Juneteenth Webinar Uses the Past to Prompt Discussion about Racial Justice and Freedom at Tech Today

Georgia Tech’s Serve-Learn-Sustain (SLS) brought together more than 50 students, faculty, staff, and partners last week for a webinar to discuss the significance of Juneteenth, the nationally recognized celebration commemorating the end of slavery in the United States.

Jamie Jones, SLS senior administrative professional, opened the webinar by explaining that Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, when General Gordon Granger announced to Galveston, Texas, that slavery had ended 2 1/2 years earlier. Ruthie Yow, SLS service learning and partnerships specialist, added that emancipation was messy and incomplete everywhere, but especially in Texas, the farthest west member of the Confederacy, where 250,000 enslaved people still remained unaware of their emancipation, despite President Abraham Lincoln’s issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863.

Juneteenth celebrations honor enslaved people’s struggles for freedom during enslavement and the struggle to protect that hard-won liberation. The webinar offered participants an opportunity to learn about that day in 1865 — an event that Black communities have honored for generations.

Students embraced the opportunity to use Juneteenth as a springboard for talking about today’s struggles for racial justice and freedom. Through dialogue and the chat, they asked whether attention to Juneteenth this year, coinciding with growing support for the Black Lives Matter movement, heralds long-lasting change.

One key theme centered on how students of color experience racism in their classes and through a variety of interactions at Georgia Tech. Black students attested to how microaggressions shape the lives of Black students and students of color.

Amadou Diallo, a rising third-year electrical and computer engineering student, is involved in both the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) and the African Students Association. “Myself and many Black students at Tech too many times feel that our intelligence or capability to perform well in group settings with our non-[people of color] peers is ignored,” he said. “We are usually given the ‘easier’ role or the role that doesn’t usually require as much technical skill, even when we are knowledgeable on the specific topic.”

Josslyn Lally, a rising fourth-year biomedical engineering student, secretary of NSBE’s Georgia Tech chapter, and vice president of the Nu Beta Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha, concurred: “I have heard similar experiences from many Black students at Tech.” Jazmin Lucio, a rising fifth-year civil and environmental engineering student, co-president of the Association of Environmental Engineers and Scientists, and social media chair for Engineers for a Sustainable World, added: “Microaggressions in a group setting are particularly dangerous at Tech because we are constantly being put into groups.” Lucio reflected further that small changes by faculty — such as allowing students to pick their own groups — can mitigate against microaggressions.

Students connected experiences of racism at Tech with broader calls for racial justice and recognition of Black people’s freedom struggles. This Juneteenth may be the harbinger of a historic shift: Senator John Cornyn of Texas, where one of the biggest celebrations in the nation takes place annually, announced last week that he will introduce bipartisan legislation to make Juneteenth a federal holiday.

Students in the webinar asked what Georgia Tech should do to commemorate Juneteenth in a meaningful way. Lally shared that Black student organizations used Instagram and #bgtjuneteenth to “educate” others about the date’s significance and “honor . . . the fight that has been going on since Juneteenth.” Some students suggested making Juneteenth a day off. But others challenged that idea, saying that holidays are often used for rest and relaxation, and thus lose their meaning. How to treat Juneteenth as more than a “day off” led to suggestions that Juneteenth might be observed through action, like MLK Day — as a day for education and service. Rising third year student Thiago Esslinger, a biochemistry and earth and atmospheric sciences major and president of Students Organizing for Sustainability, recommended that Juneteenth should be “openly and officially acknowledged not only by Georgia Tech, but by the entire University System of Georgia.”

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