. It’s actually asserting our value as human beings. It is our human right to be able to show up and be respected, but also [be] valued as a full human being.” She emphasized that doing a better job of understanding days like Juneteenth is a part of the process of civic engagement, because “when you know better, you do better.”

According to Ms. McClendon, we have seen higher Black voter turnout and higher voter turnout among young people since the 2014 midterm election. For all of the criticism Generation Z receives, they are more progressive and more vocal about what they want their elected officials to accomplish. She also stressed that it is the responsibility of Black people to make the difference during election season; we all have to do our part to make informed decisions when we go out and vote for the best candidate.

Within the realm of education, Ms. White reveals that while college matriculation rates for Black and brown students are going up, their financial compensation is driven by choice of major. She says, “A lot of what students are able to achieve upon graduation, from a financial perspective, has to do with the majors they select.” She advises that schools can better service their students by utilizing culturally-informed socio-emotional practices so that students may have access to credentialed professionals who can help them process their feelings and live a better life. She also affirms that schools must make judicious use of funds to ensure that all students are getting the most out of their education.

Dr. Applewhite reminded us that we must honor the sacrifices of our ancestors, saying, “The Black Live Matter movement and those who support it through action and protest stand on the shoulders of those who came before them.” He especially wants us to recognize that many Black grassroots leaders have fallen through the cracks of history because of their sexual orientation. It is important to remember that when we support Black lives, we must support ALL Black lives, and we must do better in caring for and supporting our LGBTQ+ youth.

As a nephrologist, Dr. Balmir has been fighting on the frontlines of the pandemic. From his work, he has noticed that Black and brown people have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19, yet there are very few resources being allocated to these communities. While we can all do our part by practicing healthy and safe habits, that is only part of the solution. More resources must be allocated to Black and brown communities to ensure that the people who are impacted the most are receiving the care they need to recover.

In all, our panelists provided an extraordinarily multifaceted understanding of the state of Black life within various contexts. They reminded us that while we are making strides, there is still much we can do to create change. The most important thing to remember is, as the title of our community conversation indicates, Black pride is more than just a moment: it is an everyday celebration.

Interested in learning more? Watch the full community conversation here: