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AAREP President: It's Time For The Real Estate Industry To Be Actively Anti-Racist

Protestors have filled the streets of D.C. and dozens of major cities around the world over the last two weeks to speak out against police brutality and racism.

This movement has sparked a national dialogue on race, as individuals, companies and industries grapple with the institutional racism that has made it more difficult for African Americans to achieve success. This issue is especially prevalent in commercial real estate, an overwhelmingly white industry that has failed to diversify its ranks from entry-level positions to C-suites.

AAREP President Carisa Stanley, also first vice president at Amalgamated Bank, speaking at a January AAREP event.

In the nation's capital, one of the epicenters of the protest movement, a group of black real estate professionals has been working for years to create more opportunity for people of color in the industry. African American Real Estate Professionals, founded in 1995, has been led since 2017 by Carisa Stanley, who serves as first vice president of commercial real estate at Amalgamated Bank

The organization has grown its membership to nearly 200 people, which Stanley said is a record. AAREP has also grown its sponsor base to a record level under her leadership, Stanley said. It has 15 corporate sponsors listed on its website, including several commercial real estate companies, the D.C. Housing Finance Agency and the International Council of Shopping Centers

Stanley, in an interview with Bisnow Friday, said the commercial real estate industry has focused too heavily in recent years on buzzwords like "diversity" and "inclusion," without adopting policies to create meaningful change. She said the industry needs to move beyond these sentiments and become actively anti-racist, meaning companies need to take actions to oppose and dismantle racist practices. 

"It's time for America and corporate America to be actively anti-racist," Stanley said. "That is very different than simply saying you support racial equity or you support diversity. We are asking that people be anti-racist, and that is active work that quite frankly is the only thing that will start to dismantle a system that was set up to devalue black people."

AAREP is preparing to release a platform of anti-racist policies that it will urge commercial real estate firms to adopt, Stanley said. She released a written statement Thursday on behalf of AAREP saying that the recent acts of violence against black people — including the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor — are a symptom of the institutional racism and white supremacist ideals engrained in America. 

"As long as racism and prejudice are fabrics of our society, generation changing professional and economic success will be unattainable for the majority of African Americans," Stanley wrote in the statement. 

In the interview, Stanley said the industry needs to focus on more than just hiring African Americans. She said companies need to ensure that African Americans are given equal pay, put in a position to succeed and not subject to inherent bias from white superiors. 

"A lot of companies feel like, 'If I hire black people and put them in certain positions, then I've done my job,'" Stanley said. "That's why we are now saying it goes beyond that. So not only do you have to hire black people, but you have to value black people and you have to value their perspective and what they bring to the table as a unique collection of people and experiences."

The full interview is below, lightly edited for length and clarity.  

Bisnow: Before we talk about AAREP and the commercial real estate industry, I want to start with you personally. Can you tell me what the last couple of weeks have been like for you, and what your reaction was to the killing of George Floyd by police and the demonstrations that have followed over the last two weeks?

Stanley: I probably see the last couple of weeks as not just the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police, but also the murder of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. I look at all of those events collectively, and I know other black folks feel the same way. In general, there is a feeling of frustration, obviously, there is a feeling of anger and profound sadness and, quite frankly, trauma. It’s traumatizing to see someone that looks like you murdered at the hands of people that were sworn to protect and serve. I think there’s a wide range of emotions, all of which we as a community are, quite frankly, still trying to process. So it’s difficult to put all of it into words that are concise and succinct because many of us are still trying to process it.

Editor's Note: The officer who killed Floyd, Derek Chauvin, has been charged with second-degree murder, and the three officers who were also on the scene have been charged with aiding and abetting murder. Three men in Georgia have been charged with murder in Arbery's death. The police officers who shot and killed Taylor in her Louisville home are on administrative leave and under FBI investigation, but as of June 8 had not been charged for their role in her death.

Bisnow: How do you see the role that you have as president of AAREP to address these issues in the industry?

Stanley: We should start by just being clear that AAREP and organizations like AAREP were created because of these kinds of things. AAREP is around because of institutional racism and systemic inequalities in the system. That’s why it was formed. It was formed back in 1995, so that predates me. There are other organizations like AAREP.

