Living authentically

Graci Harkema is committed to a more diverse and inclusive world.
Graci Harkema traveled back to the Congo to meet her birth mother after discovering she was still alive. Photo by Bryan Esler

Graci Harkema is a local diversity and inclusion consultant who owns and operates her own firm, but long before she was leading authenticity training and working with directors to improve equity at their companies, she was fighting for her life over 7,000 miles away in the Congo.

“I was born in the Congo near the border of Rwanda, and at the time that I was born, there was a lot of civil unrest, and my biological mother was very sick,” Harkema said. “She was dying of disease and malnutrition, and a lot of her family had also died, and when she had me, she had me as a single mother, and she was very young at the time, and she wanted me to be able to have an opportunity at life and care because I was really sick when I was born, also.”

Harkema’s mother took her to an orphanage with the hopes of giving her daughter a better life. Because Harkema was so sick, the orphanage workers kept her separate from the other children, putting her in a doll’s crib at the back of the building. It was there that Harkema’s life was changed forever.

“Two hours after I had arrived at the orphanage, an American missionary family from Grand Rapids happened to be visiting the orphanage,” Harkema said. “When it was getting to be time to leave to go back to their home in a nearby village, the woman of the family had to go to the bathroom, and when she went to the bathroom, she saw me there lying in the toy doll set, thinking that I was a doll. When she came out of the bathroom, my head moved, and she was very perplexed and touched my forehead,” she continued. “In that moment, she heard a voice inside of her say, ‘This is your daughter.’”

Harkema was adopted on the spot. They took her back to the village where they were staying, and over time, her condition improved. Though she recovered, Harkema would soon face new challenges in a new home. Growing up in West Michigan as a Black girl wasn’t easy — Harkema often felt alienated from the other kids.

“…I have this opportunity now, on an even larger scale, to help not just individuals, but partner with companies and help them build equitable and inclusive environments where people can come to work as themselves.”
Graci Harkema

“I went to school in a suburb outside of Grand Rapids, and it was challenging, with where I grew up, not looking like anybody else,” she said. “Even though I was outgoing and had a lot of friends, I still felt like I didn’t belong because of how I look. Those were the times where I understood what it felt like to feel excluded and what it felt like to not have a strong sense of identity and belonging.”

In 2013, Harkema had a job interview with the talent management agency TEKsystems. What she didn’t know was that the interview would be a major turning point in her life.

“The director asked me to tell him of a time where I had overcome adversity, and I thought the easy answer would be to talk about being adopted and talking about the struggles of identity from a race perspective and feeling like I didn’t fit in,” Harkema said. “The truth of the answer of overcoming adversity, was in that exact moment, I came out to him and he was one of the first people that I came out to, and his response to me changed my life. His response to me was that he was proud I could be my authentic self with him and that if I worked there, he wanted to ensure that the environment was an inclusive environment where all employees could come to work as their authentic selves.”

Meanwhile, after years of thinking her birth mother had died, Harkema discovered she was alive in 2015, and went back to the Congo to meet her.

“In that moment, I realized my purpose, and I felt complete,” Harkema said. “I understood a glimpse of what she had to go through in order to have me, and that she gave me up in order to give me life, and that I have this opportunity now, on an even larger scale, to help not just individuals, but partner with companies and help them build equitable and inclusive environments where people can come to work as themselves.”

Harkema enjoyed working for TEKsystems, but after nearly six years with the company, she decided to pursue diversity and inclusion work where she felt it was most needed — the beer industry. She spent nine months serving as the director of diversity and inclusion for a local brewery but resigned because she felt the company wasn’t as invested in the work as she was.

“It was the hardest decision I’ve ever made, to resign,” Harkema said. “I had to stand firm in my beliefs and integrity and that if I have committed myself to a career that is about equity and valuing others, then I couldn’t stand behind the decisions they were making.”

After leaving the brewery, Harkema struck out on her own and started Graci LLC — a diversity and inclusion consulting firm.

“The starting of my company was based truly on the demand for the work after my resignation,” Harkema said. “I’m committed to doing this work with companies who are ready and willing to do the work, not to work with companies who are saying that they care about diversity and inclusion to look good, but actually companies who care about diversity and inclusion because they want to be better.”

So far, 2020 has been a harrowing year when it comes to racial injustice, but Harkema urges people to continue diversity and inclusion work all year-round — not just when it suits them.

“Right now, especially post-George Floyd, what we’re seeing on a societal level is this heightened focus toward diversity, equity and inclusion work,” Harkema said. “I’m glad that folks are now seeing or understanding the need for the work, but the important part is continuing the work. Without being open and without moving forward, we will never progress as a society.”

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