Igniting Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

6 min read

Vincent R. Brown Keynote at NH&RA Meeting Discusses Moment vs. Movement

In early March, NH&RA held its annual meeting, a three-day symposium on all things housing, finance and tax credits. As part of the meeting and ongoing efforts in the industry, the meeting included discussion of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). Vincent R. Brown, a Cincinnati-based consultant who coaches companies and nonprofits on DEI strategies, delivered a keynote address. This topic is salient, not only with stories dominating the news but also as an ongoing issue in the affordable housing industry and the communities they serve.

Brown was a founding partner and managing director of Global Novations, a full-service human talent optimization firm; a senior consultant with Korn/Ferry; author of a bestselling book on modern corporate culture; and current owner of V. Randolph Brown Consulting. He has worked with many prominent firms on DEI improvements, including the NBA, the Cleveland Cavaliers, KeyBank,

Bon Secours Mercy Health and the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland.

Brown opened the keynote by discussing redlining. He said that he drives daily to Lincoln Heights, where he has intentionally located his business—a 3,200-person village outside Cincinnati—after driving through several well-maintained neighborhoods right near it. In Lincoln Heights, “infrastructure is in disrepair, the homes are difficult to maintain.” He identifies the experience of Lincoln Heights as resulting from discriminatory lending practices that date back decades. The city, which is 87.7 percent black, has a median income below $24,000, and a 48 percent poverty rate. Neighboring Wyoming, OH’s median income is over $120,000, with a poverty rate of only 1.6 percent. A 2015 article in The Atlantic discusses the city’s history in depth, and how its current conditions are due in part to multi-decade discriminatory lending practices in nearby suburbs. Neighboring Evendale, OH also has a median household income of $121,750 and median property value of $281,500. In addition, it is the location of a major General Electric plant facility. Lastly, Evendale, was actually a part of Lincoln Heights at one time. “Fate, Happenstance? Design?” Brown stated.

An additional topic of discussion was about the growing focus that mainstream America is now putting on DEI issues. For several decades, the polling firm Gallup has tracked statistics on the U.S. public’s view of race. Brown noted that Gallup’s measurements on race awareness have spiked in response to relevant news stories, but wondered whether this would result in policy change or just fade as past spikes have.

“We’ve been here before, folks…the figures spiked back in ’65, it picked up in 1990,” referencing the death of Rodney King, “and then you see the spike most recently with George Floyd,” he continued. “Is this a movement, or is this a moment?”

On how to create more inclusive workplaces, Brown said that the approach can be “a both/and mentality.” Meaning: it is not only morally right to improve inclusivity in firms, but also good for business, because a more diverse workforce can identify problems and solutions that a more homogenous one might not. He spoke to his own firm’s experience: as it grew, Brown increased its demographic and cognitive diversity among employees.

“Because we did that, we were able to see our market better. We had better talent.”

He encouraged attendees to look at Historically Black Colleges and Universities to find the best young talent from America.

Brown also stressed the importance of self-examining for bias, stating that everyone will deal with thoughts of bias at some point – a result of “nature, nurture and biology” – but that it can be countered. He invited attendees to use an online quiz developed by Harvard for examining “implicit association test,” which he said that he took on a regular basis (https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatouchtest.html). Once someone knows that they might have subconscious bias, they are better able to deal with and overcome it.

Brown concluded by discussing the three aspects of his work—diversity, equity and inclusion—and how they differ from each other.

Diversity, he said, consists of multiple human differences and similarities, whereas equity “is a principle, it’s a value” that an organization or individual should pursue. Methods to improve inclusion “require an action. You can be diverse and inclusive, or diverse and not inclusive.” He described the mindset of an inclusive individual as “curious – curious to know, curious to understand” and lacking in “unjustified fear.”

This process starts, according to Brown, with self-examination of one’s social circle to see if it is diverse. “Who do you go to lunch with? Who do you mentor? Who mentors you? Do you naturally seek to build relationships with people who are different than you?”

Building relationships outside of one’s personal demographics, he emphasized, will help improve inclusivity. “You will see the world through their lens, and you will care.”

NH&RA President Thom Amdur called the keynote a “wonderful discussion,” and facilitated a brief Q&A following the address, asking questions himself and reading some from the Zoom chat. Amdur asked how to break the expectation that individuals should be solely responsible for fostering DEI, as opposed to addressing them through the culture built within large institutions. Brown answered by saying that these institutions can develop DEI plans, and hire diversity staff who are trained to handle such issues.

Both Brown and Amdur also stressed the way that housing policy can help to bridge America’s racial dividean issue that intersects with the NH&RA mission. Amdur recommended Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s book Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership, which discusses racial discrimination following anti-redlining reform in the 1960s and 1970s. Amdur believes the book may be as impactful as Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law, which looks at the history of racist zoning policy in the U.S., largely before that era.

Brown concurred that the housing sector has a particularly important role to play in addressing discrimination, fighting against exclusive regulations and bringing more affordable units into the pipeline. When asked by Amdur whether the renewed focus on race that began last spring will lead to tangible reforms in housing and elsewhere, Brown concluded: “I think it becomes a movement if people like you make it so.”