Being the ‘only one’ is no cakewalk

MN deputy chief of staff often lone person of color at her level

Shawntera Hardy
Shawntera Hardy

“If you do not know your worth, you will be shortchanged every time. Decide how you want to arrive.”

These are the words of Shawntera Hardy, deputy chief of staff for the Office of Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton, when asked about being in a position of leadership when you are sometimes the “only” in a position of high power — the only person of color, that is.

Hardy explains, “In my role, I am responsible for emergency management, and I act as liaison between the governor’s office and the state agencies on manmade and non-manmade emergencies.” Holding this position since March 2015, she dealt with a recent example of a manmade emergency when the City of Madelia experienced the explosion of its fifth building.

Speaking of such emergencies, Hardy says, “My responsibility is, number one, making sure that the governor sees the damage [and] is able to get an assessment to determine where the State can be helpful. That is usually in public infrastructure improvement.

“Also, [identifying] any workers that have been laid off to see if they qualify for unemployment.” Hardy works closely with Homeland Security and other emergency management personnel throughout the state and across the county.

Born and raised in Youngstown, Ohio, Hardy, got her undergraduate degree at Ohio State University. Upon graduating with her Bachelor of Science in human ecology, her first role was in the Ohio state of representatives where her initial position was as a fellow in the Ohio Legislative Service Commission Fellowship Program. In this position her responsibility was working on the Ohio Redistricting Taskforce. She eventually made a career change to the School of Architecture Planning in Upstate New York at the State University at Buffalo.

Her career brought her to Minnesota, where she became a city planner for the City of St. Paul. Two more policy-oriented jobs led to her current professional position in the governor’s office.

Growing up in a city that is poverty-stricken after the closing of the steel mills, which devastated the community, she always wanted to “do something, from a policy standpoint that was going to build up a community from a physical structure standpoint… So I have been blessed to be able to do both. So, that has always been my core. It is never something that is in my rearview mirror; it is always something that is ever present.”

Asked what historical woman she finds inspiration in, Hardy responded, “In my space, I really enjoy the political process, so for me…having the passion and the courage to stand up, it would be Shirley Chisholm. She was unapologetic about knowing her worth and knowing her ability, and sometimes when you are the “only,” it becomes intimidating to do that.”

In a majority of situations, Hardy is the only person of color working at her level of state government, so to be able to communicate the needs of different communities of color can be a challenge and a reward.

“It is not a cakewalk all the time. Everyone is not going to be happy about decisions, but it becomes your job to become honest about the environment and honest about the State. Sometimes you have people that have thrown all their eggs in your basket, and if you are not honest [in saying] this is what we are up against — this is the information that I have, this is the backing that I have, and I will do all that I can to stop, to push, to elevate — it is not a cake walk all the time.”

Hardy adds, “It’s humbling, it’s a challenging. It’s an exciting position to be in when you are the “only.” But I also know it is a responsibility, and for me I take that seriously, that given the opportunity to bring another, I am going to do that.”

She advises young women to set goals and be flexible, because you never know where life is going to take you. “Be flexible and step into a new space. You have to be flexible, but you have to set yourself up for success. You have to have a blueprint that sets up your strategies.”

She also points out the value of not burning bridges. “You never know when you are going to cross them. You cannot do that. That means bringing your authentic self. That means being thoughtful and respectful all at once, which is not easy at times.”


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