Real (Estate) Talk: What is Diversity Without Inclusion, Equity, or Justice? "Sit Still and Make Us Look Pretty"

Excerpt from How to Be an Anti-Racist Real Estate Pro and featured in my monthly Inman News column on Race and Real Estate as Part 1 and Part 2.

After George Floyd's recorded and televised murder, I (like many) was appalled, devastated, and disillusioned. However, after a few months, I got wind that my area's local association -- the Atlanta REALTORS® Association -- had started a Diversity & Inclusion Council. Wow! I had this warm feeling that this moment would be perhaps another historic turning point in the South, particularly among REALTORS®.

Yes, we know that social diversification (really all forms of change) can be uncomfortable in the early stages. But, cognitive performance, innovation, and bottom-lines improve in the long-run so diversity is not the dirty word some think. A true culture of diversity really can be the gravy train with the right recipe. But a culture of diversity does not stand alone. It is actually a composite of several essential ingredients. Like your favorite recipe, if something is missing from the diversity recipe, you start to see everyone frowning and pushing away from the table in disgust.

Plus, this association is in a community where the demographics in the majority (Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC)) are not proportionally represented in this association's leadership, making a call for diversity long overdue.


Words of the Day Our Lifetime

Before continuing this story, let's define some key terms according to my book learnings from the University of Michigan (Go Blue! Hail Yes!). Notably, these terms are in order of importance and effectiveness in creating a culture of diversity that is not sheer pandemonium:
1. Growth Mindset -- yes, we get better with time like fine wine here a.k.a. when we transform the meaning of effort and difficulty, people can learn and improve here.

2. Inclusion -- yes, we are all one of the 'cool kids' here a.k.a. people feel a sense of belonging AND can express themselves here.

3. Diversity -- yes, our doors are open and glass ceilings don't exist here a.k.a. any difference that can make a difference is welcomed here including but not limited to race, ethnicity, nationality, educational attainment, tertiary institution, professional expertise, tenure, age, disability and health status, sexual orientation, family status, career and parental status, employment status (full time, part-time, flexible working), immigration status, faith, veteran status, English proficiency, languages spoken, etc.

4. Equity -- yes, each person can eat as much or as little as needed from our 'buffet' a.k.a. fairness and justice in structures and systems.

Importantly, notice that diversity is most effective as an organizational objective after a mindset shift from fixed (nothing will change; 'old dogs' can't learn new tricks, why bother?) to growth (we get better with time like a fine wine) has occurred

Diversity also comes after there is a genuine cultural transformation of belonging that prioritizes everyone being seen and heard as one's authentic self (instead of conformity for the sake of uniformity). In short, diversity before inclusion says, Let the revolving door commence and get ready for a sky-high turnover rate of dynamic members.  

Last but not least, equity is the anchor of this relay team or the icing on the cake (to stay with my recipe analogy). A willingness to grow, the inclusion of all voices, and a diversity of experiences, identities, and views are prerequisites to catching areas that are lopsided in order to faithfully maximize institutional equity (fairness and justice). It takes this full recipe for diversity to stop being a seemingly ill-advised, dirty word that instead our group's embrace, eat, and hopefully crave seconds.






Since this order of lifelong key terms is vital, see if you can catch where it is lacking in the ensuing story.


How It Started

For the first two meetings, I excitedly signed into Zoom ready to meet with this newly minted council. This diverse group consisted of real estate pros with professional-level experience in and passion for justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion (J.E.D.I.) work. Yes!, I secretly cheered to myself because it felt like a new day was indeed dawning.

During the initial meetings, I noticed that psychological safety was lacking due to the tone and power over stance that was taken by some. Conventional wisdom affirms that with a team of volunteers, you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar as my fellow Southerners will coo. Thus, expressing power with in an emotionally intelligent way is critical to maintaining the momentum volunteers crave and thrive from when engaged.

Which of our key terms was lacking or out of order?

Being the type of person I am, I spoke up outside of the meeting to not add any further injury to the group's enthusiasm. I was heard by the association's staff and the council chair. Yes! A good faith showing that the quest for belonging and expressing ourselves (inclusion) and fairness (equity) was likely legit.


