Cultivating a Diverse Leadership

Do your member volunteers reflect the community you serve? Learn how to create an association that’s welcoming for all.

When she was named CEO of the Howard County Association of REALTORS® in 2018, Jessica Coates became the first African American REALTOR® association executive in the state of Maryland. As historic as that is, Coates, RCE, CIPS, e-PRO, C2EX, realized that more could be done to create a truly inclusive organization that reflects the association’s home.

The Howard County association is in Columbia, Md., an unincorporated community between Baltimore and Washington, D.C., that developer James Rouse established in the 1960s as an integrated “bubble.” “Most big cities are segregated, especially by class,” Coates says, but in Columbia, million-dollar homes, middle-class townhomes, and apartments exist within a few blocks of one another.

It’s an ethos that feels in line with the work REALTOR® associations are doing today to make meaningful steps toward diversity and inclusion.

At the beginning of 2020, for example, the Maryland REALTORS® convened a diversity, equity, and inclusion work group and tapped Dan Iampieri, a REALTOR® from Ellicott City and the immediate past president of the Howard County Association, as chair. The work group encouraged local AEs to develop relationships with local chapters of the Asian Real Estate Association of America, the National Association of Real Estate Brokers, the National Association of Hispanic Real Estate Professionals, and the National Association of Gay & Lesbian Real Estate Professionals.

Efforts to champion diversity have been ongoing in the REALTOR® organization for years. But they accelerated in 2019 with the publication of Newsday’s fair housing investigation, “Long Island Divided,” and were supercharged in late May this year when video of George Floyd’s death started circulating online. “It was like an atom bomb,” Coates says. “The elephant in the room was finally out there.”

Floyd’s death in police custody and the protests it ignited prompted conversations in many industries. Real estate — already turning its collective attention to fair housing and closing the racial homeownership gap—reacted swiftly.

Coates and other REALTOR® AEs and volunteer leaders, including National Association of REALTORS® President Vince Malta, spoke out publicly. Coates drafted a statement condemning the May 25 killing of Floyd, saying that “racism continues to tear at the fabric of our society, and we, as an industry, cannot and should not look away.”

The statement started a dialogue among the Howard County Association of REALTORS® staff and board leadership. “It wasn’t political. However, with this social unrest, we had to let people know about our Code of Ethics and that we don’t tolerate any form of discrimination,” Coates says. “From there, we started having daily conversations about what’s next.”

Start With Your Staff

Change begins with the culture of your team, says Michelle Mills Clement, CEO of the Chicago Association of REALTORS®. Mills Clement chairs the Association Leadership Diversity Work Group, which includes 12 state and local AEs (chief staff executives and staff specialists). It was created by the Association Executives Committee to look at the training, tools, and other resources AEs need to address diversity and inclusion—from building relationships with outside organizations to building diversity into committee and leadership selection.

At the Chicago association, Mills Clement says, “Anyone can walk in my door. Everyone on staff can text me. When tackling topics of this nature, people are looking at the top. You can be vulnerable, and that goes a long way to build trust.”

In June, Mills Clement brought in a corporate trainer to facilitate a town hall meeting with staff, enabling people to share their feelings freely. The meeting led CAR to create a seven-week course for its staff, covering a range of issues from understanding their beliefs about race and privilege to how the effects of historical atrocities, including slavery, are still being felt today.

“We’re doing this at work so we have a solid team that understands and can serve and advocate for all our members,” Mills Clement says.

Look at Local Data

One critical aspect of promoting diversity and inclusion that all association staff and members should explore is learning to recognize their own biases, says Fred Underwood, director of engagement, diversity, and inclusion at NAR. “There’s a recognition across the board that everyone needs ongoing training and dialogue on implicit bias and unconscious bias,” he says.

Underwood has been running diversity and inclusion workshops for REALTOR® associations for several years and says a good place to start is with research and analysis. He suggests identifying the demographic makeup of local market areas and comparing it to the demographics of the members who are active in your association.

Buy a physical map of your market area, he says, and put pins in the locations of members’ offices. Are certain areas overrepresented while others are underrepresented? If so, what can you do to attract new members from the underrepresented areas?

Then, as the Maryland work group recommends, identify and build relationships with the real estate professionals who serve underrepresented areas.

