LANSING — Emily Dievendorf could have had some extra money for the first time in her life, after selling a house she could barely afford. Instead, she opened a bookstore in downtown Lansing — a nonprofit bookstore, no less — with the idea of creating a community center for anyone who could use a safe and helpful space for knowledge, brotherhood and activism.
Dievendorf might also have been out of this election cycle, still healing after being hit by a motorcycle during a Black Lives Matter protest two years ago.
But Dievendorf never saw a reason to be comfortable. As she saw, there was a need for someone like her as the Democratic candidate in the race for the newly drawn 77th State House district, which includes Lansing north of the Grand River, DeWitt, some of Grand Ledge, Eagle Township and Westphalia.
She had no intention of running for the seat, but felt the other candidates lacked what she had – two decades immersed in politics and activism in this community.
Dievendorf’s opponents in the August 2 77th district primary are DeWitt’s Logan Byrne and Lansing’s Jon Horford.
“I never chose a job because it was fun,” Dievendorf said. “I think civil rights, I think that’s what politics should be – I think politics is supposed to be about representation. And, for me, it’s making sure the community is in the office.
“I always say I’m an easy Google. And when you Google me, you’re going to find a lot of people who like me and a lot of people who hate me, and the people who hate me, I’m happy about that. Because these are the same people who work very hard to prevent the most vulnerable from having equality before the law.
You can get an idea of Dievendorf’s position by walking around Resistance, the bookstore and community space she and partner Fae Mitchell opened last winter on Ionia Street downtown. It’s a place built on inclusive ideas and challenging old norms. Racial justice, policing, feminism, celebrating the life and rights of people from the LGBTQ community, people with disabilities – these are some of the themes exhibited through literature and art.
“She is an advocate for LGBTQ, as well as female choice, as well as racial equity. And it’s really rare when you see these things together,” said The Shawn Erbya local activist who notably launched the Lansing chapter of the Poor People’s Campaign.
Dievendorf is someone who questions the policing of our society and advocates for LGBTQ rights — including her own — but she’s not without a full understanding of other points of view. Dievendorf, who is bisexual and non-binary, was raised in Kalamazoo in a straight Christian home, her mother a public school teacher, her father a police officer, whom she describes as “the best man I know.”
“That’s not to say we haven’t had some very difficult conversations about policing over the years,” she said.
Dievendorf arrived in the Lansing area in 1997 to attend Michigan State University, vowing she would never enter politics. But after interning in the state legislature and winning an essay award for MSU’s Institute for Public Policy and Social Research, she ended up staying in politics, working for Democrats Alexander Lipsey and Andy Coulouris. She later became a lobbyist and executive director of the civil rights group Equality Michigan, which serves the state’s LGBT community, and currently works as a civil rights and political consultant.
“It’s been extremely helpful to learn how everything works,” Dievendorf said of his time in the legislature. “And I became this person who pushes very hard and is obsessed with ethics. But also someone who knows the value of strategic work. I am extremely grateful to have a deep understanding of the legislative process. And I felt that it was important that we had someone (in racing) who was experienced, but I thought it was even more important that we had someone who had been in the area for a long time. And I’ve been in Lansing for that I am 18 years old.
Lansing in Dievendorf is a special place. A community that has something that others don’t.
“The difference I’ve seen in Lansing is people showing up,” Dievendorf said. “People are constantly showing up to grow Lansing. But not just for now. It’s for 10 years, 20 years later. In every corner of the different things that we’re trying to do – whether it’s housing, whether it’s entertainment, all the different kinds of advocacy we want to do, all the different forms of economic development, people of all ages are working for do Lansing where they see it can be, and they don’t do it for themselves. They sure appreciate it, but they work hard, and they put it where it’s going to be, maybe, when they won’t be considered cool enough to attend the party. And I admire that so much. I’ve never seen that pretty much anywhere else.
Hence the decision to put every extra penny into The Resistance.
“I’ve always been a lousy civil rights leader and never had any money,” said Dievendorf, who rents a house in north Lansing. “So it made no difference. … (I thought) maybe I’ll just pretend I never had it and invest it in something good for the community.
Contact Graham Couch at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @Graham_Couch.