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How our employees honored Juneteenth in their communities

Since 2020, BlueCross has formally recognized Juneteenth, not only being one of the first companies in Tennessee to make it a paid holiday, but also providing ways for employees to observe the day’s historical importance in a meaningful way.

We encourage our employees to recognize and celebrate Juneteenth in their communities, and we offer TeamBlue volunteer opportunities and sponsorships as a way to give back.

Below, three of our employees from across the state share why Juneteenth matters to them  and how they made it memorable this year.

Naomi Clarke, senior human resources business partner

Recognizing Juneteenth is nothing new for Naomi. In the past, she’s attended Nashville community events, meetings and celebrations and heard guest speakers share their thoughts and experiences regarding how Juneteenth awareness has grown.

Naomi and her husband

This year, Naomi started her celebration early, attending the Juneteenth Nashville Block Party on behalf of BlueCross on Saturday, June 17. The event, produced by the National Museum of African American Music in partnership with BlueCross and held in downtown Nashville, featured a huge stage with performances from hip-hop, R&B and country artists.

“Nashville is known as Music City, and we saw a lot of people walking by and being entertained,” Naomi said. “The event was right in the middle of downtown, so not only was it attended by folks there for Juneteenth, but it was also attracting tourists who probably had no awareness of the event beforehand.”

“Whether you were Black, white, Asian, Hispanic, it was a community event open to all, and I liked seeing that. That to me is a big part of what Juneteenth is all about.”

Naomi believes that even with Juneteenth having gained broader recognition in recent years, this year felt different.

“Juneteenth is a freedom day, a jubilee day, a liberation day, and a national holiday,” she says.  “More people have the day off work to participate. But this year, with it falling on a Monday after Father’s Day, it was a whole weekend event, and there were so many opportunities. You could celebrate one day and get involved or be a volunteer on another day.”

Naomi believes that with companies like BlueCross sponsoring events and helping employees understand how our history has brought us to where we are today, it’s become easier for communities to recognize Juneteenth together.

“Juneteenth has changed so that everyone can participate, learn from it, gain from it, and understand it,” Naomi says. “And based on how you want to receive it, it’s up to you how you choose to celebrate it.”

Sondra Hobson, clinical research analyst

When Sondra was growing up in Memphis, there wasn’t a great deal of citywide attention paid to Juneteenth — except for the Douglass community in North Memphis.

“As far back as I can remember, Douglass always had a festival,” Sondra says of the area. “I later learned of its historical significance as one of the areas first owned by a former slave. After researching more, I found that slave owner William Rush, Sr. gave his son, William Rush-Plummer — a slave who became a minister — these 40 acres. He turned his land into a community and named it after Fredrick Douglass, who he knew and admired.”

“Members of that same family are still in Douglass, and that festival just had its 30th anniversary.”

Today, with the Juneteenth Douglass Freedom and Heritage Festival still going strong, Sondra is pleased that the holiday has grown and expanded in her hometown and beyond. 

“There were several celebrations going on all over the city that showcased the uniqueness of black-owned businesses, vendors, music, food, you name it,” Sondra says. “I love seeing how much people really want to be involved and understand what the holiday means to the U.S.”

Sondra, far left, with colleagues Tonya Phinnessee and Penny Cross

Sondra herself became involved this year, volunteering at the Memphis Juneteenth Freedom Walk/Run on behalf of BlueCross. She started her day assisting at the registration table for the two-and-a-half-mile race.

“My job was to welcome the participants and make sure they had their numbers and T-shirts to start the race,” she says. “Once that was underway, shifted to refreshments. I handed out water, granola bars, bananas, things to keep runners hydrated and energized once they finished. We also handed out medals to participants.”

Next year, Sondra plans to wear a number of her own and participate in the walk/run. But this year, she walked away from her volunteer experience feeling fulfilled and blessed. 

“There’s a difference between hearing about Juneteenth and being a part of it and celebrating with others,” Sondra says.

“I’m already looking forward to next year and seeing if there’s something else I can participate in just to be of service to the community. These experiences are so positive, and that’s what I’m about.”

Neda Long, director of strategy and innovation

Though she grew up in a family that stressed the importance of civil rights history and education, Neda was largely unfamiliar with Juneteenth until recent years.

“I’m probably in good company as a person who hadn’t participated in a Juneteenth event until it was made a national holiday in 2021,” Neda admits. “That’s when I became aware this was a historical milestone. When thinking about how I should commemorate, I was grateful BCBST offered TeamBlue events for the occasion because finding ways to be of service felt the most authentic for me.” 

This year, Neda honored Juneteenth by creating a generational learning opportunity about the holiday’s significance. She and her son Otis, nearly 7, spent “a day on, not a day off” by volunteering at Chattanooga’s Southside Juneteenth Jubilee, an event aimed at fostering unity and support for the African American community, on Saturday, June 17.

“On our way, as we were seeing all of the signs, I told Otis, ‘The occasion is Juneteenth, and it’s also called Freedom Day,’” Neda recalls. “He was able to put two and two together and asked, ‘I thought Fourth of July was Freedom Day. What’s the difference?’ In simple terms, I told him, ‘For a long time, we neglected the idea that that wasn’t freedom for everyone,’  and that this day was a milestone in progress occurring.”

Neda and Otis arrived early to help decorate for the event. They inflated balloons and hung them around the outside of the Bethlehem Center and on tables set up outside.

“Little did we know, we were signing up for one of the more challenging tasks, at least for me,” Neda says with a laugh.

“I’m an accountant. I’m not known for my artistic touch. But we really embraced the assignment of trying to make everything add to the beauty. Even as our balloons kept popping, we blew up more and stayed committed to following through.”

Neda’s son, Otis, celebrating a day of decorating

A question Neda and Otis heard throughout the day as they worked alongside other volunteers was: What does Juneteenth mean to you?

“Otis and I talked a lot about freedom and service that day, and my hope is that in the years ahead, he’ll able to answer that question with even more intelligence and compassion than I can,” Neda says. “With our volunteering, I saw a great starting point for my family and something that we can build on.” 

About Jesse Thompson, Senior Communications Specialist

A photo of the authorJesse joined the BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee corporate communications team in 2017. A Chattanooga native, he has more than 15 years’ experience in content creation, management, and strategy for consumer audiences, including a six-year stint in health care marketing.

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