By Jomo Akono | June 21, 2020

Juneteenth will have special meaning this year. After being locked inside for months, forced to endure a global pandemic that laid bare the underlying health disparities and inequity in our country, the tragic murder of George Floyd sparked demonstrations across the country. Those protests were a long time coming, and addressing the core issues will take more than hashtags and vague promises of reform. To send a strong message that black lives matter, there has to be access to opportunity.

Access to jobs with good wages and strong benefits have been one of the great equalizers in American history – and the labor movement has been at the forefront. Unions have led the fight for working people, but they haven’t always been a welcome place for people of color. Like others, my union – the Carpenter’s union – has acknowledged that and we are putting in the hard work needed to do better. My experience is living proof of the labor movement’s commitment to diversity, inclusion and expanding access to opportunity.

Over the past several years, I have worked to build a strong bond between my local carpenter’s union and Buffalo’s Juneteenth Festival – the third largest celebration of its kind. The carpenters help sponsor the event and we hold workshops for young people who might be interested in our apprenticeship programs.

Juneteenth commemorates the emancipation of the last enslaved Africans in America – June 19, 1865 – over a year and half after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Juneteenth is a celebration of freedom. It is a festival that marks a step forward for all Americans in the quest to achieve the more perfect union that our founders promised.

The striving for that more perfect union is what drives so many of us. The idea that the American Dream should be available to every American.

For my family, the American Dream meant the chance to build a good career that allowed you to pass on more opportunities to your children. My father, a union carpenter, helped get me started on a path forward for my career. I am a proud, second generation union carpenter, beginning as an apprentice in 2005. I even got to work with my father on my very first job. He was so proud when the union sent me to the Cornell University Institute of Labor Relations to take part in the Union Leadership Institute. I have also been able to study labor relations at Rutgers University.

For the past four and half years, I have been a Council Representative for the North Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters, working on behalf of union members and servicing the needs of our partner contractors throughout Western New York. This has given me a chance to open the door of opportunity to young men and women just like me. I have worked as an organizer and I have used that platform to help diversify the union – because I believe you have to keep paying it forward and helping the next generation.

My apprenticeship training may have provided me with the skills to build structures, but the extra schooling and organizing courses, combined with our organization’s commitment to equity, are helping me to build my community in other ways as well.

After a very difficult few months, I am looking forward to this year’s Juneteenth celebration as a chance to take stock in how far we’ve come, and to call all New Yorkers to action because we still have so far to go. Expanding access to opportunity is the only way to form a more perfect union.

Jomo Akono is Council Representative, North Atlantic States Council of Carpenters.