How It's Going

Cue horror movie music.

This month, at the start of Black History Month (which for me meant my hopes were soaring high), the council met again. This time the meeting had more than those that had self-proclaimed a commitment to J.E.D.I. work. This time the meeting included representatives (mostly the vice-chairs, mostly men, and mostly white) from other committees, that did not explicitly share nor deny their enthusiasm with J.E.D.I. efforts. Rather, they shared their attendance was a new responsibility to sit in on this council.

It is important to note here that J.E.D.I. work is most effective -- creating the desired, productive climate -- when it is compelling, not mandatory. I am sure you can likely relate. How do you feel and what are the results when you want to do something versus when you are being told to do it (voluntold is what we call it in the non-profit sector)? The latter scenario usually does not go as well as the former. Cue horror movie music getting louder.

During this Zoom video meeting, genuine concerns were raised surrounding how the association would implement J.E.D.I. initiatives. For example, a point was raised on how saying a Christian prayer at the start of meetings excludes those of other faiths.

After about 30 - 40 minutes of dialogue, one of the new attendees interjected. How do we know that this is even an issue? expressed the white male regarding diversity and inclusion. Of the other new attendees present, there were several head nods and mmm-hmmms that I noticed.

Did you notice the metacommunication? Which of our key terms was lacking or out of order?

Let's pause for the cause. Have you ever poured your heart out and shared an experience that either happened to you or someone you know only to have the person that you thought was listening say, Huh? What did you say? How did that make you feel?

That feeling describes how this meeting at that moment felt to me. It would have been one thing to inquire about the state of the association at the start of our group discussion before anyone had shared their experiences. But to hear the concerns of differing religions, races, genders, and sexual orientations for 30 - 40 minutes and then ask if there is even a problem, undermines our earlier definitions of a growth mindset, diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Here is how this metacommunication can be narrated:

This new attendee’s question -- even if unintentionally -- ignored and erased each of the voices that just spoke for 30 - 40 minutes, rendering them invisible.

This new attendee's question revealed he was (is) having a different experience than others and was unable to empathetically step into their shoes after 30 - 40 minutes of dialogue.

This new attendee's question felt dismissive to both the experiences and needs of the council members and the members within this local association for whom the council members were speaking on behalf for 30 - 40 minutes.

This new attendee's question ultimately revealed a life of not having to consciously navigate all of the aforementioned challenges; and, thereby, not having to live a life consumed with their implications or finding methods to mitigate them like those that spoke for 30 - 40 minutes.

All-in-all, this new attendee’s question embodied a living, breathing, real-time example of why this particular local association is not yet (it still can be) a beacon of belonging and why robust J.E.D.I. work is essential.

To add fuel to this inferno, this association had previously conducted membership focus groups, surveying those that did not feel a sense of belonging among this local association. This information is also available, making such a question -- again, with anecdotes AND research data accessible -- feel like a slap in the face of diversity and inclusion, which this council was designed to champion -- it is literally in the name.

Conversely, how can our association leadership (and perhaps in your case, your realty firm) begin to be J.E.D.I. meta-communicators?

Growing in diversity and inclusion means that you learn to listen to what people have to say, that are different from you, with the filter, ‘They are speaking from an experience and perspective that is not my own.’ --Terence Lester, Diversity Scholar and Minister

In spite of all of that, as a trained J.E.D.I. worker, I wanted to tap into my empathy muscles for the new attendees: I understand how if you are currently happily in love, you don't quite get what's going on with those that are not experiencing the same degree of euphoric amore. So I bit the bait. I spoke up and, due to a lack of time, shared just one diminishing and exclusionary experience that I personally had as a Black person and as a woman during one of my times as a committee chair within this particular association. This was at the end of the meeting. I received a few direct messages in the Zoom chat from the original members thanking me for being vulnerable. Then, it was time to hop off. I felt heard but perhaps not empathetically understood based on the number of furrowed brows of some of the new attendees.

Two days later, I heard from the council's chair, a Black woman that had been award by this association just weeks before the Five Star Circle of Service Award (one of its highest honors to bestow). She shared that she had decided to step down (cue the revolving door). What? Why? I cried out as if the knife in the horror movie had been plunged into my unsuspecting and naive back.

