REALTORS® Up Close

Every member has a story.

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Every member has a story. The REALTORS® Up Close series brings these stories to the forefront, humanizing the lives, perspectives, and accomplishments of NAR members. This inspiring digital series is designed to help real estate professionals build a deeper connection with one another through the REALTOR® brand. We encourage you to get to know your fellow NAR members and follow the #REALTORSUpClose digital series on Facebook and Instagram.

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Seeing Our Blind Spots

Michelle Walker

"Leading an office with diversity, equity and inclusion at the forefront is very powerful. It gives everyone a place where they feel safe, where they feel included, and where they feel valued. That's what's built the culture within my company. I talk about these things. I teach DEI classes in the community. Back in 2020, when we were all sheltering in place and race was on everyone's mind, I hosted a discussion titled “Real Talk: Race in Real Estate” on Clubhouse. I reached out to some real estate friends from across the country and suggested we hop on and just have a raw, candid conversation about race and real estate because people don't talk about it. My company, STL Buy & Sell, REALTORS®, recently received the Reimagining St. Louis Brokerage Award from the St. Louis REALTORS® for our support of DEI initiatives. It's related to the fair housing testing that we did in 2022. We tested our own agents, and it was very interesting. We've done quite a bit of training around that. We brought in national fair housing trainers because it's important for every agent to feel comfortable working with clients who may not look like them and who may have challenges they don't have. Seeing where our blind spots are is really helpful. That's the thing about bias, once you bring it to the forefront, it's something that you consciously think about and make an attempt to recognize. That makes all the difference in the world." – Michelle Walker

Michelle Walker, CRS, AHWD, is a U.S. Navy veteran and broker-owner of STL Buy & Sell, REALTORS®. She chaired NAR's Diversity Committee in 2021 and served as the association's REALTOR® Party Community Engagement Liaison in 2023.

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It Takes a Village

"When my sister was battling with addiction, I stepped in to be a foster parent to my niece. That was my introduction to the foster care system. I saw what was—and still is—a very broken system with a great deal of disparity in terms of treatment and support, depending on whether you were a ‘good' child, like my niece, or troubled. I was hoping to take in my sister's teen son as well. But it was very hard to reach him. He's a big reason why I created Hope House—a safe, stable and loving group home for teen boys. When it comes to the boys, I've learned that trust is the biggest layer to get past. It's important for them to know that we are coming from a genuine place, and they can show up as their authentic selves. They have an entire village of love and support to lean on. Looking back at my own journey, there were so many people, even outside of my biological family, who influenced and guided me. From my teachers to my neighbors and even my REALTOR® family. In fact, it was through my NAR membership that I learned about my county's affordable housing advisory committee, which helped me achieve my vision of developing a community with a family-centered approach for children and families at risk. If I could give one message to other REALTORS®, it's this: Remember that you are part of the village, too. Your transaction is not just a transaction; it's an opportunity for transformation, not only for those who may be your customers but for entire communities. You can help change someone's destiny." – Sandra Shank

Learn more about Sandra, a 2023 Good Neighbor Award honoree, and how she is transforming the lives of at-risk youth and families in Central Florida.

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The Business of People

“I was brought up in the Catholic Church, and there was one priest who was just different. He said Mass, but then he also drove this cool red Camaro and smoked cigarettes. He ended up introducing me to the teachings of Saint Vincent de Paul and the Vincentian mission—a theology all about serving those who are suffering and abandoned. I knew that I wanted to do the same. So, in eighth grade, I left home and I trained to be a Catholic priest for seven years. I didn’t quite end up being one, but the Vincentian philosophy has stayed with me my whole life. I’m a descendant of Irish immigrants, and I know firsthand that real estate can transform lives and entire families. Today, I make it a point through my educational work to reach out to communities that are underserved and underrepresented in commercial real estate. It’s one of my big “whys.”

