As someone, who doesn't see myself reflected in the leaders around me, are people who look like me destined to experience similar fates? The answer is we shouldn't be, says UNSW Law & Justice alumnus.

Giancarlo de Vera MAICD (he/they) is a proud LGBTIQ+, cultural diversity and disability advocate. They currently lead policy and advocacy at People with Disability Australia and are the President of the Australian GLBTI Multicultural Council – the two national peak bodies that represent people with disability and LGBTIQ+ people from multicultural and multi-faith backgrounds. 

Giancarlo is currently the Treasurer and Secretary of the Australian Centre for Disability Law and Disabled Australian Lawyers Association respectively and was Deputy CEO of Out for Australia, a national LGBTIQ+ youth charity.

Earlier this year, Giancarlo was named amongst the 40 Under 40: Most influential Asian-Australians 2021 in the Community & Advocacy/Not for profit category. In celebration of this achievement, we’ve asked Giancarlo a few questions about their journey that led them to UNSW and their work in the LGBTIQ+ community.

How was UNSW Law & Justice able to nurture you during your studies? 

UNSW Law and Justice nurtured my passion for just social change. The way the law was taught in class, made me think about the law in context, and encouraged me to grapple with how changing social values influenced how the law was developed and justice was administered. I also made lifelong friends and colleagues at UNSW and they challenged my way of thinking for the better.

The values UNSW Law & Justice instilled in me were also particularly nurtured by the passionate staff at the school. From the school’s receptionist (I miss my long chats with Catherine Mastrogiacomo and Priscilla Dunn) to my law lecturers and supervisors (who at times even had to put me in my place: I recall a particular conversation with Associate Professor Dr Cathy Sherry, who had a one-on-one conversation with me about the value of education). However, the most important staff member that nurtured me was Professor David Dixon, who was the Dean of the law school during my time as a student. 

David’s door was always open, and I often found myself coming to him with some new initiative I wanted UNSW to support when I was Vice-President of the UNSW Law Society. Sometimes the ask was getting the law school to fund economically disadvantaged UNSW law students to attend a law and social justice conference I created with some friends from University of Sydney. Sometimes it was to ask if I could have UNSW’s support to host a policy fellowship in the UNSW law school boardroom so university students could be involved in real-life policy development. Sometimes it was personal as I battled poor mental health.

David never shut his door, and was probably too generous with his guidance, support, and wisdom. But I was truly grateful that he was there. Perhaps, without David knowing it at the time, his support nurtured my future career as he gave me the gift of possibility and awe. Nothing I asked, or envisioned, was never too much, and this started a fire in my belly to get my hands dirty and not shy away from something I believed in, especially when the path was less trodden.

Tell us about your professional journey since graduating from UNSW Law & Justice

Since graduating in 2015, my professional journey has been a long and winding one.

Towards the end of my law degree, I was lucky to move to New York, where I was part of a team that developed the legal basis for the UN Security Council to refer Myanmar to the International Criminal Court. When that failed, it shot every long-held dream I had about working in international affairs, law and diplomacy because I realised it wasn't how I wanted to achieve change in the world.

So immediately upon graduation, I took an internship (which then became a job) at Ogilvy & Mather and gave brand strategy and the advertising world a go. But I soon realised that advertising made my underlying mental health conditions flare-up. I needed to get out for my own health and safety, as I began a personal journey of living with mental health conditions that I now call psychosocial disability. I needed jobs that supported me to be healthy, and that wasn't easy especially when post-graduation life can be some of the most gruelling professional years of one's career.  I ended up taking a whole year off just so I could adjust to a new life-long medication regime. 

I supported my health by focusing on jobs that enriched me and gave me the time and space I needed to come to live with my disability. After my year off, I eased back into part-time work until I could work full-time again, and in the process, I worked in LGBTIQ+ advocacy and law reform, drove the political campaign that led to the creation of the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry, and helped start-up and eventually lead a national charity called Out for Australia, that supports LGBTQI+ young people be their authentic selves in the workplace. This whole transition process ended up taking 4-5 years, as I learned through trial and error what worked and what didn't work for my psychosocial disability. 

