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School News Network feature: Graci Harkema shares her story of 'rising from a mud hut to the boardroom'

April 3, 2023, GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- “Teach children to be their authentic selves,” Graci Harkema told an audience at Grand Rapids Community College’s Wisner-Bottrall Applied Technology Center recently.

“If you’re presenting your authentic self, being open and inclusive, that’s what your kids will learn to do.” 

An international diversity, equity and inclusion speaker and author specializing in inclusive leadership, Harkema was the Women’s History Month keynote speaker for GRCC’s Diversity Lecture Series, offered by the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.

A Grand Valley State University graduate, she has also been named one of The Grand Rapids Business Journal’s 40 Under 40 Business Leaders of West Michigan and one of the 50 Most Influential Women of West Michigan, and is the author of her forthcoming memoir, “Rising: From a Mud Hut to the Boardroom — and Back Again.”

Harkema was born to a young mother in the Democratic Republic of Congo during a time of civil unrest and violent, deadly riots. When she was only a few weeks old, a family from Grand Rapids serving as missionaries in the country adopted her from an orphanage.

At 4 years old, Harkema moved back to Michigan with her adopted family. By the time she was 6, she knew she identified as queer.

“I already felt so different I didn’t want to be even more different than everyone else, so I kept (my sexuality) a secret for 22 years,” she said. 

Harkema said she eventually discovered that the intersection of her identities was her superpower.

“I wasn’t Black enough, straight enough, successful enough,” she said. “I couldn’t pick and choose my identities; I had to accept all aspects of myself and no longer saw my identities as my shame.”

Based on her own experience navigating intersectional identities, Harkema explained what it means to “cover” parts of yourself in the workplace.

“Covering is when you purposely tone down an aspect of yourself to fit into the mainstream. It’s exhausting,” she said. “Inclusive, equitable environments allow us to be ourselves and give opportunities to achieve success.”

Harkema advised the audience to step into their discomfort, take opportunities to grow and learn, and share their stories.

“You are in this life for a reason. Look back on your journey and see how far you have come,” she said. “You don’t have to be born in a mud hut to have a story.”

This story was reported by Alexis Stark of the School News Network.