Social Equity & Racial Justice Commission will take part in Juneteenth celebration instead
By Holly Dillemuth, Ashland.news
The city of Ashland’s Social Equity & Racial Justice Commission voted unanimously Thursday evening to opt out of participating in the town Fourth of July parade this summer, and instead focus efforts on celebrating Juneteenth, which commemorates the emancipation of slaves in the U.S.
Members of the commission, which was created by the Ashland City Council as an advisory group in May 2021, said participating in the Fourth of July parade as the holiday celebrating American freedom runs counter to the experience of people of color who did not have freedom from slavery or oppression following that day.
“Juneteenth is our Fourth of July,” said Gina DuQuenne, city councilor and the city’s non-voting liaison to the eight-member group, in a followup interview with Ashland.news. “That’s when we were free, and if you look at the SERJ Commission, there’s different cultures and different backgrounds of people on this SERJ Commission and many of us, we didn’t have the freedom that is celebrated on the Fourth of July.”
The commission is comprised of eight members: Nataki Garrett, Precious Yamaguchi, Julie Gillis, Tamara Williams, Cheri Elson, Amit Choudhary, Keith Jenkins and Emily Simon, as listed on the city’s website. Not all were present for Thursday’s Zoom meeting.
Some commissioners shared their particular reasons for opting out of the parade celebrating the Fourth of July, including Williams.
“My family — we don’t celebrate Fourth of July,” Williams said. “We celebrate Juneteenth because my people weren’t free on the Fourth of July. So personally, I don’t want to do anything for the Fourth of July, but I’m all for doing things for Juneteenth.”
Garrett echoed William’s statement, sharing that she also doesn’t feel like the Fourth of July represents the freedoms experienced by people of color.
“I recognize that there might be colleagues on this call for whom that (July Fourth) is something that is very important,” Garrett said, noting she is supportive of the Juneteenth celebration.
Yamaguchi, who is Japanese-American, also shared her thoughts regarding participation in the parade.
“My family is not into Fourth of July, either, but if it was the commission that wanted to (walk in the parade) that, I would support them in that way,” Yamaguchi said. “The history of Japanese-Americans, we were imprisoned by our nation, so personally, it’s not important to me.”
The city of Ashland and Southern Oregon University are partnering to host a Juneteenth celebration from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday, June 18, on the SOU lawn, with music, food, and speakers, including DuQuenne.
Commissioners also shared about plans for some of the Commission’s members to volunteer with BASE Southern Oregon’s Juneteenth Celebration on June 19 at Pear Blossom Park in Medford.
Oregon Shakespeare Festival held Juneteenth celebrations for 20-plus years until the pandemic, and put on online observances the last two years. No event has been announced for this year, but the OSF website does have a link to video of last year’s program.
City Social Equity Commission members are planning an event in 2023 in concert with Black Alliance and Social Empowerment (BASE) Southern Oregon and Medford to extend the celebration from Medford to Ashland. SERJ members are planning for a Juneteenth banner in Ashland’s downtown and hope to make it a “celebratory event.”
“The idea and the vision is in place,” DuQuenne said.
This year, the city of Ashland will be putting up Juneteenth flags, which can be purchased at Paddington Station.
“I’m hoping that people will open their minds and educate themselves to the true American history,” DuQuenne said.
DuQuenne said she believes that the commission has the city’s support, even as the city evaluates whether to retain its numerous other commissions.
“This body — They’re a group of very intelligent individuals that have so much to bring to the table from lived experiences and their cultures and who they are and where they come from,” DuQuenne said. “And living in Ashland, they can make a very big difference.”
In its first year as a commission, DuQuenne said members brought forth the need of a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion manager who would work out of City Hall. While not budgeted for the current biennium due to a $3 million shortfall, DuQuenne said she feels confident of the possibility for approval of one in the next biennium, which begins July 1, 2023.
An amount of approximately $40,000 has been set aside for a DEI assessment that would allow DEI training for the city and for local businesses.
“It was food for thought and it made councilors realize, we need this,” DuQuenne said. “So many times, I feel like we live in this beautiful little Emerald City where people feel like, ‘Not in my backyard.’”
“Two years ago, we lost the life of a beautiful, young man; Aidan Ellison’s life was taken before it got started,” she added of the killing of the 19-year-old in November 2020. “And there’s so many other things that have happened, from micro-aggressions to just feeling uncomfortable and not wanted … and if you are not a person of color, you don’t experience this most likely.”
DuQuenne believes the commission has been needed for years, despite turning just one year old in May.
“Unfortunately, I believe the people of Ashland never realized the need for this commission until it was brought to their attention,” DuQuenne said. “This is something that is needed and I applaud Mayor (Julie) Akins on really holding steadfast on the need for this commission.”
The commission will take a break from meeting over the summer. Meetings will resume in September.
For more information about the the commission, visit its webpage on the city website.
Reach Ashland.news reporter Holly Dillemuth at firstname.lastname@example.org.
June 5 update: Added that vote was unanimous.