My built environment lies within the boundaries of Santa Clarita, California, which is consistently rated among the top 50 safest cities in America and in the top 10 with the lowest number of property crimes. By just about any measure, my built environment exceeds the average by a wide margin. It is representative of the majority of the built environments I have either lived in or been exposed to in the United States.
Because my experience is siloed in this perspective, any ideas I might come up with are also bound, to a large degree, by the limitations and orientations of that experience. This is true of my entire background. My experiences exist inside of a very narrow perspective and they necessarily shape how I see the world and how I approach solving problems. I share this limitation with the rest of humanity. It is not unique to me.
Many, many years ago, I hired my long-time mentor, Bill Leider, to help me codify a set of values for my first successful startup. His approach was not to lay out a laundry list of laudable values for me to choose from. Instead, since he already knew me very well, his goal was to ensure that any value I landed on was one I could actually live without effort. They would need to be core values I already possessed so I could lead from the top by example. Only those values I could live unconditionally could be included. I’ve written about the power of values in the past, and specifically about the power of diversity and respect, but today I’d like to talk about this topic from a different perspective.
When J.J. Grace, Inc. was sold to Vertis in 1999, one of the reasons their CEO gave for the acquisition was how we had implemented our values into the framework of our company, from hiring and firing to managing on a day-to-day basis. And so, he also hired Bill to help them shape their own processes around a set of values they believed they could live. As a result, one of the values that came from it was this, “We Value Diversity.” I was easily able to align myself with the new values. I felt I could live them unconditionally. So when I took over as Group President for their Digital Solutions Group, it was my responsibility and my honor to travel around to the 40 offices under my charge to deliver this new values-based approach to leadership and management.
Diversity Of Thought
In presenting on the power of the “We Value Diversity” claim, I used the following approach to help explain the power of diversity. What is the ultimate win in bringing together people from different backgrounds, races, ethnicities, genders, and sexual orientations? Hitting a diversity number was not the ultimate win. Diversity without mutual respect or the valuing of ideas, all ideas, has no ultimate value. The ultimate win is new and better ideas that come from the diversity that exists inside a culture of mutual respect that values those ideas.
What is the ultimate win in bringing together people from different backgrounds, races, ethnicities, genders, and sexual orientations?Tweet
Diversity of thought is the win. If I am tasked with solving a problem and I am put into a room with five clones of myself, the exact same background, same experiences, same mental boundaries, I will come out of that room with a solution no better than one I would have come up with by myself. But if I am tasked with solving a problem and I am put into a room with five people from vastly different backgrounds, with vastly different experiences and mental boundaries, I will come out of that room with something entirely different. And in the right atmosphere, that “something different” will be powerful. I’ve witnessed this power many times. This past week, I witnessed it again.
The Atmosphere Of Mutual Respect
I’ve been spending about an hour each week with my good friend, Jovan Hackley. He is providing me with his unique insights into race and racism and holding me accountable to take action on racism wherever I find myself. He is someone I respect and admire.
Last week, he tweeted at Heather Elias about a book on racism she was reading and tagged me in the tweet. Since he is also close friends with Heather, and we were going to be having one of our weekly meetings the same morning, I invited Heather to join us on the call when the topic of her tweet came up in discussion. She joined about halfway through, and it was interesting to see how the addition of one more vector of diversity changed the direction and tone of the conversation. The infusion of her real estate and personal experiences set us on a discussion of “the built environment,” a topic I’ve never entertained, ever, until that moment.
The Built Environment
I had never given any thought to the impact my built environments, each of them that I have experienced in my life, have impacted who I am as an individual. I had heard the expression but never explored the ramifications. That was about to change.
For those of you who were like me, the built environment is “the human-made space in which people live, work, and recreate on a day-to-day basis.” The “built environment encompasses places and spaces created or modified by people including buildings, parks, and transportation systems.” More recently, public health research has expanded the more narrow and standard definition of the built environment to include healthy food access, community gardens, walkability, and bike-ability.
