While she and other white allies were painting an outdoor mural the summer of George Floyd’s murder, Lansing resident Emily Dievendorf was hit head on by a white supremacist on a motorcycle. In that moment something became painfully clear to the Democratic candidate for Michigan’s 77th State House District: the need for safe spaces and spaces of learning and connection in her community. So Dievendorf sold her house and, with a friend, opened a nonprofit bookstore, The Resistance, near the Michigan Capitol building dedicated to social justice and movement building.
“As a civil rights advocate and somebody who works on how all these issues come together, I knew that there was a need for all to work on our own biases," Dievendorf told Pride Source. "The dialogue between us was necessary. I had never had any money, and I've always been fine with that. So when I sold my house, I had money for the first time ever in my life, and I shifted from owning a house to renting and decided to put that money into a space that I saw available in a historic building.”
Now the bookstore is a place where individuals of all ages impacted by oppression can find accurate histories and representation of their own stories.
Dievendorf didn’t predict that running for state House would be part of her own story. As a matter of fact, she said “never again” after an unsuccessful bid for city council in 2015. Despite that, she is again responding to a call from her community.
“I entered the race late,” said Dievendorf, who announced her run in March, “after learning that the two folks who had already entered the race had not been in the community very long at all.” Dievendorf has lived in Lansing since age 18. “It was important to me that there be somebody in the race who had been working on the ground alongside our most vulnerable communities, and that was wanting to represent the community — not as ‘a voice for the community,' but committed to working in collaboration with our communities most impacted by oppression to develop solutions.”
True to the grassroots approach that led to her surprising 25-vote win in the primary election — despite being outspent by nearly five to one and lacking the support of Lansing insiders — Dievendorf is relying on future constituents’ input to shape the agenda for the district.
“My main priorities, as determined by the folks in my own community, focus around very basic needs, but are also incredibly justice-oriented,” Dievendorf said. “What I have noticed is that people still don't have access to a living wage; people still don't have access to housing; people still don't have access to safety.”
Dievendorf also believes in overhauling the justice system, which she points out still houses many people for marijuana-related crimes that are now no longer prosecuted after legalization legislation has gone into effect. She is likewise concerned with the lack of parameters for excessive force used by police officers.
“There is so much room for a justice and accountability lens in public policy,” Dievendorf said, “and I think that if we start to look at every level of how we draft policy, that equity will naturally fall into place.”
At 43, Dievendorf has a proven record in the state of Michigan as a champion for social justice, evidenced by her public policy work for Equality Michigan and the Lansing Association of Human Rights (LAHR). She gleaned early experience working for two representatives in the state legislature, which together with work in the nonprofit sector suggests Dievendorf is particularly savvy when it comes to Lansing politics. Viewing it from both sides, she would like to see a shift in the Democratic Party, too.
“Being a more progressive candidate is already something that is distinguishing me,” said Dievendorf, who has worked bills through the House and Senate and who has stopped negative legislation. “Being a more progressive candidate and legislator that understands how the system works is going to help all of us who want to make a difference for those who are vulnerable in Michigan. And that means ensuring that the Democratic Party can strategically become more progressive over time as well, and ideally, sooner is better. It is not going to be a comfortable change for everybody. But it's the necessary change.”
Dievendorf herself would represent a change, as Michigan’s first nonbinary state representative. And like any trailblazer, she has experienced bumps and road blocks along the way, experiences she said were expected.
“It's of course something that happens from our friends and colleagues in ways that they don't know,” Dievendorf said, in reference to homophobia and transphobia, “and also from those folks that have visceral reactions to us in open, hateful ways. It is the world. Prior to winning the primary, these reactions were coming out in the form of stereotypes and assumptions and rumors.”
From experience, Dievendorf said she’s learned when it’s best to have a conversation in the face of hate and when that will only further the negativity. She called it frustrating and hurtful. As a public figure, Dievendorf said she’s been receiving hate mail for 20 years. And while sometimes she tells people it doesn’t faze her, “you know it fazes you,” she said.
For that reason, Dievendorf said the queer community needs to support one another. More than anything, she believes queer voices are vital.
“It is necessary that we as queer, LGBTQIA folks are there representing Michigan — because we are Michigan. We have to be the ones to create our own policy, to create the policy related to the issues that impact us. But also, Michigan residents need to be able to see us and know that we exist. They need to know us as neighbors and friends, and our colleagues need to know us, because that is a huge part of people getting past their own biases.”
Dievendorf said it is especially risky at this time for LGBTQ+ candidates due to the ways hate is so openly and proudly expressed. But, she said, she and others knew what they were stepping into. Dievendorf has her eyes focused on the needs of her community.
“We were stepping into making change for our communities and other communities impacted by bias. But also we were moving into positions where we were going to be set up and almost displayed and available for those folks who don't like anybody like us — and yet also for them to get to know us better as human beings. And over time, that can make a huge difference for the better. It can also be very dangerous to us. On a whole though, it can make an incredible difference because it can lead to life-changing public policy.”
The work can be intense, but for Dievendorf, it’s not politics 24/7. Her hobbies are many and varied. She’s proud to be “a huge science nerd” who owns several digital microscopes. As a budding entomologist, Dievendorf has a particular interest in cicadas. She does animal rehabilitation. Skateboarding. Longboarding. And of course, there are her books.
“Yeah, I am somebody who is curious about everything,” Dievendorf confessed. “I own a bookstore, so I read about everything. There are stacks of books on every surface in my house. My great grandma, who is not with us anymore, was a socialist. I remember when I was a little kid, her house was full of stacked books — even in the fireplace — and as a little kid, I was like, ‘Yes, this is my person.’”
The 77th State House District includes the city of Lansing north of the Grand River as well as parts of southern Clinton County and a small part of Eaton County. Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 8. Early voting begins Thursday, Sept. 29.