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Celebrating Juneteenth: A Holiday of Resilience

The DEI Committee of the National Association of Women in Construction hosted former U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman and Gilbane Regional President Michael Brown for an enlightening conversation on June 19, celebrated as Juneteenth in the United States. Over 300 people sat in on the webinar to listen in as Herman and Brown touched on the significance of Juneteenth, and why it is important to build upon existing efforts and best practices to increase representation of women and other marginalized communities in the construction industry.


Juneteenth (short for June Nineteenth), and now officially celebrated as Juneteenth National Independence Day after being formally recognized by President Joe Biden as a national holiday in 2021, is a federal holiday in the United States.


It is celebrated annually on June 19 to commemorate the ending of slavery in the U.S. The holiday was first celebrated in Texas, where on this date in 1865, slaves were declared free under the terms of the 1862 Emancipation Proclamation.


Finding common ground

For Alexis Herman, learning the importance of stepping out of a comfort zone made all the difference in the world. During her tenure with the Clinton administration, Herman actively sought to improve and expand child labor standards with the Youth Opportunity Grants program, which brought money to youth in poor areas for employment and education. "I thought we needed to have a global child labor standard through which every child in the world, not just the U.S., could be protected," says Herman. 

She recalled a story about meeting and working across the aisle with former North Carolina senator Jesse Helms, a staunch conservative and segregationist. She did her homework on child labor in South Carolina and worked hard to "make it real for Jesse Helms" and convince him that the legislation "was the right thing to do" despite his preconceived notions upon meeting her. 

"It was clear to me, this whole stereotypical thinking of letting other people define me," says Herman. "We have to find that common accord, that common human space to reach people. It was the first time ever that the U.S. signed onto an international labor standard, and I learned an invaluable lesson... I couldn't let someone with Helm's history, his biases, distract me and I had to find common ground to have the conversation. That's so difficult today. It really pains me to realize that as a nation, the ability to find common ground is so much more challenging."

Recognizing pivot points 

"In listening to these stories and the impacts they've had on society and business, in so many ways and in my own journey, I'm relatively tall but I stand on the shoulders of giants. Anything I am or have accomplished, it's primarily due to those who came before me and made it possible for me to do some of the things I have done," says Michael Brown. 

Two pivotal episodes in his professional journey included competing with a colleague for a senior management position that he was equally qualified for but was almost overlooked, and drawing attention from youth caddies at a Chicago country club as its first black member. "If you want to be treated fairly, you must be equally, measurably better," says Brown. "Especially growing up as an African American in this country, if you want to be treated like anybody else, you must be better." 

For these pivotal points in life, Brown advises "standing up for ourselves and stating what we truly believe, how we truly feel, and ensuring that it's fact-based and not opinion-based. These little things that we do in our daily lives, you don't understand the impact that you could be having, just by doing your best."


Honoring the Legacy

At 96 years old, Opal Lee is the powerhouse behind making Juneteenth a national holiday. Known affectionately as the "Grandmother of Juneteenth," her tireless advocacy played a crucial role in making Juneteenth a national holiday.


Born in 1926 in Marshall, Texas, Lee's childhood was marked by racial violence in an era where racial segregation was deeply entrenched. Her family home was destroyed by a white mob on Juneteenth in 1939, fueling her lifelong commitment to civil rights and social justice.


In her 80s, Lee embarked on a symbolic 1,400-mile walk from Fort Worth, Texas, to Washington, D.C., advocating for Juneteenth to be recognized as a national holiday. In 2021, her determination captured the nation's attention, and the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act was signed into law.


Her story is a testament to the strength and resilience of women, especially Black women, and the determination and change for equality and justice in our communities that one person can bring. 


Coming away inspired

"I am so inspired by what we heard," says Melanie Dettmer, NGA industry engagement manager. "Chances are, others are still thinking about it, too. Being part of this today, I can see the landscape even better now." 

"Listening to the panel today was the perfect way to kick off the Juneteenth holiday. As a black woman in this industry, it’s never lost on me the challenges that people of color face every day. I am thankful for the women like former Secretary Alexis Herman who have paved the way for us. It is now up to my generation, and every generation that follows, to continue to advocate for others. One thing Alexis Herman said that will stick with me ‘it’s not about the risk you take, it’s about getting used to taking it,’” says Alicia Mitchual, NGA operations manager. 

Working toward commUNITY 

"As members of NAWIC and citizens in America, let's work hard to eliminate social and economic marginalization. Instead, let's give ourselves permission to embrace and honor all humanity and celebrate and cultivate the rich contributions and culture of Blacks and African Americans in America," says Gerri Harris, co-chair of NAWIC's DEI Committee, in a Juneteenth Reflections statement. "Let's practice continuous self-awareness, accountability and actions to foster a peaceful and equitable commUNITY for all cultures in America."