Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, Marki Lemons-Ryhal was considered “Black royalty.” Her family owned the city’s second-oldest Black-owned restaurant, and her grandfather was an inductee into the Barbecue Hall of Fame. Despite Chicago’s well-documented segregation, Lemons-Ryhal, a broker, author and real estate speaker, says her early experience was that her status within the Black community offered her safety.
It wasn’t until her study abroad experience in Reykjavik, Iceland, that Lemons-Ryhal recognized the importance of diversity. “My Icelandic family loved me as if they birthed me,” she recalls. “Living in Iceland changed my heart. It showed me how to feel unconditional love for a person outside their color.” At a session Saturday during NAR NXT, The REALTOR® Experience in Orlando, Fla., Lemons-Ryhal shared insights on how real estate leaders can be more intentional and inclusive in their business.
- Ask explicitly for help and money. During national unrest following the 2020 murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Lemons-Ryhal posted an emotional plea for funds that would benefit The 77, which is the Chicago Association of REALTORS®’ Diversity Committee. The post went viral, garnering more than 50,000 views and $88,000 in donations. Lemons-Ryhal noted that the post was out of character for her, but she also knew that “closed mouths don’t get fed.” She recognized that she was in a unique position to use her platform and ask for what her community needed.
- Coordinate with someone who can do the work. It’s equally important to know when you aren’t the best person for the job, Lemons-Ryhal said. For example, if you don’t speak Spanish, you may not be the right person to represent your brokerage when engaging the Hispanic community. “Become the coordinator,” she recommended. “Invite a bilingual lender and REALTOR® to speak on the changes in the industry.” It’s a win-win, Lemons-Ryhal said, to show that you’re an inclusive organization that values all voices while also building referrals to the fastest-growing market of home buyers in the country.
- Offer accessible experiences. When her brokerage offered a private screening of “Punch 9 for Harold Washington,” a film about the first Black mayor of Chicago, Lemons-Ryhal noted that her company rented separate theaters near their two offices. “It was the same experience in two different locations. By giving everyone the same experience, we made sure no one was missing out,” she said.
- Consider diversity outside of race. Lemons-Ryhal noted that while most continue to think of diversity in terms of race, it’s equally important to consider people with disabilities, those who are from different cultures and religions, and those who identify as LGBTQ, among others. You may need to learn and use new terms. (Lemons-Ryhal said she recently called her niece to ask what it meant to be “poly-pan,” a term she first heard from her barber.) To be truly inclusive, “we need to be OK with everything,” she said.
- Ask about institutional support. One audience member at the session shared that she joined her association’s diversity, equity and inclusion committee, but efforts fizzled out after a few meetings. She asked Lemons-Ryhal for advice on how to proceed. “Go to leadership,” Lemons-Ryhal responded. “You want to know what is the strategic plan of the association and if they are going to support that effort.” She also advised that DEI committees survey members about what is important to them or what is missing from the association’s output. This ensures that the goals are framed around member input rather than assumptions or anecdotes.