Nikita Richards ’06, M.S. ’15, has been engaged with whatever community she has lived in for as long as she can remember. Originally from the South Side of Chicago, Richards came to Illinois State University in 2002 after serving in the Navy. For the past 20 years, Richards has made connections in the community to drive important diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts forward.
“I take great pride in this work,” she said. “It is part of who I am.”
She now serves as the City of Bloomington community relations manager, where her duties include organizing cultural events like the upcoming Juneteenth Celebration. This year’s event, which will be held at Bloomington’s Miller Park from 12-6 p.m. on Saturday, June 18, is the first in-person celebration in three years after it was forced to go virtual due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
Richards, who also serves on the Illinois State University Alumni Association Board of Directors as a co-chair of the DEI committee, has been attending Juneteenth celebrations in the Bloomington-Normal community for as long as she can remember.
“It was just a great opportunity to meet and see so many other community members and celebrate this event,” she said. “When my daughter was of age it was just a no-brainer. She was coming to Juneteenth with me.”
Now she is a leading organizer for the second Juneteenth event held in the community after congress officially declared the date a federal holiday in June 2021. While she is happy to see the date finally get national recognition, she has concerns that the date could become just another three-day weekend.
“My initial reaction was one of excitement, but also one of caution,” she said. “I have seen where heritage months have been commercialized, they have been taken for granted, they have been used to build capitalism.”
Due in part to these concerns, organizers of the event want to ensure that attendees have numerous opportunities to learn the history of June 19, 1865.
“Yes, we are celebrating and having fun, but all of the celebrations need to include an educational component so that people don’t forget how far we’ve come,” she said.
On that day, U.S. Union troops arrived in Galveston Bay, Texas, with news that 250,000 remaining men, women, and children enslaved under the Confederacy were free, months after the Civil War had ended and more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation.
Initially a regional celebration, civil rights activists in Texas worked for nearly a century for the state to officially recognize the date as a state holiday, which it did in 1980. Organizers then turned their attention toward federal lawmakers, who passed the resolution more than four decades later.
“I am happy to see the steam that has picked up in recent years to celebrate Juneteenth and to see that it is not only celebrated in the African American community, but that there are so many other groups who are appreciative of Black culture and why it means so much to us,” she said.
Richards encourages the community to visit Miller Park on Saturday afternoon to enjoy food, vendors, and performances that include a poetry reading from Ama Oforiwaa Aduonum, professor of music and ethnomusicology at Illinois State. Richards said the event has a lineup of activities for people of all ages to enjoy and a plethora of opportunities to learn from local organizations and each other.
“I am so excited for this event,” she said. “There are a lot of great things to look forward to, and I am hoping that the community will receive the celebration as well as other years.”
She also encourages community members to make plans to attend other cultural events throughout the year.
“Celebrations like Juneteenth and so many other cultural or ethnic related events help to create a more inclusive moral fiber in our community,” she said. “It helps to create awareness but also expose each other to cultures and experiences that perhaps we wouldn’t have had the opportunity to experience otherwise.”