Eventually, I found my rhythm and was lucky enough to find myself a full-time job at PWDA, where I head up policy and advocacy on all policy areas that relate to people with disability. Working at PWDA has allowed me to find my disability community, as well as work through my ingrained ableism.

Here at PWDA, I connected to the disability rights justice movement, and reconnected with so many people from UNSW law, including a year 12 student that I met and convinced to study law at UNSW, as well as former teachers like Rosemary Kayess who taught me discrimination law, who is now a colleague and Chair of the UN Committee on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability. 

I'm passionate about improving the visibility of disabled lawyers and students in the legal profession, and so I sit on the Board of, and hold the office of Treasurer at the Australian Centre of Disability Law and have become the inaugural Secretary of a newly formed organisation called the Disabled Australian Lawyers Association. On top of leading policy at PWDA, I also remain very active in the LGBTIQ+ community, where I am now the President of the Australian GBLTI Multicultural Council, the national peak body that represents LGBTQI+ people from multicultural and multifaith backgrounds like myself. 

I feel so incredibly lucky to be doing what I am doing. Being named one of the 40 Under 40 Most Influential Asian-Australians this year confirms to me that I am on the right path after spending years searching for it. I'm looking forward to developing a career where I can demonstrate that being your authentic self, is the leadership style you need to succeed. I also look forward to a career contributing to the movement to promote and protect the human rights of LGBTIQ+ and disabled people.

Can you explain the importance of culturally diverse leaders now and into the future and what change is required to be more comfortable with different styles of leadership?

The lack of cultural diversity is a problem in every single institution in Australia. Some would argue that it would take time or undermine meritocracy. But when we compare our parliaments, our boardrooms, and even the people we see on TV, we don't see the cultural diversity we see every day reflected in our institutions. 

If we take the Commonwealth judiciary and executive arm of government as an example, not one Chief Justice or Attorney-General has been a person from a non-European and/or non-Anglo-Celtic background. Compare that to a similar jurisdiction, the Californian legal system is the largest one in the United States, and both the current Attorney-General and Chief Justice are non-European (specifically Asian-Americans), with the former being a first-generation migrant born outside of the US.

As the former High Court Justice, The Hon. Michael McHugh AC QC, once said in a 2004 speech, "when a court is socially and culturally homogenous, it is less likely to command public confidence in the impartiality of the institution". So, if not for cultural bias towards Anglo-Celtic and European Australians, would Australia be able to imagine its institutions reflecting the society it serves?  

A 2016 blueprint released by the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) highlighted that less than five per cent of ASX 200 CEOs came from non-European backgrounds, less than four per cent of Australia's Parliament were non-European, less than two per cent of the Federal and state public service (secretaries and heads of departments) were non-European and zero per cent of university vice-chancellors were of non-European backgrounds. Clearly, the visibility and representation of culturally diverse leaders is an issue. 

As someone, who doesn't see myself reflected in the leaders around me, are people who look like me destined to experience similar fates? The answer is we shouldn't be. The importance of culturally diverse leaders is to demonstrate and showcase different styles of leadership. Culture impacts how one leads, and we should be championing everyone to find the leadership style that suits them, so they can lead from a place of authenticity. We shouldn't be trying to force our leaders to fit a particular mould, and instead, we should be creating leaders who are fierce and proud of their difference, so we can tackle issues with diverse perspectives to innovate solutions. 

The Australian Human Rights Commission blueprint also suggested that to change things for the future, and for us to celebrate unique and different leadership styles, a change in leadership, both systemic and cultural, are needed. Where there is a commitment from the top, others will follow. However, this commitment must be backed up by sustaining a movement that requires embedding new thinking in policies, processes and/or structures. It demands attention to the behaviours and attitudes of everyone to allow cultural diversity to flourish.