words and photography by Elyse Wild
Graci Harkema gained national attention when she resigned as the diversity director of Founder’s Brewing, a local craft-beer icon that was in the grips of a racial discrimination lawsuit with a former employee.
Her resignation was preceded by the release of a deposition in which a manager of the brewery maintained that he was unable to recognize whether a person was black. The deposition and the company’s official response defending the position was incendiary; it was covered by national press, and bars and beer sellers across the U.S. disposed of their Founder’s supply, sometimes dramatically. Harkema resigned on Oct. 25. Six days later, Founder’s announced it had settled the lawsuit.
Now, Harkema is heading a new venture with Graci LLC, a diversity and inclusion consulting firm she began to continue advancing the work she says is driven by her personal experience as a minority.
“My values, especially as they pertain to equity, are because I am used to being the only one or one of few of whatever demographic or identity in the room,” she said. “Because I have always been in those places for most of my life, it means so much to me to be able to represent all of those identities.”
As a gay black woman who was closeted for most of her adult life, Harkema says she understands how lack of diversity and inclusion training and initiatives can impact the workplace, especially for vulnerable employees.
“Not only was I not out at work, I was not out in life,” she said. “There were a few friends who knew, but not many. Internally, I felt like I was living someone else’s life. Externally, I was fitting in, so it was a weird dichotomy — it hurt.”
She describes the weight of not being out, especially professionally, as exhausting. LGBTQ+ workers in Michigan are particularly vulnerable; discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity is not explicitly banned within state law. The Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, passed in 1976, prohibits discrimination on the basis of “religion, race, color, national origin, age, sex, height, weight, familial status, or marital status.” Under the current laws, an employer is within their rights to fire an employee for being gay.
“I had to make sure I was saying all of the right things to make it sound like I was straight,” Harkema said. “I made up a type of man I was attracted to because I just didn’t want anyone to question me — I had fake boyfriends, and I would talk about them at work. It sounds absurd, but it’s scary. You feel like are have to constantly look over your shoulder.”
She finally came out in 2013 during a job interview.
“The question that was asked of me in a job interview was, ‘Tell me of a time when you overcame adversity?’” she said. “The easiest answer would be to talk about being adopted from the Congo and moving to a very homogenous suburb of Grand Rapids, and how it was hard to feel like I fit in.”
But, Harkema made a split-second decision.
“I knew how to navigate being one of the only people of color in the room,” Harkema said. “But I don’t know how to navigate being out, especially professionally and as a black woman. So I told him, ‘Overcoming adversity is me coming out right now.’”
The interviewer’s possitive response changed Harkema’s life.
“I could finally breathe,” she said. “I could just be me.”
For others who may be struggling with being their authentic self in the workplace, Harkema advises:
“You owe it to yourself to be true to yourself,” she said. “When you make those decisions, being true to yourself will give you peace, but it is scary. Pay attention to your environment and your surroundings; maybe you aren’t in a place that is safe for you, and its best to find a different environment. Maybe it isn’t safe to come out or speak up if you aren’t going to be set up for success afterward. As you make those decisions, you wake up and go to bed with yourself every day. You sleep better at night knowing you did the best work you could have, and that you are true to yourself.”