Embracing the challenge: ‘DEI will not die on our watch’

Keynote speakers Freeman, Knowles tell crowd at African American Chamber event to view tough moments as opportunities, not obstacles

After retelling the horrific details of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre — one in which the businesses of what was then known as “Black Wall Street” were destroyed and untold hundreds of the entrepreneurs who ran them were killed — Tanya Freeman offered some facts around the incident that are not as well known.

Two decades later, Tulsa had more Black-owned businesses than white-owned businesses — and the total number of Black-owned businesses (242) was 22% more than existed in 1921, she said.

Such resiliency — and the ability to find opportunity and progress in the face of the toughest of obstacles — was on display Tuesday night in Cherry Hill at the annual Corporate Awards Dinner by the African American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey.

Freeman, the founder and leader of TLF (Tanya L. Freeman, Attorney at Law) and the chair of the board at Newark’s University Hospital, referenced the Tulsa Race Massacre in closing remarks that addressed the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that overturned affirmative action usage in college admissions, dismissing approximately 50 years of precedent.

“Many of us believe that this is the beginning of an attempt to dismantle DEI,” she told the sold-out crowd at the event. “Some of you may actually believe that DEI is dead. Others of you may be unsure whether DEI issues are still important.

“But I am sure that there are many of us in this room that stand firm and say, ‘DEI will not die on our watch.’”

Mathew Knowles.

Mathew Knowles, an extraordinarily successful business executive and entrepreneur — who many know only as the father of his famous daughters, Beyonce and Solange — talked about the importance of embracing changes and overcoming obstacles.

A product of segregated Alabama, Knowles talked proudly of being a third generation of entrepreneur — but also of the internal trauma he faced for decades after an encounter with the KKK as a child.

“I often talk about things that are uncomfortable, because the only way we change is to be uncomfortable,” he said.

That’s what life is, Knowles said.

“It’s not the destination, it’s the journey,” he said.

Knowles talked about how — even in the face of today’s toughest challenges — it’s up to each of us to help each other on our journeys, and that we can find inspiration along the way. He detailed a moment a few years back in which he met a nun in an airport in Southern California, seeking donations for her mission.

After doing so, she gave him a card, one he did not read for months. But when he did, the message was powerful.

“It said, ‘Pray not for a life free from Trump. Pray for triumph over Trump,’” he said.

The lesson, Knowles said, was this: “What you and I call adversity, God calls opportunity,” he said. “The next time there’s a challenge that comes before you, ask: ‘What is the opportunity here? Is there an opportunity to grow, opportunity to change, opportunity to help someone?’

“Don’t be afraid of those challenges.”


The African American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey honored five business leaders at its corporate awards dinner:

  • Nikkia McClain, Tene Nicole Creative Agency;
  • Chris Carothers, FCC Consulting;
  • Zack Lewis, Lewis Consulting;
  • John Kennedy, New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program;
  • Tom Kemly, Columbia Bank.

Freeman offered the same vision — and congratulated the chamber for following one of the many teachings of the late great Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa.

“Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, ‘Do a little bit of good where you are, and it is those little bits of good, put together, that will overwhelm the world,’ she said.

“I know that (chamber founder and CEO) John Harmon continues to gather little bits of good wherever he goes. And, for his visionary leadership and his commitment to this mission, we are assured that DEI will not die, it will not be placed on the back burner — and it certainly will not end on John Harmon’s watch.

“John reminds us that we’ve earned a seat at the table, that we are an empowered community through entrepreneurship. that you grow in partnerships, both in the public and private sector.”

The message, the moment, the mission is what Freeman hoped the audience would take from an event that always is filled with fun.

“For all of our friends and colleagues here tonight,” she started. “When you reflect on this evening, you might remember everybody’s theme music and the little dance they did as they came up on stage. You might remember some of the great speakers that graced this podium, or the feeling of inspiration you had when everyone shared their stories.

“But, tonight can be so much more than a sweet memory.

“You can decide to build and strengthen your partnership with the chamber and recognize that the resilience of Black Wall Street continues to live today. And that DEI is in its greatest position for celebration, if we choose the right path.

“What do you believe? And what will you decide? I choose that I want to be the change I desire for the world.”