On Monday, Elaine Hardy began her work as the City of East Lansing’s first Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Administrator. She spoke to ELi yesterday about her new position and about her passion for it.
“This is not just a job to me,” Hardy said. “This is my life work. This is what I believe in. This is what I want to leave behind for my kids and grandkids.”
This longtime City employee is known to many residents from her work as the coordinator of the Hannah Community Center. She has also had a long tenure with the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commission of Mid-Michigan, beginning when she served as the City’s liaison to the organization and eventually rising to Commission Chair.
She wanted to serve because she has always viewed Dr. King as audacious: “He made a declaration about the America he believed it could be, not the America it was.”
Hardy believes the U.S. has made progress since Dr. King last spoke, but the recent protests demonstrate that there is still much to be done. The heart of her work is bringing people together.
“Racism forces us to not have community. Even privileged people don’t have cohesive community due to racism,” she says.
People who know Hardy tell ELi that her work on anti-racism programs and her own life have well prepared her to examine the structures that divide and discriminate.
Ronnie Bacon, who also serves on the MLK Commission, tells ELi that Hardy “is absolutely the right person” for this position. He explained Hardy has spent years “coming into contact with the greats of the civil rights movement. You can’t hear those stories and turn back,” he said.
He endorsed Hardy’s leadership style of shooting “for the biggest and best and highest level of excellence,” adding, “She takes full steps and not half-measures.”
But, if he had to identify the biggest strength of Hardy’s, it would be her integrity: “She is a person of her word. Taking on diversity and inclusion is what she will do.”
Hardy moved to East Lansing 30 years ago to attend MSU as a single mother of two children.
“There was no ready community for me. I didn’t fit the standard community, but people huddled around me.”
During her early years in East Lansing, Hardy found community and support among people from Saudi Arabia, and women from Africa. Her sense of community grew as her son became involved in sports. That allowed her to interact with other moms from East Lansing.
“It took a minute to belong,” she said, but she and other mothers understood the common struggles they faced with providing homework help, preparing dinner, and getting the kids ready for bed.
This is what gives her hope for building a more equitable and inclusive East Lansing.
“East Lansing has declared itself to be a diverse community,” she told us yesterday. “The implication is that we are welcoming.”
Hardy is proud of this community’s diversity, which, she pointed out, includes international students and refugees.
She is also proud that East Lansing was one of the first cities to recognize Martin Luther King, Jr. Day – a full year ahead of any national legislation – and that East Lansing has worked to create legislation affirming the rights of the LGBTQ community.
Hardy actually began her career at the Lansing YMCA as the first youth and family director. There, she organized the National Black Achievers Program, a national pilot program that was designed to help students make a successful transition to college.
She has helped over five thousand students, organizing tours to historically Black colleges and universities (HBCU) that include elements of African-American history.
When asked what she believes is the biggest obstacle for East Lansing becoming a more equitable and inclusive community, Hardy responded that “Every place has blind spots. We don’t recognize the structural tools in the system since we have been socialized in it. This is the case in most communities.”
“East Lansing is strong and willing to recognize and dismantle these systems,” but the community must not be fearful of messy, painful, and difficult conversations.
She also explained that commitment to the process is important. “We must be committed to the process. This isn’t just training, checking a box, and moving on. This is not how it works. That won’t get us to cultural realignment. It’s a journey.”
But, what will be on the other side will be beautiful, she said.
Hardy has a full docket of work ahead of her. Around her has formed a diversity/equity/inclusion work group consisting of Library Director Kristin Shelley, Fire Chief Randall Talifarro, Human Resources Director Shelli Neumann, Assistant to the City Manager Nicole Bartell, and Court Administrator Nicole Evans.
Hardy is excited about the work group, emphasizing that she hopes it will grow and add perspectives.
The group hopes to hear from the entire workforce to create “an open government where people are free to bring [their] whole self to work and don’t have to feel marginalized by identities outside of work.”
The group will also examine all policies, considering how the City recruits, hires, trains, and retains its employees. Hardy stated she is not shy about starting over and building new frameworks.
She is currently working on vetting organizations to provide meaningful training to the City of East Lansing’s employees. In addition, she is putting together a primer to make sure employees have a shared vocabulary for discussing issues of diversity and inclusion.
When asked what she would do if an employee came forward with a bias concern but wished to report it without their name, Hardy said she would work as an advocate. She is not in the HR field, but she believes it is important to fight for those who are suffering injustice.
Does she feel empowered criticize the city administration?
Absolutely, she said. Since she views this as her life’s work and not a job, she does not see a point in taking on the position to not speak up. She believes she was hired to speak out.
“Otherwise, the position is unnecessary.”