Raising the bar: African American Chamber spotlights those making true community impact

Dunn, Bentley, Johnson, Ross Dulan and Small lauded for making difference in N.J. and around U.S.

Officer Harry Dunn, a 13-year veteran of the Capitol Police Department and a real-life hero in a world that gives out the title to so many who don’t truly represent the ideals that come with the distinction, stood before a packed room at the annual gala of the African American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey on Thursday night and spoke the truth.

He said he wished he weren’t there.

Dunn told the crowd he was humbled and honored to receive the Gus Heningburg Award, which goes to someone who has gone above and beyond. He told the crowd he was honored to be awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the Presidential Citizens Medal and a host of other awards for his actions during the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the Capitol.

“And, if I had it my way,” he said. “I would trade it all in so that (Jan. 6) never happened — and nobody knew who I was.”

Dunn, who testified before the Jan. 6 committee, is a hero for the actions he — and his fellow law enforcement officers — took that day. A day in which seemingly ordinary citizens revealed their true selves with an extraordinary sense of duty, valor and courage.

They raised the bar for what should be expected of all of us — Black, white and everywhere in between.

Honoring someone such as Dunn is a distinction that sets the African American Chamber gala apart from others. It not only recognizes key leaders in the state; it lauds figures in the Black community across the country who are making true impact.

They are “Raising the Bar” — the theme of the night.

The award recipients at the gala.

People such as Ken Bentley, a former Nestle executive who is now the CEO of the Advocates Professional Golf Association — a tour that is not as recognized as some of the others, but one that is having real impact in the lives and careers of golfers of color, on and off the course.

“We’re really about making dreams come true,” he told the crowd. “These guys have always dreamed of making it to the PGA Tour. Our job is to give them the tools to be successful — and we’ve had amazing success.”

Including a player who has made the big tour. But that’s not the only goal, Bentley said.

“The big thing for me is that we have to continue to tell young people in our community that we believe in them, and that we support their dreams,” he said.

That’s how you raise the bar — something the three New Jersey honorees are all doing in their own way.

Natalya Johnson speaks.

Natalya Johnson, senior counsel at Johnson & Johnson, was lauded with a Community Service Award as much for her work at J&J as her role as the head of the Garden State Bar Association, the largest and oldest bar association representing people of color in the state.

It’s an organization that some wonder if it’s past its purpose. Johnson assured the crowd it is not.

“We exist and we persist because there’s more work to be done in creating a more just legal system,” she said.

“We exist because the number of Black lawyers does not reflect the diversity of our state. And because we need more Black judges.

“We exist because we need to help to dismantle the systemic barriers plaguing our communities, whether it be barriers to voting, education or housing.”

Brenda Ross Dulan at the gala.

Brenda Ross Dolan, founder and principal of the Ross Dulan Group, was given a special thanks from chamber founder and CEO John Harmon for being there from the beginning — 16 years ago, when the chamber was getting started and Dolan was a top executive at Wells Fargo.

Harmon told the crowd: “I still remember her saying to me, ‘No one is supporting you — I am going to,’” he said.

That mission has shaped Ross Dulan’s professional career throughout her journey — a professional career that often has found her as the only person of color in a room. She said she’s always seen that as an opportunity.

“We have to be somewhat intentional about recognizing Black excellence,” she told the crowd. “We not only have to do that; we are charged with raising the bar.

“Being the first, and being the only, is not your real assignment. Your real assignment is to embrace the role that you have.

“I believe that, if I am privileged to be in a room, I must leave some evidence that I was actually in that room. Whose life did I change? What difference did I actually make? That is the essence of raising the bar.”

Atlantic City Mayor Marty Small.

Marty Small does that every day in Atlantic City. And it’s not just for what he does as mayor — how he started a Small Business Academy that has more than 40 graduates … how he helped bring the largest indoor water park in the state to Atlantic City.

How, simply put, he is guiding a city that has been reinventing itself for as long as anyone can remember.

Here’s the difference: Small is doing it not as a politician, but as a literal and figurative father figure, both to his own children and the children of Atlantic City.

A lifetime resident who grew up in one of the city’s poorest sections without a father, Small is working to make sure today’s children have a different journey.

Atlantic City is governed by the idea of family first, he said.

Small, who received the Politics Award, is raising the bar.

The impact of night could be seen throughout, as each honoree appeared to be in competition with the next to see how many family members they could recognize and thank. Family, they said, is a key to raising the bar.

In a touching moment, Johnson went a step more, introducing to the crowd a table of female lawyers and judges who have spent their career raising the bar, being the first, so people such as Johnson could have a roadmap to success.

It’s still not easy. The fight is not over. But it’s a battle that deserves to be waged — one that can come at any time.

For Dunn, it was Jan. 6, 2021 — a day whose impact obviously still resonates.

The insurrectionists exposed some of the ugliest feelings and emotions the country has ever seen, Dunn said. It was something that needed to happen.

“So, we can open everybody’s eyes that democracy is not something that we should take for granted,” he said. “We have to actively work to protect it.”

By all means necessary.

Dunn, who received a standing ovation, personified the evening.

“I love the idea of the term, ‘raising the bar,’” he said.

On this night, no one did it better.