To sum it up, she tells me that the new attendees (specifically the one that questioned if a lack of diversity and inclusion are even problems) reported the meeting. From there, the association conveyed to the chairwoman that these meetings were really just to execute the pre-set agenda already decided upon by the board of directors. In essence, this attempt at a discreet rebuke amounted to sit still and make us look pretty.

Which of our key terms was lacking or out of order?

I exhaled deeply while sadness enveloped me, hearing and acknowledging these words. Is this really happening? Is this council just for show? Why do they have us wasting our time IN A PANDEMIC if they don't really want our input? I pondered.

Cue the crescendo of the horror music.


'It Was All a Dream, I Used to Read Word Up! Magazine'

One of the written, association-approved tenets of this council is: to continually review the Association for systemic racism and discrimination issues that hold back, and/or discourage diverse leadership and membership. That is the stated intent but the actual impact is far from this, particularly when this very council's input was being discouraged.



Well, how does this review properly happen if the council is told, in so many words, to just do as you're told and to be seen not heard? (Sorry if those statements trigger any of your inner child wounds.) You probably know the answer to that -- it does not happen. Instead, the status quo continues. This is fake inclusion a.k.a. tokenism.

On its face, the association can say, Look at us. We are so committed to diversity and inclusion that we have a council so named. But if you whip out a magnifying glass, it is glaringly obvious that this diversity and inclusion council as it stands today is in name only -- the real discussions will still be had by only the few in the club that frankly have ignored the depth of marginalized voices, both anecdotally and from research.

...there is a wide chasm separating those organizations doing DEI work and those that are actually valuing the DEI work being done. --Stephanie Creary, Wharton management professor

Continually. Review... Discourage. Diverse. Leadership. Currently, these are just empty words on a webpage.

Diversity invites people to the table, but inclusion empowers your voice to be heard while you're at the table. Diversity without inclusion is shallow marketing. I do not wish to sit at any tables that want my skin for marketing but not my voice for truth and perspective.  --Terence Lester, Diversity Scholar and Minister

I was extremely disappointed. I did not knowingly sign up for and will not placate this game of charades. I am calling it out. Because with J.E.D.I. work, we have to cultivate a culture of intervention and accountability. Gone should be the days to go along just to get along (complicity) when the impact is wrong.


'You Too Can Prevent Forest Fires'

This was my experience with only one local REALTOR® association's perfunctory and performative attempt at diversity and inclusion. Thankfully, I have been privileged to be the J.E.D.I. training and coaching partner with many associations and I know this is not the atmosphere everywhere.

But wait! There is more:

I just downloaded your ebook (How to be an Anti-Racist Real Estate Pro) and it is amazing! I… am pretty skeptical of our state and national associations so we are working through different political avenues where there is already agreement that we need to change federal policies as it relates to lending and real estate practices. --S. A., Wisconsin Broker/Owner, white woman

Yeesh. So it is not just one local Southern REALTOR® association and white people see it too.

Again, this lack of justice, equity, diversity, AND inclusion is not everywhere; but, in truth, it should be nowhere.

As mentioned, there are other organizations that are working for J.E.D.I. efforts where we can focus our energy instead. One example is how Homelight and NAREB (ICYMI: National Association of Real Estate Brokers, Inc. was formed in 1947 because REALTOR® associations excluded Black real estate pros on the basis of race from joining) have teamed up to diversify the real estate industry.

One solution to increase homeownership for all underrepresented communities is to diversify the real estate pros that serve the community because over 74% of real estate pros are white with a whopping 86% of REALTORS® being white as of 2020 data. Shockingly, that’s not 50 years ago, friends, making this a disparity of not just a bygone, pre-Fair Housing Act era. For instance, the current exclusionary verbal gymnastics and lingering aftershocks of 20th-century racist policies (like redlining and community covenant restrictions; see the book, How to Be an Anti-Racist Pro for a deeper dive) have only contributed to the dismal Black homeownership rate disproportionately declining (with less than 50% being homeowners). Consequently, since the year 2000, an estimated $218 Billion has been lost in our American economy due to such racism that has derailed Black homeownership, meaning this is a problem that impacts us all. To work towards remedying this, Homelight and NAREB have partnered to increase access and opportunity to real estate education and job positions with funding and mentorships for aspiring Black pros. Thus, this is just one example of how our volunteer time can be invested elsewhere.

