Several years ago, I had the opportunity to visit Ghana on the west coast of Africa, a country whose history is forever linked to the United States through, among other reasons, the Cape Coast Castle.
Originally built by slave traders in the mid-1600s, the Castle held captured Africans until their forced relocation to the Americas. As an African American, many intense feelings came over me touring the Castle, including motivation, sadness and a desire to persevere. An especially profound feeling was a connection to the legacy of the millions of enslaved Africans who caught the last glances of their homeland as they passed through the Castle’s “Door of No Return” and onto slavers’ ships. My connection to this legacy has motivated me as a person and an educator and is one reason why Juneteenth has a profound meaning for me.
As an educator from Princeville, North Carolina—the oldest town incorporated by Black people in the United States—I grew up understanding Juneteenth as a celebration of freedom, as well as a reminder that equality in America is still a work in progress. Despite my awareness of the barriers holding many Americans back, one of the greatest lessons from growing up in Princeville wasn’t of division, but that Americans have much more in common than not.
I was reminded of our shared American experience last week at a professional conference with colleagues from various ethnic and religious backgrounds. Despite our differences, the love for humanity, curiosity and education we shared as Americans was a powerful bond by which I was inspired and energized. And just as we have in common these “Ups,” we also share the “Downs,” no matter our race, creed or religion.
The pains we feel from loss, sickness or setbacks, the anger from injustice or unkindness, the fear we feel from the unknown, change or risk—these transcend our differences also. While we cannot always prevent them from happening, we can control how we react to them. In the past, I wondered why slavery happened, but today I choose to focus on what I can control—my response to its legacy.
According to the Council on Postsecondary Education, education attainment is trending up for the state of Kentucky – 43.6% in 2015 to 49.4% in 2019 – with 10 counties statewide performing above 40% attainment. However, 24 counties are less than 20% attainment, for individuals with associate degrees or higher. Further, The Lumina Foundation reports a 28.6% attainment rate for African Americans in Kentucky.
With goals to reach 60% attainment by 2030, we must first increase the number of Kentuckians who enroll in postsecondary programs and earn credentials beyond high school. This effort starts with a great focus on inclusion and equitable access to education – at all levels – and particularly with post-secondary education, which often comes with barriers to access, such as flexibility, cost and more.
I am proud to work for a higher education institution that recognizes Juneteenth as a holiday for its employees and embodies a mission of empowering people to tear down barriers by acquiring knowledge. In providing accessible, affordable and career-advancing education geared to the needs and life experiences of adult learners, we can help people achieve the freedom that is at the heart of Juneteenth’s significance.
Join me today in honoring those who suffered enslavement, celebrating freedom and those who worked to achieve it and who, today, overcome barriers by acquiring an education that helps them move up into better, brighter futures. We are fortunate not to have had to pass through the “Door of No Return,” but we can do our own part to make the legacy of those who did more than just one of enslavement, but also, today, one of opportunity in pursuit of equality.
Dr. K.L. Allen, a regional director for online, nonprofit Western Governors University, is a veteran of the Army National Guard with close to two decades of higher education experience focused on business operations and veteran affairs.
This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Juneteenth: The power of education to break down barriers in Kentucky