I tell my students that success in commercial real estate comes down to relationships and persistence. It’s easy to get discouraged by the downturn. But truthfully, money is made when markets are declining, too. There’s opportunity out there whether it’s in your existing relationships, your database, or your investments. So, be patient enough for cycles to come back. Stay connected. Tap into the resources through the CCIM Institute. Have a vision. And always remember that this is the business of people.” —John LeTourneau


John LeTourneau, CIPS, RENE, founder of Engaged Seminars, Inc., has a passion for teaching the next generation of commercial real estate leaders. Get more of his insights in the latest issue of CREATE Magazine.

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Know Thyself

(1/2) “I’m Cynthia, Queen of Retail in Florida. Call me!” Thats how I introduced myself at CCIM & REALTOR® meetings about 10 years ago, and it just stuck with me ever since. I started out in residential in Washington State. I was a new agent, and I didn’t know anything else. When my husband and I moved to Florida, I had to start fresh with no residential referrals. So, I thought there was no better time to pivot. I had already taken CCIM courses while I was in residential. Those courses plus my own additional research helped me jump right in. I fell in love with commercial and especially retail. I can’t imagine doing anything else. I love everything about it: advising, helping clients and helping new agents, too. I tell new agents all the time to focus on their interests and their expertise. It’s better to know your strengths than try to be someone you’re not.”  —Cynthia Shelton

(2/2) “There’s power in asking for help or even saying, “I don’t know, I need more information.” Sometimes, you have to walk away from the table when your expertise or your ideas aren’t valued. I think we tend to overlook the importance of that, and it can be tough to turn down deals. But trust me, I spent years being the only woman in the room, and it’s tougher working with people who don’t respect what you bring to the table. I’ve accomplished a lot over the years, but now my main goal is helping young people realize they can do anything they put their minds to. Just select your niche, get really good at it and make sure you do yourself and your clients justice.”  —Cynthia Shelton


Learn more about Cynthia Shelton, “Queen of Retail,” and how she uses her expertise to help others along the way.

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A Passion for Homeownership

“I was a registered nurse for almost 7 years before I started in real estate. What you learn working in healthcare is there are layers to any kind of ailment to what people are going through. Anything from a lingering cough, to chronic disease. There’s always an economic layer. Or an environmental, personal, or political layer. The things we don’t necessarily think about in our day-to-day can impact us in significant ways. I push homeownership for my clients and community because I know it is a force multiplier, it creates layers of success. Generational wealth doesn’t make you rich, it means you have more options. Something to work with when decisions need to get made. A strong foundation for yourself and your family. One of the ways I get people engaged is by sharing my story. My parents bought their first home in 1966. They worked regular jobs just like so many others. And back then, they were up against a lot of housing inequities. But they saw the value in ownership and kept pushing. When we moved, they kept the home and started renting it out. This house put my brothers and I through college debt free – all four of us. When you get right down to it, past the degrees, accolades, accomplishments…homeownership did that. I know that if you educate people and give them hope, homeownership can do it for them, too.” —Sofia Crisp


REALTOR® and 2023 Fair Housing Champion Sofia Crisp was also featured in the Spring 2023 Edition of REALTOR® Magazine. Read the story to learn how she helps place communities on the path to homeownership.

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Technology is Change

“Change doesn’t have to work against you; it can absolutely work for you. I’m a fifth-generation entrepreneur. My family owns the second-oldest Black-owned restaurant in Chicago. I never saw myself doing anything other than managing the family business. But life had other plans. And as a single mom, I needed more flexibility to take care of my son. Real estate gave me that, and so much more. Let me tell you, there were so many learning curves in the beginning! I leaned into it, kept learning and eventually put my son through college loan-free. I saw things through to the other side. Today, I’m passionate about helping real estate professionals embrace the future. Change in the form of social media, technology, AI—these can work for you! And not to mention: After that, there will be something else. Why? Because change is inevitable. Technology is change. Decide to let it work for you.” —Marki Lemons Ryhal 


Learn how REALTOR® Marki Lemons Ryhal, who hosts REALTOR® Magazine’s podcast Drive With NAR: The REALTOR® to REALTOR® Series, uses her digital savvy to empower and connect audiences in the real estate industry. 

