The Importance of Juneteenth

A Conversation with Rachel Dawson, Women of Color Task Force Juneteenth Chair

Rachel Dawson, JD, joined Michigan Minds to discuss her role as managing director at university initiative Precision Health, her work as a member of the executive committee for the Women of Color Task Force, and the importance of the university’s second annual Juneteenth Symposium.  

“Precision Health is actually a campus wide presidential initiative that was launched in 2017. What we do is work to connect our researchers across campus with robust data as well as state of the art analytic tools, to serve as a catalyst to discover health discoveries that will improve health outcomes in the state of Michigan and beyond,” she says.

Dawson also discusses her role in the Women of Color Task Force and the importance of its work. 

“The Women of Color Task Force is actually a staff organization that was developed in 1979, out of several needs. In most of academia, especially in the university setting, there are a lot of services provided for students as well as faculty. What you don’t typically see are a lot of staff-focused organizations and services,” she says.

“So the Women of Color Task Force was developed to service a need that existed at the University of Michigan — to really help women of color staff members in their career development, feel included on campus, and really serve as advocates for women of color as they dealt with the campus environment.”

Rachel Dawson

The WCTF holds many programming events throughout the year for members and others interested in attending. The main event each year is the Annual Career Conference, which is the largest staff-focused conference on campus. It helps participants learn more about career development, financial education and planning, and personal wellness. As well as the Annual Career Conference, the WCTF is a proud sponsor of the second annual Juneteenth Symposium at U-M. 

“The WCTF thought it was important to have a space where we could not only address Juneteenth and the celebration of the end of slavery in our country, but to also talk about the ongoing lasting impact of slavery.”

While Juneteenth honors the end of slavery, Dawson says it has never been “just about a celebration” because it’s also about the ongoing equality and social justice work needed today.

“Even when you look at the very early observances of Juneteenth, they have the celebration, but they also have the work of trying to reunite families that had been separated through slavery and making sure the newly adopted amendments to the constitution directly addressing the race issues were being honored and implemented state-by-state,” she explains. 

The symposium will be held June 15-18 with the theme “Celebrate, Educate, Inspire.” The theme is based on the importance of celebrating the end of slavery, educating others on the lasting impact, and inspiring community, advocacy and equality. She says that one of the most important parts of this year’s theme is the understanding of critical race theory. 

“We really chose to focus on critical race theory because of the large national debate going on where you are seeing efforts to ban mention of it, discussion of it, or teaching of it in our schools at every level,” she says. 

Dawson adds that critical race theory focuses on “the systemic nature of racism and how it is so deeply embedded in every aspect of American life.”

“If you really want to address equity and justice, you have to understand the systemic nature of racism. You can’t just focus on changing and educating around individual behaviors, or bias, or racism — you really have to get how the system is set up to exclude and to oppress, specifically Black people, or people of color, or people with differences.”

Dawson hopes everyone tuning in to Michigan Minds realizes that Juneteenth is for everyone, but beyond celebrating the day, there is also work to be done to continue advancing anti-racism efforts. 

“What I hope people will takeaway is that Juneteenth, like the Fourth of July, is a national holiday. It is for everyone. While it celebrates [the end of] slavery and it is very important to the Black community, it is part of our national history and everyone needs to find meaningful and respectful ways to celebrate,” she says. “Have your cookouts but also do the work of social justice and equity, to be a good ally in that space, educate in that space, and continue the work of anti-racism in our country, in our communities, in our schools, and on our campus.” 

The 2022 Juneteenth Symposium is sponsored by the U-M Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, the Office of Academic and Multicultural Initiatives, and the U-M Women of Color Task Force in partnership with the Ann Arbor NAACP, the Rackham Graduate School, the College of Literature, Science, and Arts, the Black Employee Association at the University of Michigan, the National Center for Institutional Diversity, and U-M Precision Health.