Essentially that’s why we’re here: Because African Americans in commercial real estate found it difficult to attain levels of success that were similar to their white counterparts, so you form organizations where you have like-minded folks that can talk about issues and hopefully elevate opportunities to people that otherwise wouldn’t have them. So that’s the purpose of AAREP, and I don’t think that me as a leader is painted any different today than it was when the organization was formed, because it’s the same issues. The interesting thing now is there is a collective awakening where people are looking at the issues, and hopefully, there’s an environment ripe for change where we want to do something about it. But AAREP is around because these things have been happening.

Bisnow: I saw the statement you released [Thursday], and it was one of the more direct and clear statements I’ve seen from an industry group in calling out institutional racism in the country. A lot of industry statements have been a little more vague comments about diversity, and yours really addressed these issues head-on. Can you tell me what your process was in putting out this statement and what you hoped to convey?

Stanley: Well you’d be surprised how much work crafting something like that takes, because you’re trying to process many different emotions and many different feelings and capture something that is concise and that will resonate. I think that our goal was to move beyond politically correct rhetoric. I think we’re past that now. I think we’re past conversations about supporting diversity and inclusion and any other cliché buzzwords you want to say that we’ve been hearing about for the last five to 10 years. What we’re saying is certainly what we feel is that it’s time for America and corporations as a reflection of America because a company is just a collection of people, but it’s time for America and corporate America to be actively anti-racist. That is very different than simply saying you support racial equity or you support diversity. We are asking that people be anti-racist and that is active work that quite frankly is the only thing that will start to dismantle a system that was set up to devalue black people. So that is the work that is ahead of us.

Bisnow: Do you think commercial real estate leaders and organizations have been doing enough to speak out about these issues and have they been saying the right things, in your view? Or do you think they need to be more clear about their anti-racist positions and go further than they have been?

Stanley: Yeah, I think that the events that everyone is mourning are proof that the country hasn’t gone far enough. If companies — and companies are just a collection of people — if people really understood how systematic and institutional racism is in every aspect of our being, it’s not just corporations, it’s not just police brutality, it’s the healthcare system, it’s the educational system, it’s the justice system. I think as a country if we had gone far enough then we wouldn’t still see the acts of brutality that we see today.

I definitely think there is a lot of work to be done. I think the herculean work to be done is still out there. We are just on the cusp of actually being honest about what racism really is, and by that what I mean is it’s not just OK for you personally to say that you are not racist, or that you do not think that racism is OK, or you do not think it’s OK to murder a black person. Now what we have to say is that it is not OK for that to be done. It is not OK for that to be done by anyone. And no one should have their life taken from them the way it’s been happening. So that is the next step. Also mirroring those ideals in corporations where people of color have to sustain their families. What does that look like in your company? What do anti-racist policies look like in your company?

Bisnow: Do you have a platform of those types of anti-racist policies you would like to see companies employ? If there’s a commercial real estate organization saying they want to do more but hasn’t put it into action yet, what would you recommend in terms of actions?

Stanley: That is what we are going to release in fairly short order. I won’t say it’s within a week or two weeks, because again I want to make sure that we as an organization are not succumbing to the pressure of doing something immediately just because everybody’s talking about it right now. I want to make sure we’re deliberate and that we’re methodical in everything that we do. But yes, we are working on a platform that companies can review and hopefully adopt in terms of what anti-racist policies should look like.

Real Estate Roundtable's Jeff DeBoer, Finmarc's Neil Markus, EB5 Capital's Angelique Brunner, Greysteel's Ari Firoozabadi and Amalgamated Bank's Carisa Stanley at a December Bisnow event.

Bisnow: You talked about how AAREP was founded because of the institutional racism in the system and African Americans found it more difficult to attain success in the industry. That was in 1995, 25 years ago, do you think that situation has improved at all over 25 years? Do you think it has gotten any better, or is it the same or worse?

Stanley: That’s always a hard question, and it’s always a tricky question when you say ‘has something gotten better?’ Certainly, people can say ‘Well, there are African American professionals that are successful’ and there have always been African Americans that have been successful. That is true. But that in and of itself does not mean that things have gotten better. When you start talking about ‘Are things better?’ We need to look at the system and we need to look at certain aspects of corporate America when it comes to people of color.