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Authenticity is Power

(1/2) “I grew up in the ’80s. There was no social media. I thought I was the only person like me in the world. I was probably 3 when I knew that I was a girl, and I started growing my hair out when I was 10. School was tough. I was bullied, beaten up and harassed by pretty much everyone. One time in eighth grade, a group of kids tried to lure me to a party so they could kill me. I got a tip from somebody and, thankfully, didn’t go. I had to drop out of school just so I could survive and be myself. I felt so alone, and I had no one to look to—except maybe Madonna. I know that sounds crazy, but she was probably my saving grace because that’s the only time I got to see people who didn’t fit the mold living their truth and being celebrated for it. My journey hasn’t been easy. But I can’t imagine where I would be if I had to suppress who I am. The reason why I’m so successful as a REALTOR® is because I show up as my true self. I’m not trying to hide anything.” —Jamie Zapata

(2/2) “I guess you can say I’m still fighting to break the mold. There aren’t many trans REALTORS® out there, and most people try to put us in a box. You know, people expect us to only do drag or work in bars or entertainment. I’d say about 80% to 90% of my clients are LGBTQ+. They come to me because they know I understand. I’m someone they can trust. When it comes to finding a home, we’re faced with a lot of challenges, even outside of the purchase itself. Finding communities that are accepting—ones we can thrive in—is so important. I’m happy that I get to help other people find their safe space. But I’ll know I’ve really done my part when I see the younger generation out there living their truth with no fear. They won’t just have TV or even just social media to look to; they’ll see themselves represented in all areas of society. They will know they are not alone.” —Jamie Zapata


REALTOR® Jamie Zapata also shared her insights on the Drive With NAR Podcast. Listen to hear how she helps clients and families get an objective view of communities and school districts.

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More Than a Name

“I was named after both of my grandfathers. They were two very different men, and they made an impact in their own unique way. Through them, I got a behind-the-scenes look at the civil rights movement. I remember being just a tiny little kid marching through the streets of Birmingham, Ala., with my siblings and cousins. Fighting for the underserved is in my blood; it is part of my family’s legacy. When my dad passed away, I became the lead broker of our firm, Barnes & Associates. Having to step up was a little intimidating, but it forced me to make a difference the Abra Barnes way. I knew I wanted to continue empowering people through real estate and building on my family’s legacy. Now I’m giving other people a behind-the-scenes look at today’s fight so they, too, can be inspired to see the power within themselves.” —Abra Barnes

REALTOR® and 2023 Fair Housing Champion, Abra Barnes, was also featured in the Spring Edition of REALTOR® Magazine. Learn more about how she blends her passions for storytelling and real estate to make a difference in her community.

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Frontlines of Change

“We were moving up in the world. That’s what it felt like for us. We were so excited about what this meant for us, our children and their future. We closed on the home in August of 1974. A year later, a group of men placed a Molotov cocktail right on our front door. I’ll never forget the call I got from my wife. She was inside with our daughters when the bomb went off. She was terrified. I wish I could say the act was unthinkable, but back then, these kinds of things happened to a lot of us. It still rattles me in a way that’s hard to explain. Looking back, I can say the attack on my home made my fight for equality and fair housing even more resolute. As a REALTOR® and a homeowner, I knew firsthand what ownership could mean for so many people who looked like me—people who, for generations, had been denied the chance to thrive and generate wealth for themselves. It’s a cause worth fighting and sacrificing for. Being on the frontlines of change means you will be faced with resistance. The fight may seem like an uphill battle, but I know I have a place at the top of that hill. So many others do, too.” Frank Williams

REALTOR® and 2023 Fair Housing Champion Frank Williams is fighting for a fairer future in housing for all.

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