Leadership Network member a voice for 'third-culture kids'

The impact of COVID-19 has forced leadership network member Guled Mire to take up his Fulbright scholarship at New York's Cornell University remotely. A former refugee, Guled knows better than most that “life can basically flip things upside down and you just have to deal”. The well-known advocate for ethnic communities shares the turning point that shaped his personal and professional leadership journey.

Gule Mire talks about why he joined the Foundation's Leadership Network

Sometimes, it’s the littlest of things. 

Guled Mire fires off an email response to a journalist seeking an interview before realising autocorrect has changed his name to “glued”. 

It’s something he easily laughs off. 

But living in and working to change a system that doesn’t naturally work to your advantage – and, at its worst, works against you – is hard slog. 

And it’s always personal. 

Guled has overcome adversity to achieve tremendous success – he has wealth of experience working in central government policy teams based in both Wellington and Auckland. 

Fresh from university – a feat in itself for a young person who fled war-torn Somalia as a toddler, opted out of school at 16 after being told by teachers he wasn’t up to it, and chased by skinheads in a Kiwi town he should have felt safe in –  Guled’s first job had him analysing public policy and holding it up against inclusivity and diversity yardsticks.

Separating the professional from the personal was impossible, Guled says. 

“The subject matter was really very close to my lived experiences. 

“Some of my colleagues were questioning my own neutrality.” 

Two years in, he sat down with a manager for a performance review to be told he was “really great at his job” but “just too passionate”. 

Guled wonders, if his manager hadn’t been mincing their words, if they may just have said it: You’re just too black. 

It was a disheartening experience, he says. 

“Fresh from university, I was somewhat naïve and really felt like I was going to change the world. It was a major turning point in my personal and professional leadership journey.” 

At the time, he worked hard to advance his policy career; fighting the system, he saved for after he’d clocked off. 

He became a voice-piece for “third-culture kids” – children of migrants and refugees, using his own platforms to shed light on oppressive systems and structures as well as insidious racism within a country that patted itself on the back for giving anyone a chance. 

The experience led Guled to steer clear of public policy work that was too close to home – a decision he made to stay safe and sane, he says. 

Guled Mire on a stage addressing an audience about tackling discrimination, racism and prejudice

Guled: “In order for us to be able to make positive social impact and change in this country, in society generally, there needs to be both inside and outside tactics.” 

Despite the choice he made on his own leadership journey, Guled says he doesn’t want New Zealand to be a place where young, diverse Kiwis choose not to force change from within. 

“It’s a loss for our country…we’re already underrepresented in areas of public service and governance. 

“In order for us to be able to make positive social impact and change in this country, in society generally, there needs to be both inside and outside tactics.” 

People can’t turn their cultural identity on and off like a tap, he says. 

“This is what I try and get people around me to understand: I’m black, I’m Muslim, I’m a refugee and I’m a Kiwi. These are all parts of my identity that I am immensely proud of.  

“I can’t just switch it off. I can’t be like: ‘Oh, right, now I’m white, nine to five, coming to work’. It doesn’t work like that. 

“We can’t be preaching let’s be diverse and inclusive, but, yeah, at the same time keep your blackness at home.” 

There’s a tension in New Zealand between a cultural mindset of humbleness, being eternally grateful for the opportunity to call Godzone home, and challenging the status quo – and it’s a line especially difficult for migrants and refugees to navigate, Guled says. 

He struggles with it. 

“The number one thing people in the comments section, my social media trolls, people that don’t even know me say: They tell me that I’m ungrateful. It’s like there is this unofficial, unspoken rule that I, as a former refugee, black person living in this country, that I must constantly showcase my gratitude."

Guled speaking to a group alongside fellow Leadership Network member James Koudounis

In 2018 Guled attended the Leadership Network's South India Hui

Humanitarian assistance shouldn’t come with a catch, and it certainly shouldn’t stop you having an opinion, Guled says. 

Joining the Asia New Zealand Foundation Leadership Network two years ago, Guled had been hoping to glean some insider secrets. 

He says he’s impressed with the way the network harnesses the energy, skills and experiences of talented young people to better connect New Zealand with Asia and celebrate and showcase those connections. 

The diversity in New Zealand’s biggest cities rivals anywhere else in the world, but Africans, despite being an obvious visible minority, still feel so invisible, he says. 

“The Asian community, they were once at the point that we’re at.

“What can I learn from here to develop leadership skills to support and foster my own communities?” 

And in return: “Not only do I add diversity to the network, but I also bring talent and other experience that I’m able to use to enhance and help grow it. I feel like it’s important to stress this because I’m sick and tired of diversity being looked at as if it’s not talent. I’m really proud to be part of such a high calibre group of leaders.”