Harris serves as state’s first LGBTQ consumer advocate
Afraid of jeopardizing future job prospects, Shenika “Nik” Harris, Florida’s first LGBTQ consumer advocate, remained closeted through Florida State University law school.
But Harris, a graduate of the Bar’s Leadership Academy, has seen such a positive shift in attitude in recent years, she’s not sure it would be necessary today.
“I felt some concerns, could I have the same career if I came out?” she said. “What I will say about that is, boy have times changed.”
Since Harris graduated FSU law school in 2004, the veteran government lawyer has been consulted by some of the nation’s largest law firms as they strive to recruit a more diverse workforce and to create a more LGBTQ-friendly work environment.
“We do have a workplace that’s changing,” she said. “That’s not to say there’s still not a lot of work to do, but we are now at a place where people say, ‘show up and be yourself,’ and we have to honor that.”
Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried signaled a major cultural shift in 2019 when she appointed Harris to be the highest-ranking government official in Florida with an LGBTQ portfolio.
“Today is a new day in our state,” Fried said. “We’re building a department that represents all Floridians, and it’s paramount that LGBTQ Floridians have a voice in defending their safety, economic security, and well-being.”
Harris considers it the luckiest day of her life.
“I still have to pinch myself,” Harris said. “I wake up and my mission is to help people and to carry a message about equality. There is no better job.”
Harris spent the previous 10 years as a government lawyer with the Florida Department of Transportation, most recently as senior attorney. The job entailed negotiating, drafting and reviewing contracts, intergovernmental agreements, permits, and more.
But Harris said the most enjoyable part of the job was helping people.
“You know why I stayed the whole time? I’m a people person,” Harris said. “We would go after people who damaged state property, but a lot of times, we would pay out claims for damages that we caused.”
Before FDOT, Harris worked at the Florida Department of Health as a medical licensing board prosecutor. The best part of that job, Harris said, was helping caregivers put their lives back together.
“Most of our cases involved substance abuse, nurses taking medications,” Harris said. “We had to figure out how to help people whose job it is to help people.”
When she wasn’t working for taxpayers, Harris built a reputation working on political campaigns or with the Human Rights Campaign and Equality Florida.
Part of that advocacy included serving on the Bar’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee, a post Harris never would have considered if she hadn’t participated in the Bar’s Leadership Academy.
“I would have never thought I was the kind of person that they were looking for to be on that committee,” Harris said. “Oh, my goodness, that program changed my life.”
Harris stays in regular contact with her 40 classmates, one of whom — Harold Fernandez Pryor — just made history when he was the first Black man to be elected state attorney in Broward County.
Harris was delighted this summer when former President John Stewart launched the Florida Lawyers Helpline (833-FL1-Well). President Dori Foster-Morales has been a champion of mental health and wellness in the legal profession, and it was the theme of Harris’ Leadership Academy class. The Bar’s recent emphasis on the issue, as well as diversity and inclusion, are encouraging, Harris said.
“I think they get it, there’s work to be done, they acknowledge it, and they’re surely on the right track with their programs.”
Progress in the legal profession, as with society in general, is usually incremental, Harris said.
Recently, all 4,000 Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services employees were given the option to use gendered pronouns in their official business cards and standard email identification.
Harris campaigned for the change after an IT technician, responding to an email request for assistance from “Nik Harris,” repeatedly referred to Harris as “him.”
“It may seem small to others, but it’s not small to have your identity questioned day in and day out,” Harris said.
The LGBTQ community, women, and people of color still have a long way to go before they are fairly represented at all levels of the legal profession, Harris said.
“Of course, we can always have more representation from marginalized communities, black, brown, religious affiliations, women, non-binary, transgender members of our community,” she said.