So for example, are salaries equitable? I think we know that they’re not, that to this day African Americans are paid less money than their white counterparts for the same job. So if salaries are not equitable, then in and of itself we know that things are not where they should be. So that’s how I dissect that question. It’s not are there more African Americans that are successful, it’s, ‘Is the system equitable? Do African Americans have the same opportunities?’

We know that in corporate America success really happens when you have mentorship and when you have opportunities to speak and be heard and to bring your ideas to the table. Are we given the same opportunities to do that? Are there African Americans at every level of leadership in corporations including the executive level, including the C-suite, are those things happening? Are African Americans hired at the same rate as white counterparts, even if they have a résumé that looks the same? Is that happening? So that’s how I see, ‘Are things getting better?’

Bisnow: Executives in the industry will talk about creating more diversity and opportunity. Do you think there has been enough emphasis placed on taking action to allow African Americans to rise and have the same opportunities and equal pay? Or do you think the talk has largely been lip service?

Stanley: I think the talk is a start. Diversity and inclusion have been catchphrases that have been all abuzz for the last five to 10 years. So I think a lot of companies feel like, 'If I hire black people and put them in certain positions, then I’ve done my job.' And that’s why we are now saying it goes beyond that. So not only do you have to hire black people, but you have to value black people and you have to value their perspective and what they bring to the table as a unique collection of people and experiences.

You also have to shine the light on white privilege and white supremacy ideas and what does that mean and what does that look like in your company. If you hire a black person, and that person reports to a white boss and there are inherent biases in that white boss because we all have them, what does that mean for the promotion of that black person? What does that mean for the salary grade of that black person or when it’s time for that African American person to get a promotion? What does it mean when they’re reporting to a white boss and that white boss has inherent bias? Those are the types of things we have to start to talk about. That’s what I mean when I say equity. It’s not just are you hiring black people, but do they really have an opportunity for parity and equity inside of your company?

Bisnow: You became president of AAREP in 2017. What has your strategy been like during that time to elevate these issues and improve the standing of African Americans in the industry?

Stanley: So really what AAREP has always done is try to bring opportunities and content, whether it’s educational or whether it’s professional development, we try to bring that directly to our members. For example, our last in-person session was where we did access to capital, and we had several municipal agencies come together and talk about the different opportunities in the District including the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development John Falcicchio. That access to capital was actually the third annual session that we had done since I’ve been president. We do things like that to bring leaders in the community and people that actually control the purse string to our members so that we have an opportunity to know what’s happening in the community and how we can benefit from it from a professional perspective, and from a business perspective. That’s really what AAREP has always been about.

Protestors gathered Tuesday in Northeast D.C.'s Brookland neighborhood ahead of President Donald Trump's appearance at a nearby church.

Bisnow: Have you heard from AAREP members over the last week? What has been the general sentiment of the community from people you’ve talked to?

Stanley: Yeah, I think as professionals and just as black people living this experience, I think as a collective, yeah we’re frustrated, we’re sad, we’re exhausted. And I’ll go back to the word: I know I feel, personally, I was traumatized for a few days just because, again, seeing the murder of George Floyd and to have so much footage from beginning to end, I don’t know that you can watch that unless you’re completely desensitized and not feel some level of trauma. I don’t know that you can watch white men pursue and ultimately kill Ahmaud Arbery and not feel trauma, particularly when that person looks like you.

It’s a range of emotions. We all feel a range of emotions, and I think the good part of it is there is a call to action, and we all are intent on rising to the occasion and doing something such that those lives are not in vain. I come back to all of this not being a sound bite, or all of this not being an elevated topic for a month or six months or a year. This is something we will deal with in perpetuity until true change has been affected.

Bisnow: Do you think that the demonstrations that have taken place over the last week and the dialogue it’s created, do you think that could lead to real change? Are you optimistic this could be an important inflection point in this country?

Stanley: I hope so. What I see when I see the demonstrations and the protests is that it is not just black people. It is a coalition of people that I believe all feel the same way about what we’re seeing and what we’re experiencing, and that is how you bring about real change. It is not unlike what we saw with the civil rights movement where it takes all kinds of people across all walks of life to say, ‘This is enough.’ And I hope that we are experiencing a similar moment, where all kinds of people across all walks of life are finally saying this is enough. And we don’t just want to talk about it, but we want to really dismantle a system that was put in place to devalue black and brown people. We want to dismantle that system and build something better and more equitable for everybody. I hope that that’s what’s happening.