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Derrick De Vera's Leadership Tomorrow 2019 Commencement Speech

July 10, 2019


Good evening. My name is Derrick De Vera. To all of our guests, alumni, family, colleagues, and friends, hello & welcome. And most of all, hello to my fellow Leadership Tomorrow (LT) 2019 Classmates. We did it! I'm grateful for this opportunity to share some thoughts with all of you, along with my co-speaker, Dr. Terri Hackett.

From the bottom of my heart, thank you to my class for voting me…one of the Best Leaders of All Time. That’s what I told my parents. So please just go with it.

Speaking of which. They are here. Along with family that were forced to come. True Ohana. Sincerely, my parents love graduations. As Filipino immigrants, they take great pride in what graduations represent. Making the courageous journey from the Philippines in the 1980s to build a home, family, and future here in Seattle. (It’s also their 30th Wedding Anniversary).

So that makes me, a PROUD Filipino-American, born and raised in Seattle. A product of Seattle Public Schools. A graduate of the UW twice. Receiving a bachelors and law degree. I am a lawyer—first one in my family—and practice at a private law firm called Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt. I also have a kind heart. And I love people.

That’s my usual story in 61 words. It’s an approachable introduction. Showcasing a disarming narrative of hard work, desire for credibility, and feel-good warmth. I’ve reflected during my Leadership Tomorrow experience on why I share my story the way I do. At a deeper level, I think I’m asking myself  “does my story belong?” (Do I belong?)

That’s been an underlying principle this year. While I can’t adequately summarize 80 different LT experiences, or distill the leadership journeys of those we heard from or interviewed…in one way or another I think we’ve all pondered that question of belonging. Not just for us, but as leaders that impact the lives of so many others whether we realize that or not.

How do we cultivate belonging?

There’s been books written on this very human need. Articles, upon articles. I’m sure there’s a podcast out there. But here’s what I think: I think sustaining a feeling of belonging in you, and in others requires…TRUST. Sounds simple.

It is both a leap-of-faith concept and one that must be nurtured with intention and care.

The concept of trust came up in different challenge days, in caucus meetings, in seeking a common language on race, our own lab groups, hashtag-lab-six-is-the-best led by Coach Jen. When I think of trust, I also think of Paulina Lopez and the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition & Estela Ortega from El Centro de la Raza and their efforts in building community, and people-centered power with different stakeholders.  

It’s clear fostering trust is not an overnight process. It’s not easy. Paulina & Estela also show that we ALL benefit when we have women & women of color in leadership positions…It is not a zero-sum game when we uplift them & others into positions of power. Let’s collectively embrace that “representation matters.” It matters at both the individual AND institutional level.

Candidly, it is easier to connect w/ someone that looks like you, has a similar lived experience, or some other shared affinity. Yes, AND my classmates have helped me gain more clarity that trust and belonging isn’t just about commonality.

I’ve learned to build trust and belonging by being more fearless, open, and vulnerable about who I AM. That its more than okay to show up FULLY. In fact, there is great influence in that.

So, let me…model the way for you. Here are OTHER parts of my story:   

  • I have deep insecurities about my career, about whether I’m taken seriously enough as a young person of color in an industry that is predominantly white.
  • I also wish that I could be more direct and challenge authority instead of always worrying about team harmony first.  
  • Another piece of my story is, I go to therapy…and want to normalize conversations around mental health, particularly as a man of color.
  • Finally, I also love my fellow LT classmate, Kayla DeMonte. This has been a transformative journey doing LT with you.
    • To be clear, we were dating before we both applied. This is my 1st time publically professing my love, though…

Now, I just expressed a ton more intimate and vulnerable pieces of my story. It feels like a huge hippopotamus is on my chest. But by sharing that, do you trust me more? That’s more rhetorical, because either way, LT has inspired me to show up with more courage, even in the smallest of moments, every single day.

I’m better able to, because my fellow leaders did the exact same:

  • Stories of stepping outside of their comfort zone to hold a classmate accountable on implicit bias.
  • Examples of taking a huge leap into a new career. Or even just finally having a community to vent about hard issues that come up at work.
  • Stories of wanting more out of LT facilitation & programming and pushing hard for change, and still pushing, because we must lead with urgency and be better.    
  • Moments as a parent in standing up at your child’s school to address complex racial equity issues. More broadly, thinking about parenting w/this lens.
  • Stories of feeling anxious to speak up immediately for fear of being “wrong” when sometimes you just need a few more seconds to reflect.
  • Stories of maybe deciding to run for office, in King County, For King County Council, District 2. Inspiring shared visions from my guy, Girmay Zahilay. I encourage our hearts to exercise our civic muscles on Aug. 6th and hopefully we’ll pop some champagne come Nov. 5th.

There is also one common story that I want to emphasize—so many of us have expressed this desire to continue to build relationships with one another. That we’ve only really scratched the surface on what this LT experience is.

Before I pass the mic to Dr. Terri about what we should do next, I want to leave with one final challenge:

That we should be thinking more expansively—not just about our LT experience—but about how we show up for one another and for ourselves. Let’s think about what belonging may or may not feel like for others that do not share OUR own personal lived experience. Every day, let’s be more self-aware and kind, let’s show more grace and admit when we’re wrong. AND do more internal work for ourselves. And then do MORE.

Let’s commit to continued connection. Whether through coffee meetings, alumni happy hours, spaghetti dinners, karaoke nights. Let’s keep conversations going. Be okay sending an email five months from now wanting to re-connect. Reach out again, even if you don’t get an immediate response.

Let’s move beyond those feelings of “I missed out” or that its too late for anything meaningful. It’s never too late. We are not behind schedule. There is no deadline for building relationships or seeking belonging. Let’s do it today, tomorrow, and the tomorrow after that.

Thank you for letting me feel like I belong. That ALL of me does. I do not take that for granted. And I do not take for granted that we as leaders of this region should try to cultivate that feeling of belonging wherever we go. I commit to that. Thank you very much.