People

How a group of creatives made Juneteenth 'spread like wildfire' in tech

It started with a group called HellaCreative, which helped convince hundreds of companies to turn Juneteenth into a company holiday.

Juneteenth

One of HellaJuneteenth's images for showing solidarity on Juneteeth.

Image: Courtesy of HellaJuneteenth

For the first time, more than a dozen tech companies are recognizing June 19, Juneteenth, the oldest-known holiday that celebrates the end of slavery in the United States, as a paid holiday for employees.

Among tech leaders, the first call came from Jack Dorsey, who tweeted that Juneteenth would be a company holiday for both Twitter and Square "forevermore." A slew of other companies also gave staff the day off this year, including Mailchimp, Lyft, Uber, Adobe and Spotify. Facebook, Microsoft, Google and Amazon instructed employees to cancel meetings and use the time for learning and reflection.

The movement to commemorate Juneteenth is broad and not without its controversy. As companies have announced their plans, some have wondered how the holiday would apply to gig and contract workers. One group in particular has been pushing the tech industry behind the scenes: HellaCreative, a group of mostly Black Bay Area tech creatives who launched HellaJuneteenth. In addition to information about the history of Juneteenth, the site includes a growing list of participating companies and resources such as templates for how to make the request for the day off to managers or set conscious out-of-office messages. It's aiming to get 500 companies this year, in tech and otherwise, to recognize the holiday — and hopes to add the day to the federal calendar as well.

Protocol spoke with one of the founders of HellaCreative, Miles Dotson, who is also managing partner at Devland, about the group's role in the movement to recognize Juneteenth.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

HellaCreative's co-founders HellaCreative co-founders (from left): Quinnton Harris, Miles Dotson and Brian Watson.Photos: Courtesy of HellaCreative

Who is HellaCreative?

We represent different industries and spaces, but inherently in our backgrounds, we have a very heavy creative niche. A majority of us work for Silicon Valley-based technology companies. Some work at startups, some work in venture, like myself, or capital markets. Some are in the advertising/marketing space, whether in-house or agency. All the shades of creativity.

When COVID hit, on the psychological side, we needed something to sustain us. We initiated HellaCreative as a project to bring the creative community that we were already tapped into together. That was started by myself, Quinnton Harris [creative director at Publicis Sapient] and Brian Watson [product manager at Apple]. As soon as we started HellaCreative on Slack, almost instantly, the first channel in Slack to really blow up was #personalprojects. We had about 30 folks initially. I think right now it's probably close to 100 people in our Slack team.

When did HellaJuneteeth develop out of HellaCreative?

Soon after George Floyd was killed, we had a happy hour. It was a really difficult happy hour to put together. We'd been doing a Thursday happy hour since COVID came into place, but that particular week, there was really a dark cloud and emotional heaviness lingering over everyone. Understandably so. It was catalyzing.

Some people, their response was like, "I'm very sad. I really can't connect this week. This is really getting to me. I need to focus on work, and I just can't do it." Some people were proposing like, "Hey, let's get active. Let's get involved with the protests. Let's make something." Other people were thinking about ways to insight joy or distraction from the news cycle. Then it was like, "Oh yeah, Juneteenth is coming up." But then, we realized that none of us would be off.

So two things happened at once: Let's do something, and … wait, those of us that have a lot of work activity, we're not even off. Excuse the language, but that's some bullshit. Thinking about this year that has been the most trying year, and still having to deal with the realities of the status quo, racial issues and inequalities in the present. Our inherent belief is that at some point, we can overcome this reality. If there's ever been a time, this is the time to use our talents.

That was the initial idea: Let's just put something into the ether. As visual people, we thought of making a very informational and visually aesthetic website and social campaign that people would gravitate to as a central reference to Juneteenth.

Forty-eight hours from that Thursday happy hour, Saturday morning [June 6], we launched it. Unbeknownst to us, over the weekend, colleagues of ours and our broader networks began sharing it — not only internally within their companies, but on social, direct messages, and a variety of places. The message started to grow.

At the point that Jack Dorsey made his announcement, we reached out to him. One of his former employees is a member of HellaCreative, and reached out to him directly to say, "Hey, we put this resource together so that other companies can do exactly what you've done. Would you mind posting it?" And he did it.

What is the core message of HellaJuneteenth?

Let's make it a national holiday. Respectfully, Juneteenth is not nationally known. For the longest time, it has been something mostly celebrated by African Americans, Black Americans in Texas, and millennials. Whether or not we get it federally approved this year, let's get companies to observe it this year, and let's get the message going.

It spread like wildfire. It was insane. We weren't expecting the reception we got, but that's exactly what happened. Whether from employee resource-group leads, executives, upper management or directors sharing it amongst email threads, it just started spreading. We have our minds set on breaking through the 500 [company] ceiling. Before Friday, we want to get over 500.

Companies have a specific and unique influence over culture. They also employ people who have been impacted by this history in our country. Juneteenth is everybody's history. I think that companies have an opportunity to make a repair, even if it doesn't happen on a national level, they have the opportunity to do it regardless of if it's written into law. These companies employ the people, so they can make that decision.

Have you gotten feedback from people who have used the employer request template?

On a high level, basically just, "thank you." People have sent the email to management or executive decision-makers, and we've heard some responses have been along the lines of, "We were pondering this, and this email really helped to drive the conversation through to completion. It helped to really impress upon us the urgency and importance of this even more than it did before."

We do know that there are companies that did not make public statements that decided to leverage the opportunity they have right now to celebrate Juneteenth.

It could be argued that there is some hypocrisy in company statements in support of Black Lives Matter, especially when tech as an industry is pretty homogenous and often fails at inclusivity. Is making Juneteenth a company holiday any different?

Performative response is an occurrence. Part of us adding you to our list is that you provide a representative contact of your company. We hope companies expect that right around May next year, we'll be making phone calls to make sure that they're still committed for the long term. I think the reality is it takes a process. It takes influence, it takes conversations, and ultimately what needs to be happening right now is conversations.

Part of our posture on Juneteenth was specifically around allies and other people that want to champion the broader message of what's going on. We need some folks standing with us. We need some support in carrying this forward. This is just the first step. As we start to build and start to seek a better future, this is the process that we must go through to get there.

How are you celebrating Juneteenth?

Juneteenth has always been important to me. I grew up in Houston, Texas, and I've been a Bay Area resident for over six years. The union soldiers arrived at Galveston, Texas, so that was a really important feature of my childhood and the nature in which I pick up on celebration. We'll probably be starting up the barbecue, playing our favorite music, thinking about various family members who are doing the same elsewhere and connecting with them.

I own my company. But even when I worked at Verizon or other companies, I used my PTO. I electively celebrated, it was a thing of self-choice. Now, we're hoping it doesn't have to be a choice to celebrate something that should be important for the country as a whole to acknowledge.

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