Kaleem Shabazz, a councilman in Atlantic City, adjunct faculty member at Stockton University and retired businessman, looks to the future and likes what he sees. That’s rarely been the case in his lifetime.
“The corporate world, they’re looking 20-30 years down the line, and they see that having an all-white, all-male infrastructure and leadership is not going to work going into the future for profitability,” Shabazz said.
“And I think there’s no going back.”
While it shamelessly took the death of George Floyd on the streets of Minneapolis to force American businesses to examine their relationship with Black Americans, the good news is that their interest remains strong.
Shawn Abner-Purnell, vice president of diversity, inclusion and equity at South Jersey Industries, views it that way, too.
“What I see is almost like an awakening,” she said.
The key is keeping the interest — and the momentum — going.
Today is March 1, the first day after Black History Month has come to a close. Diversity leaders throughout the state are hopeful the interest in the Black community will continue to be a 12-month affair. That’s the only way true social justice and equity will be achieved.
Abner-Purnell knows it won’t be easy.
“Some of the more progressive companies, companies like SJI, we’re definitely making progress,” she said. “I think by recognizing that, No. 1, this isn’t an easy issue to fix, especially at the corporate level, I think we provide ourselves an opportunity to really get real about what we can control and what we can do from where we sit.”
That includes creating working environments that talent will want to join. Especially at a time when the labor market is tilted in favor of employees.
“We have taken the hard step of really starting to peel back the layers and have those difficult conversations, to create a sense of understanding, awareness, so that we can create that environment where people feel like they want to work for SJI. Industries are really struggling right now with their talent pipelines, because we know that top talent have choices,” she said.
“They don’t necessarily want to be with an organization that doesn’t walk the walk and talk the talk.”
John Harmon, who founded and leads the African American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey, is eager to talk with anyone who is interested in having a discussion. But he’s looking for more than just talk.
Harmon began fielding more calls than ever before in the wake of Floyd’s death. Interest, he said, came from a wide range of companies.
More than a year later, it’s turned into so much more. The chamber is now working on sponsored programs to diversify work forces, corporate boards and supply chains. And it has the backing of a key player — the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce — which penned an initiative in late 2020 that is just starting to bear fruit.
Some of the biggest businesses and corporations based in New Jersey are filling up Harmon’s calendar. Revenue and sponsorships are the highest they’ve ever been.
It’s a far cry from when I interviewed him five years ago, and he lamented the way the Black community coalesced only around the church or community organizations.
“I believe the African American community’s model of engagement is dysfunctional, or it’s not the appropriate model,” he told me then.
Today, with the backing of big banks and big law firms, he has a new message: “If you’re Black, and you’re in business, and you’re not a member of the African American Chamber of Commerce — shame on you.”
Harmon is meeting with CEOs and senior-level people that wouldn’t give him the time of day five years ago.
“This is just in a matter of months. (Overall), post-George Floyd, we’ve had about 30 financial service institutions join the chamber,” he said.
“What I’m finding is that folks are genuinely trying to figure out how they could engage in a substantive way to deliver on more opportunities for Black people.”
Harmon feels it’s more than just the annual memo/party/event/forum on Black History Month.
“They’re really trying to figure it out,” he said.