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So What About “Juneteenth”?

June 18, 2021

Reflections from the Executive Director

This is an excerpt from Frederick Douglass’ speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”, delivered at an event commemorating the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 5, 1852. The questions raised throughout represent the still complicated relationship many African Americans have with our nation. It is why many “black folk” recognize June 19th, and not July 4th, as the day to mark their relative independence. “Juneteenth”, which yesterday was signed into law by President Biden as a Federal holiday, still represents a reminder of when enslaved people of African descent were emancipated but not fully enfranchised.

In these times, I am reminded again of my own struggle with my place in American society. I am not alone in this, as many of my tribe remain unclear on the matter of their independence. As a black man, I come with “lived experience,” having my own life story populated with instances of racism, discrimination, and suppression—all of which run counter to the definitions of emancipation and independence. For example, growing up in inner-city Philadelphia, I experienced the fear and trepidation that came with interactions with the justice system, having been racially profiled on two occasions. I am also acutely aware of the despair caused by the systemic breakdown of black families due to inaccessibility of adequate supports—particularly in the area of mental health. And yet, as the son of migrated Southerners who themselves experienced firsthand the indignities of Jim Crow and segregation, I fight on. I fight for a day when “Juneteenth” is a historical footnote and no longer a necessary reminder.

When I accepted the appointment as the new Executive Director of the National Human Services Assembly, I did so buoyed by the incredible energy and efforts our members show daily. The opportunity to join fellow leaders in attacking the challenges of racism, discrimination, and oppression is our chance to make an overdue but significant impact. It is why I am asking everyone who takes time to observe Juneteenth to remain as vigilant as they are reflective. To truly create an equitable society where all humanity is acknowledged, and where all people are equally enabled to achieve their full human potential, we must strive to dismantle this country’s existing power dynamics born from white supremacy, manifest destiny, and/or the divine right of kings.

Many organizations in the human service and nonprofit sectors are excellent vehicles for challenging the status quo while supporting the advancement of humanity for all. It is a sector where people must be educated on the issues, but more importantly, one that engages in activity that leads to positive impact. Admittedly, the work is daunting—and far too often—fatiguing. Nevertheless, as the Christian Bible offers, “…faith is the substance of things hoped for; the evidence of things not seen.” Having faith that positive change is both possible, and in our lifetime, is the same faith that Fredrick Douglass displayed during his appeal that day in July. Though the independence he sought remains distant for far too many, this faith must also serve as a foundation for our work.

May your June 19th be a day of reflection…but also a call to action.

Victor S. Valentine

Executive Director

National Human Services Assembly