CAR is accomplishing this through a new diversity committee called The 77, after Chicago’s 77 neighborhoods. There’s one member on the committee from each neighborhood, and the group’s goal is to be a steward for the entire city. Members tackle topics such as fair housing and economic development and engage with local chambers of commerce and tax increment financing (TIF) boards.

It’s leadership’s duty to reach out to folks. It’s not enough just saying our doors are open.
— Carrie Chang, CEO, Minneapolis Area REALTORS®

Establishing the expanded committee took about two years; along the way, members created new ways to mentor and train rising leaders. “They’re committed to representing everyone who’s in real estate in every part of the community,” Underwood says. “How can you effectively advocate for real estate if you’re not including a portion of your community?”

Local policy issues, such as when a local government decides to raise funds through a tax increase or new fees, may disproportionately affect a group that doesn’t have a seat at the table, he says.

Representation is also important in marketing materials, Mills Clement adds. Associations should make sure diversity is represented in the images and stock photos they use in newsletters and collateral.

Create Pathways to Leadership

When REALTOR® associations struggle with diversity and inclusion at the board and leadership levels, it might create a sense among people of color that association involvement isn’t for them, says Carrie Chang, CEO of Minneapolis Area REALTORS®. It’s imperative that associations engage members who represent the diversity they want to include. To turn the tide, MAR has held gatherings promoting the value of association leadership, asking people of color who are already involved to invite others.

“We’ve hosted leadership cultivation events where they’ll meet the current board president, president-elect, and senior staff. What they learn is that they’ll be heard,” Chang says. “And often, these people will go on to apply for committees and board positions.”

MAR staff also reworked the guidelines followed by its nominating committee, which recommends the slate of candidates for the board of directors. Last year, they updated the parameters to place more emphasis on choosing candidates from diverse company sizes, years of experience, gender, and race.

Their efforts have paid off. Sixty-three percent of applicants for committee and board positions last year were female; it’s usually less than half. In addition, 44% identified as a race or ethnic group other than white, up from 20% to 25% in previous years. “There’s a feeling that there’s a glass ceiling we’re breaking through,” Chang says.

About four years ago, the Huntsville (Ala.) Area Association of REALTORS® helped NAREB recharter a local chapter. That created a pipeline for recruiting committee and board members, says CEO Josh McFall. “Four years later, we have the most diverse board of directors our association has ever had,” he says. “Our board now really does reflect our membership.”

Huntsville is seeing a spike in population alongside the economic growth that Mazda, Toyota, Blue Origin, the FBI, and other employers have brought in. It’s poised to surpass Birmingham as the largest metro area in the state in the next two years.

HAAR’s relationship with NAREB goes beyond volunteer recruitment to address issues relevant to its growing market base. Two years ago, the two groups cohosted a town hall discussion on Black home ownership, inviting elected officials to attend. “Every association in the current climate is asking what they are going to do now. We decided to further our commitment to fair housing,” says McFall. “This is all member-led, and that’s been the great part of it.”

When it comes to engaging members of color, don’t assume their only interest is in being on a diversity committee. Learn about the interests, knowledge, and experiences that make them perfect candidates for other committees even if they’re not the first to raise their hands.

“For me, it took mentors who were white men to tell me to get myself out there and let my voice be heard,” says Chang. “It’s leadership’s duty to reach out to folks. There’s a lot of history here we have to navigate through, so we have to go above and beyond and do the heavy-duty recruiting. It’s not enough just saying our doors are open.” 

Your Role as Catalyst

In many cases, a board president isn’t prepared to do the work required for systemic change. It’s up to association executives to bring up the topic of diversity and champion it, says Carrie Chang, CEO of Minneapolis Area REALTORS®.

“Work with your president, and if you can, get the members who understand the issue to help weigh in and talk to other members,” she says. While some may be concerned about making others feel uncomfortable, staff can “help them feel comfortable with their discomfort.”

When broaching the topic of increasing diversity and inclusion, be sure to create a safe place for people to have different points of view. If necessary, lay ground rules for your meetings so that those who speak up don’t feel judged.

You can also create partnerships with other local and state associations to advance diversity initiatives. MAR joined the St. Paul Area Association of REALTORS® and the Minnesota REALTORS® to create the REALTORS® Rebuilding Community Working Group, which pools ideas and resources for rebuilding through reconciliation and racial justice.

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