Shawntera Hardy: Mind the gap

Photo courtesy of Shawntera Hardy

We have data coming out of our ears and it’s telling us where we need to focus and invest, being thoughtful about communities, [and recognizing that] what we do in Bemidji may not be the same as what we do on the east side of St. Paul.”
– Shawntera Hardy

“If you don’t listen to the whispers of a community, you’ll look up and all you can hear is the screams.” Shawntera Hardy, Commissioner of Minnesota’s Department of Employment and Economic Development, believes this powerful proverb describes Minnesota right now. Hardy came to Minnesota in 2004, just before a report, “Mind the Gap: Reducing Disparities to Improve Regional Competitiveness in the Twin Cities,” outlined some of the racial and economic disparities in the state.

“Those were whispers,” she says, even if “a little loud in terms of decibels.” Today, however, “the gap is the Red Sea. And the screams are here. The screams are entrenched. The screams are structural.”

Minding the gap

Hardy knows about gaps. She grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, the backbone of the nation’s steel industry and “an area with not just low but no employment.” She credits her mother with putting her in a program that enabled her to go to college. She had to maintain a 3.0 grade point average and spend every summer in school from sixth grade through high school. “You can enjoy summers after college,” her mother told her. Through the program, she earned a full scholarship to Ohio State University. Without it, her family could never have afforded college.

After college, Hardy went on to complete a Master of Urban and Regional Planning from the State University of New York at Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning. In her professional life, whether in private business or in government, Hardy has focused on public service.

Before she was appointed as DEED Commissioner in April, Hardy served as Deputy Chief of Staff in Governor Mark Dayton’s office.

Awakened to the screams

As DEED Commissioner, Hardy believes that Minnesota has awakened to the screams of the communities of color left behind and left out of “one of the best economies in the country.” She describes DEED’s work as focusing on economic equity for all people by providing access to careers and to “that dream, that possibility of owning a business, being able to support a family and community.”

Hardy says the legislature has charged DEED with making investments that benefit the most vulnerable Minnesotans in urban and rural communities. “The pathway forward is not straight,” she acknowledges. “Each community and each family is different.” DEED has a dual focus of workforce development and business development. Pathways to Prosperity, for example, is a DEED program focused on providing economic opportunity to veterans, people with disabilities, and people from racial and ethnic communities with high unemployment.

“We have data coming out of our ears,” she says, “and it’s telling us where we need to focus and invest, being thoughtful about communities, [and recognizing that] what we do in Bemidji may not be the same as what we do on the east side of St. Paul.”

Foundation and faith

Hardy’s passion for public policy comes, she says, from “my faith and my foundation. My family has a very strong faith and when you have that faith, even if it’s just the size of a mustard seed, you can be part of the change.” Growing up in an impoverished community, she thinks about “those statistics that should have knocked me out of sitting in this seat.” That foundation taught her to “prioritize work on things that are going to be a change,” she says.

Hardy says her mother is “one tough cookie” and one of her heroes. Though her mother never graduated from high school, she pushed Shawntera and her siblings to get an education. Her mother found “my aunties and her ‘board of directors’ to surround me when she didn’t know and couldn’t help me with my homework.” Hardy’s own personal board of directors includes people who support her and urge her forward. In turn, she says, “I know my work is done when I have taken the time to mentor someone who looks like me.”

Shirley Chisholm, the first black and one of the first female presidential candidates, is another of her personal heroes. “When I was told I was the first African-American woman to sit in this seat,” Hardy says, “I think about her and that courage.” Hardy is inspired by Chisholm’s “ability to be unapologetic about who she was and who she wanted to work on behalf of.” She quotes one of Chisholm’s favorite sayings: “Service is the rent that you pay for your room on this earth.” For Shawntera Hardy, her own public service is “just paying my rent.”

A notable career path

Shawntera Hardy has also worked for HealthPartners, the City of St. Paul, Fresh Energy, and the Ohio House of Representatives. As a city planner for St. Paul, she worked to bring people together for development of the Central Corridor along University Avenue. She represented the city on the Transit for Livable Communities Bicycle-Walk Advisory Committee. She also founded or co-founded two private companies, Civic Eagle and PolicyGrounds Consulting.

Check out: – a project that Hardy co-founded, which uses an app to foster civic engagement, connecting citizens with each other and with policymakers.