Yet, despite alternatives, I am sharing my experience with a local REALTOR® association because it's like going to one of my favorite chain restaurants or hotels. I am not giving up on the entire chain but I definitely want to speak to the manager at this location. Yet, this unfortunate and dated power over stance is from the manager so to speak, ugh.  

That leaves me with offering to you this as a cautionary tale when intent and actual impact do not align. My hope is to give voice to anyone that feels like, despite all of the seemingly inclusive marketing, diverse voices are actually being stifled at the association (or perhaps you have witnessed this at the realty firm) level STILL IN FREAKIN' 2021. If you can say, I've seen/felt/experienced this too, then please speak out.

The minute a person whose word means a great deal to others dares to take the open-hearted and courageous way, many others follow. -- Marian Anderson, an internationally renowned opera singer that triumphed in the face of exclusion in the U.S. simply for being a Black woman

Inclusion Index: Let’s Push for Accountability with Metrics

What gets measured, gets done! One way to speak up is to push for our associations to begin tracking an Inclusion Index (to collect pertinent member data and feelings of belonging and uniqueness within the association) that members can voluntarily elect to complete during the association's annual membership renewal period. With an Inclusion Index, subsequent J.E.D.I. goals can more easily be set, monitored, and achieved since inclusion is a foremost ingredient in our diversity recipe.


For example, I have submitted the following Inclusion Index proposal to the Atlanta REALTORS® Association’s Diversity and Inclusion Council for a vote (fingers crossed):

  •  At the time of membership renewal, along with updating address information, members can optionally checkmark the different pieces of their identity (such as race, ethnicity, nationality, educational attainment, tertiary institution, professional expertise/designations/certifications, tenure, age, disability and health status, sexual orientation, family status, career and parental status, employment status (full time, part-time, flexible working), immigration status, faith, veteran status, English proficiency, languages spoken, etc.). 

  • Additionally, members can rate (likely on a 5-point Likert scale) their feelings on inclusion with statements such as the following (which can be expanded but should not be condensed): 

    • ​As a member, I ​​am valued for ​my differences and ​my​ unique contributions​​.” 
    • ​"I sense empathy from the association's leadership."​
    • “I see people like me in association leadership.” 
    • "I feel confident that I can join this association's leadership." 

    • ​As a member, I can voice ​my opinions without fear of retribution, penalty, or rejection.” 

    • “I have confidence in my association’s grievance procedures.”

    • ​"The association's event and education programming fit my needs​ (e.g. content, time of day, diversity of speakers, convenient location, etc. with each subpoint being its own survey question)​."

    • "This association​'s membership​ reflects the surrounding community." 

    • "This association is making a difference in the surrounding community." 

    • "I feel confident that if I were to serve in this association's leadership, my viewpoint would be ​respectfully ​acknowledged and considered." 

  • Importantly, there needs to be an eye-catching instructional statement proceeding the survey that conveys how participation, although optional, can help everyone's interests be better represented and included in the association. We, as J.E.D.I. agents, may even want to campaign during renewal season at our firms and among other REALTORS® that we know to increase survey participation.

  • Finally, let’s make sure our associations publicly publish annually the Inclusion Index along with the J.E.D.I. work that the organization has been doing and any progress made. This is critical for accountability and transparency.

The difference-maker (if we have learned anything from the power of Amazon and Yelp reviews) is us speaking up and out instead of resigning ourselves to sitting still so they
-- those that outwardly vie for diversity but have not yet committed to the full recipe -- look pretty. Let's be clear, it is not about us against them but neither is it about abandoning ourselves for the sake of blind loyalty and compliance at our own expense. These associations are for the members -- all members including the underrepresented -- so every voice means a great deal. Speaking up to seek accountability for authentic justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion is what this moment requires from us all. It's everybody vs. racism/exclusion/marginalization.


Sound off - I would love to hear from you!  Give me a shout on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube, or by visiting LearnWithDrLee.com.  

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