Juneteenth 2023: ‘This is about changing lives – and transforming New Jersey’

African American Chamber’s Harmon thrilled by inaugural business expo – as long as it leads to meaningful engagement with Black business community

Whether it’s with business leaders or government officials, John Harmon shakes as many hands as anyone in the state. It’s an obligation that comes with being the founder and CEO of the African American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey.

Harmon’s now looking – and not-so-subtly demanding – to shake more hands that represent the closing of deals that bring business to members of his community.

He said it’s part of his obligation to all of those in the past who were fighting for opportunity when diversity equity and inclusion simply was about gaining the fundamental human right of freedom.

That Harmon’s biggest takeaway from the Chamber’s inaugural Juneteenth Black Business Expo, held last Thursday at Montclair State University.

The event, which drew dozens of sponsors – enough to fill the vendors’ room – and more than 500 participants, was more than just a feel-good function. It actually brought business. Harmon noted specific efforts with three utilities (AC Electric, PSEG and JCPL), all of which agreed to efforts to expand and extend their relationships with Black-owned businesses.

“We’re in a good place right now, but we cannot let people fall back,” he said. “We can’t let them return to complacency as it relates to DE&I.”

The connection is too important, Harmon said.

“This is not just a kind of heart-felt engagement,” he said. “This is about changing lives – and transforming New Jersey. It’s about making our state more competitive.

“Those that have resigned themselves to think that this is just another one of those good-feeling initiatives, not only are wrong – they’re going to be called out. And those that have embraced us, and are willing to apply will inside their institutions, are going to be the ones we celebrate, because policy is one thing, but it’s going to take intentionality and will to make the difference here.

“That’s what we’re looking for from those people who say they support DE&I.”

Here’s what the chamber is not looking for: A social media post – or a check that comes with no follow-up, Harmon said.

“Those who just put the taglines out there and try to make this a money grab – they’re in for a rude awakening because we see you, and we’re not going to let you get away with it,” he said. “There are people that are willing to do what it takes to make this a mutually beneficial engagement. And we’re not going to let them down and we’re not going to let you get away with your foolishness.”

The significance of Juneteenth should not be forgotten, Harmon said.

While so many in Corporate America only learned of the day in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, the Chamber has long honored its significance. It’s not a coincidence that the African American Chamber was founded 16 years ago this week.

“People died for this,” Harmon said. “People literally died fighting for these opportunities.

“That’s why, events like this serve as a reminder to what our ancestors went through – that we haven’t forgotten them as we try to forge a strategic partnership with New Jersey. It’s work. Every day it’s work.”

Last week’s event, Harmon said, was a good day’s work – one that builds on so much of the work the Chamber has been doing the past 16 years.

Harmon noted the financial services sector – particularly calling out the support of the N.J. Bankers Association – has been strong.

And he said hospital and insurance companies in the health care sector have been a true partner, too – something that certainly was evident by the long hallway of booths and tables from Hackensack Meridian Health, which were there to educate (and sometimes examine) those in attendance.

But Harmon said he was especially pleased with the public sector, starting with Gov. Phil Murphy, who gave a rousing keynote that was more on purposeful action – what has happened; what will happen – than just the standard platitudes.

A gaggle of government alphabet groups were present, including the DCA, the EDA, the NJRA and the DOC.

“The public sector has been lagging, but Gov. Murphy is trying to turn the page on that,” he said. “He’s getting a little more involved in pushing folks who may be slow to respond. You can feel his hand making it happen, so kudos to him.”

It was a great day, Harmon said.

A great workday, one that only will be a success if it leads to more engagement, opportunity – and signed contracts – with Black businesses.

“What we planned was a showcase, steeped in black excellence,” he said. “And I am telling you, a multitude of people have reached out and said, ‘Not only were they impressed, but they truly got something out of it. So, that’s one part of it.

“But the other part of it is getting all sectors of New Jersey to continue to respond to our clarion call for engagement and deciphering – and I say that seriously – an equitable pathway forward.

“For some people, this is not easy. They’re trying to figure it out. They’re assessing the old relationships, and looking at, ‘What will I gain through a relationship with the African American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey?’

“We’re here to show them how to get real tangible results. That’s the goal moving forward.”