As a result, conversations about the built environment should also be taking into consideration psychological and social needs, particularly as they relate to community safety and security, and even how the built environment impacts self-respect. If your built environment is not given respect or does not elicit respect, it has a negative impact on your own sense of value. As a result, the built environment has both direct and indirect impacts on mental health.
And so, in his role with Center For Community Progress, Jovan spends a good deal of time thinking about the built environment. During our conversation, he had been sharing a presentation he was working on, and proud of, and as we all openly discussed the presentation, the conversation drifted toward organized real estate and the opportunity to enact meaningful change if the right ideas were put forth. It was banter back and forth for a bit and soon organically shifted to actionable ideas.
It was at this point the real power of diversity hit. Jovan put forth three ideas that never would have occurred to me. I record our meetings so I can listen to them later, so the following is directly from the call:
My three real estate industry wins are,
One, as a part of the core education for licensure in every state, there needs to be at least a three-hour course on equity and the built environment. You cannot go to work and serve the land if you do not understand the politics that have governed the land and how it is created and how it has the ability to impact people. Realtors are the top community advocates, the chief local market experts. You can not be an expert and sell in Capitol Heights and not understand why we don’t have cell towers over here. And they got the tower over there while the water flows a certain way. And you see how it’s engineered? That’s number one.
Number two is most people hate continuing education. They hate ethics. They hate sitting through these boring courses. Why not give them credit for going and living the charge? I’ll hook them up with a local community development organization and have them perform service hours. And that is their equity education – getting involved in solving the problem.
And third, a quarter of every National Association of REALTORS® conference or any national event has to focus on racism in the built environment. Everywhere they go… every time. That’s what it looks like. That’s what it looks like, on that level, and at that scale.
And these are things that do not cost any extra and are not that hard to do.Jovan Hackley, MPS – Director of Communications, Center For Community Progress
On their own without any edits, these ideas would be a powerful outcome of any meeting on combating racism in real estate. And they were, for me at least, an illustration of the power of diversity. There is power in diversity when it is not just for diversity’s sake. Diversity is truly powerful when embraced in an atmosphere of mutual respect and the valuing of ideas. In that environment, we have the ability to build on these kinds of seeds to take action on meaningful change.
Next Steps Toward Greater Diversity
On this same call, Jovan asked me a very pointed question, “What are you going to do to help black people in the next two weeks?” I laughed at the question, saying I don’t think in two-week timeframes, but Jovan was having none of it. He pushed back and I gave in to the moment. I told him about my desire to expand the diversity in and around the NAR REACH growth accelerator. He then asked me to commit to a few specific actions. One of them I committed to was to very specifically expand my personal network and I asked if he could introduce me to a few black entrepreneurs, real estate practitioners, and executives. He gave me several names of people to call and connect with. Heather threw in a contact of her own.
In the past week, I have been successful in connecting with 2 of the 3 people I want form relationships with. The first conversation I had was one of the most emotional introductory meeting calls I’ve ever had with a human being. We both cried. Let me rephrase that… it was our first conversation and we both cried. We shared hopes and fears and committed to further meetings. I can already feel the potential power. We were able to do this because we were both imparted with trust and transferred mutual respect, solely based on our shared respect for Jovan.
Why Am I Writing This?
A few weeks ago I shared the story about the urging of Gahlord Dewald, to “fix my inputs” and listen to different voices than mine. Back in September of 2019 Gahlord tweeted this: “Look through your list of people you follow. Is it mostly white dudes? If so, you can fix your inputs by following some of the people mentioned in this.” I’ve done that and will continue to do that.
I am writing this in the hope that you will seek diversity in your own sphere. I am writing this in the hope that you’ll seek diversity in your own inputs. As my inputs have changed, so has my voice. Done in an atmosphere of mutual respect and the valuing of ideas that are different from your own, your voice may change too.
Here’s to new and diverse voices, both the new voices we invite in as inputs and our own as we respect their value.