GV alumna’s backstory inspires authenticity and inclusivity

Jamie Wilson, Staff Writer

Graci Harkema is a Grand Valley State University alumna who founded Graci LLC, an international diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) consulting firm. 

On Feb. 11, 12 years after graduating from GVSU, Harkema returned to share her journey with the GVSU campus community. 

From a young age, Harkema said she knew she wanted to be a motivational speaker.

Harkema got her degree in communications, with a focus in public relations and advertising. While she had the drive to pursue her dream as a motivational speaker, it wasn’t until later in life that she discovered what she wanted to motivate people to do. 

She found her reason 7,000 miles away, in a face she thought she’d never get to see. 

Harkema was adopted when she was a week old from the Democratic Republic of the Congo by a couple living in the Congo as missionaries.

Her adoptive parents, who permanently reside in Grand Rapids, stayed in Congo with Harkema until she was about four years old before bringing her back to the Grand Rapids community where she has lived since. 

In 2015, Harkema traveled back to Congo with her adoptive parents in hopes of reuniting with her mother, who she thought passed away when she was a child. Harkema’s mother had thought Harkema died as well, but still spoke about her to a friend in Congo. 

At the same time Harkema’s mother was speaking about her to a friend, Harkema was asking a friend of her own, in Kenya, about her mother.

“I randomly discovered that my mom was alive and that we were both asking about one another at the same time,” Harkema said. “My friend in Kenya is friends with the person my mom was talking to in the Congo and when my friend from Kenya asked about my mother dying, the person from Congo realized that my mother was the one who had given birth to me and that I had been adopted.”

Harkema’s mother was living in a mud hut at the time with no internet, so there was no way for her to know that Harkema now knew about her. 

Harkema and her adoptive parents got in contact with the current missionaries in Congo through Facebook to help reunite Harkema and her mother. They then flew to Congo and were able to find her mother through word-of-mouth.

“The moment that we met was everything,” Harkema said. “No one had to tell me who she was, no one had to tell her who I was. She hadn’t seen me since I was one week old, but the first thing she said when she saw me was ‘My child, my child, my child.’ In that moment, I felt complete.”

Harkema’s father recorded this moment and, upon her return, Harkema got a tattoo of the sound waves of her mother’s first words to her on her forearm. 

These sound waves also became a part of Harkema’s business logo.

At Graci LLC, Harkema builds, conducts and facilitates DEI workshops for businesses and their employees. 

Companies also consult Harkema to help them develop social media content and make corporate statements for celebrations of diversity. 

“Particularly in 2020, there was a lot of outward racial tension that companies were facing when they would make a social media statement supporting black lives and other groups,” Harkema said. “I helped companies respond to customer backlash or instruct them to delete disruptive content.”

As a result of the increasing racial and social tensions in 2020, Harkema’s calendar was booked. However, when the pandemic hit and the country went into lockdown, every client canceled their appointments. 

With her schedule wide open and the nation completely closed, Harkema devoted her time to working on a memoir called “Rising from the Mud,” which focuses on her perspective on life, including components of DEI, authenticity and belonging.

“It’s a great inspirational read, but it will serve as educational material as well,” Harkema said. 

“Rising from the Mud” is scheduled to release before the end of 2022. 

The death of George Floyd came only a couple of months after the lockdown began and Harkema’s clients needed help once more. 

“All of my previous clients contacted me in a panic needing immediate training,” Harkema said. “Since they hadn’t prioritized diversity and inclusion work earlier, they weren’t equipped to educate their employees and create safe spaces for those in turmoil or experiencing discrimination.”

Since then, Harkema has been busy educating and supporting businesses in their DEI efforts. 

Harkema said she is motivated by her own understanding of feeling as though who she is wasn’t acceptable. 

“My passion for doing this work comes from knowing what it feels like to think you don’t fit in as your authentic self,” Harkema said. “Since the age of six, I knew I was gay, but I didn’t think people would accept me for it. Even in my college experience, and especially as it pertained to the workplace, I felt like I didn’t fit in and I pretended to be someone I wasn’t in order to get the approval of others.”

Harkema said it was her mother who inspired her to embrace herself and strive to encourage others to do the same. 

“Later on, when I met my biological mother, I saw myself in her and I couldn’t imagine what she went through just so that I could have life,” Harkema said. “For so many years I was ashamed of my identities, but in seeing her, I stopped viewing my identities as my shame and started viewing them as my superpower.”