Diversity Consultant Graci Harkema Inspires BOCAteers With Her Powerful Story

Diversity and inclusion training is an important part of a company’s culture. With the COVID-19 pandemic, an increase in hate crimes and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement stemming from the murder of George Floyd in 2020, the timing is right to reflect, learn and move forward. An inclusive work environment is critical to an organization’s success, and BOCA is 100% committed to that.

On May 21 Graci Harkema, a diversity and inclusion consultant, joined us for our weekly BOCA Beat to share her inspiring story of survival and leadership after facing adversity as a child. The training session allowed us to air our thoughts and make sure we have the sensitivity and tools to support each other moving forward. 

We were honored to spend time with Harkema. She shared that she was born in a mud hut in the Democratic Republic of the Congo as civil unrest raged. This background inspired her work as a diversity and inclusion speaker.

“My passion for diversity, equity and inclusion begins at the beginning of my life,” Harkema said. She recalled the Congo as a place filled with riots, violence against women, sex abuse and sex trafficking. Harkema was born “unexpectedly” to her biological mother in the middle of the conflict. She lost members of her family to disease and malnutrition during this time. And with 12 to 24 hours to live, she was dropped off at an orphanage. 

A Michigan family living in the Congo at the time adopted Harkema, and they lived there until she was 4. She then moved with her adopted family to the United States. 

Harkema draws on her past experiences to teach clients how to live as their authentic true selves and motivate people who have been silenced in their lives to be resilient no matter what “mud” we find ourselves in. Harkema recalled being the only female Black student among 500 people in her graduating class. She described how she felt during this time in school: “I felt like I stuck out, I felt like I didn’t fit in. I felt like I didn’t belong. I felt like I wasn’t a part of the team, and it was really hard for me.”

Harkema now draws on her challenging experiences earlier in life as an inspirational speaker. She got her start in diversity and inclusion when during a job interview she came out as a member of the LGBTQ community. She was then hired to work in human resources and quickly became a part of the diversity and inclusion team. 

“Finally, for the first time in my life I felt like I was able to just be me, that I was no longer living for the expectations of others,” Harkema said. “I could just live as my true self.” 

Later when she visited her biological mother in the Congo as an adult, she realized that she had a calling to help “build safe and equitable environments” for people.

In her session with BOCA, Harkema noted that “diversity” isn’t just about people of multiple racial or ethnic backgrounds, but the term also involves multiple types of skills. 

“Our diversity is everything that encompasses us,” Harkema said. “Our diversity is everything that we all bring to the table, and inclusion is ensuring that we are included with a seat at the table and a voice at the table.”

Harkema helped BOCAteers reinforce our mission statement when it comes to diversity and inclusion: “Our goal of diversity and inclusion is to increase performance, services, value and revenue by including teams of different backgrounds, perspectives and experiences in order to attract and retain the like with our workforce in that community.”

In the end, by incorporating diverse experiences and viewpoints, we will produce stronger, more effective work for our clients. 

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