Letter: How Juneteenth became a staff holiday at Emerson

By Illona Yukhayev

Illona Yukhayev (illona_yukhayev@emerson.edu) is an Instructional Technologist at Emerson. When she’s not busy helping faculty build their Canvas courses, she is happy to talk to anyone about labor.

Last summer, in the wake of the George Floyd protests, many companies and organizations decided to recognize Juneteenth as a holiday. Last July, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker signed legislation making June 19 an official state holiday. Naturally, members of the Emerson community pushed to recognize it here. While Emerson didn’t release students, faculty, or staff on Juneteenth last year, our leadership promised to consider doing so going forward. 

We brought up the subject a couple of times in the past year and were told that it was still under consideration. With the holiday quickly approaching we emailed HR last month and cc’d the vice president for equity and social justice, Sylvia Spears. The response we got from HR was prompt and positive. By the end of that week, we signed a Memorandum of Understanding between the College and the Union declaring that henceforth Juneteenth will be a Major Holiday for Emerson Staff. 

I reached out to Spears to thank her for her help. I heard that she responded to our email thread with HR with her own questions about the delay in recognizing Juneteenth, and I knew it had made an impact. She responded to me saying that she believes it was President M. Lee Pelton’s final act as president. This made his departure even more heartbreaking 

As a labor organizer, I am not in the habit of singing the praises of anyone in management, but in truth, many people on our staff are mourning the fact we’re losing Pelton and Spears. I am too. 

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There are no perfect leaders, simply because there are no perfect people, but there are good leaders, and what makes them good leaders is the genuine respect they have for the people they lead. Leaders like Spears and Pelton work with their staff and draw from the collective wisdom of their communities. In return, they garner a lot of respect from the people they lead. 

We don’t know what the future brings. This transitional period in leadership is nerve-wracking. As a labor organization, however, we remind each other that collectively, we have power. That our community is strong. We have student organizations at Emerson working to make the college a better place for everyone. We have faculty unions. We can, and must continue the work regardless of who’s in leadership. 

Now how about making Juneteenth a college-wide holiday so that students and faculty can celebrate too?

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