Black Multifamily Professionals Share Insights, Experiences

Magazine ,

By Paul Bergeron

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is a theme dominating discussions among management in most industries, and the apartment and property management field is no different.

The Apartment Association of Greater Orlando (AAGO) recently convened a panel of its members to discuss “Cultivating the Next Generation of Black Industry Leaders” in a webinar.

The event featured moderator Edwin Narain, a former Democratic member of the Florida House of Representatives, who represented District 61 from 2014 to 2016.

The panel included Jolie Whitmore, regional manager, Highmark Residential; Carl Walton, senior director of innovation & design, RangeWater; Shana Jackson, regional manager, Epoch Residential; and Maurice Williams, regional sales director, OnCall Parking.

Narain metaphorically described DEI as follows: Diversity is being asked to the dance; Inclusion is being asked to dance; Equity is being asked what kind of music you’d like to dance to. 

His panel affirmed that and added their thoughts on African-Americans in the workforce and everyday life. Each shared their history, successes, and vulnerabilities as professionals, speaking about what it’s been like during their careers when they are feeling alone, having to be “the best” at their jobs, how to be themselves in the workplace, mentorships, and the Black Lives Matter movement, among other things.

Williams, 41, said when he was 24, he worked at a finance company in New Jersey where he was surrounded by white colleagues who were in their 30s and 40s. 

“If there was a crowd of about 500, I was one of only three Black men in the room,” he said. “To me, the key was to just keep showing up, and to not let it get to me. Eventually, I was able to fit in by breaking the barriers between whites and Blacks.”

Whitmore, whose 31-year career in apartment management began in high school, said there were times when she’d see a job opening, rush to the company to apply, arrive in about 20 minutes, and was then told, “Sorry, that position has been filled.”

“It was a slap in the face,” Whitmore said. “But I didn’t stop trying. The opportunities for Blacks in the job market is different now. It’s better, but it’s not where it needs to be.”

About being among the few Black people at a given company or in a given situation, Whitmore said, “You need to realize that sometimes people see you, and you don’t even know they are looking at you.”

Jackson added that people need to realize, “We’re all here for the same reasons.”

Walton said it sometimes is easy to get caught up in the “impostor syndrome” and have feelings of inadequacy. To deal with that, he said he takes inspiration from others who found themselves in similar situations. As American poet, memoirist, and civil rights activist Maya Angelou said, “I come as one, but I stand for 10,000.”

Jackson said being young, Black, and a woman creates challenges. “It can be tough,” she said. “I’ve worked at places where a customer asks to see the manager, I walk out, and the look on their face is, ‘Oh, you’re the manager.’ It can be intimidating. But lean on your friends and mentors to help you through it.”

Several panelists recalled their upbringing when a parent told them that to get the job or to just get ahead, “you have to be the best one there.”

Whitmore said she’s learned not to live by job titles. “We all bring our own skills and specialties to the job,” she said. “I learned from my mother, who realized she had to earn degrees or certifications to be hired, even though others didn’t. To her, the ultimate compliment came when she left a company and they later told her that they needed to hire four people to do all the different things she did as one person.”

The comfort that comes with being able to “be yourself” on the job is not a given. It can take time, but it’s a wonderful feeling that the panelists said is crucial to happiness.

Jackson said that only in the past couple of years has she been able to “come out of my shell.”

“You can tell,” she said, “because it’s when you’re not afraid to voice your opinion in a group if you disagree with something.”

Walton said having to be perfect, or the very best at everything, creates a lot of pressure. 

“For me, I have vision; I’m good at that,” he said. “What do you bring to the table? What’s the thing that you are best at? That’s enough. Stick with that.”

Walton credited one of his mentors, Tracy Bowers, executive managing director of RangeWater, with helping him to succeed in property management.

“She listens to my point of view, and she asks for it,” he said. “Remember: You don’t have to have a seat to have a say. It’s not good if a supervisor is making decisions without thinking about getting feedback from others. And she has a way of finding something positive in every bump in the road. I aspire to that, too, and I take that same approach when mentoring others.”

Adding to the challenges for African-Americans in the workplace — last year’s Black Lives Matter movement was shown daily in the news.

“When the Black Lives Matter movement was fully underway last summer, I was asked to share what I thought,” Walton said. “I spoke up. I’m 38 years old, but it wasn’t until last year that I felt comfortable enough wearing a baseball cap in public. I’m a tall man. And a tall Black man, wearing a hat, can feel threatening to some. Most of my life I dressed ‘preppy’ because I didn’t want those around me to think I was going to hurt them. Don’t judge people by what you think they are. If you don’t, a lot of times they will surprise you.”

Appearance is just one thing that Black people often have to overcome.

Jackson said some  -  but not all  -  African-Americans shy from using their given first name if it sounds like a “Black” name “because they would never get calls or call-backs. So I would use my middle name when applying for jobs. Unfortunately, people with our [ethnicity] have to think of things like that.”

All panelists said they rely on mentors and seek opportunities to serve as mentors during their careers.

“Jolie [Whitmore] was one of my mentors,” Jackson said. “I went to a meeting once and she and I were the only African-Americans in the room, and we bonded. [AAGO Executive Vice President and CEO Chip Tatum] is another who has pushed me to become more involved in AAGO.”

Whitmore said she is “always looking for the next person who says they are ready to move up, or who I think is ready to move up.”

Williams encouraged others to be mentors for colleagues — not just for those who aspire to be regional managers or higher, but people at any level in the company who just want to get better at what they do.

Williams said Black people often find allies and can benefit from them during tough times.

“For those who want to be an ally, I suggest that they read up on what Blacks have gone through over the years,” he said. “You need to understand our plight. And be honest about not understanding it, and ask questions about what it’s like. Have an open mind and an open heart about it.”

Ricardo Alicea, AAGO Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion Committee chair, closed with another Maya Angelou quote, “We all should know that diversity makes for a rich tapestry, and we must understand that all the threads of the tapestry are equal in value no matter what their color.