The events of the past couple of weeks — the death of George Floyd and subsequent protests and violence — have cast the importance of community into sharp relief. Already contending with COVID-19, social distancing and remote relationships, many people are feeling new intensity around the need for personal connections to help them process feelings and find support, both in their personal lives and in the new remote workplace.
“This is an incredibly difficult time, filled with pain, fear and anger for many of us, but especially our Black employees,” says Crystal Tomczyk, who is Zillow’s senior director of community and culture. “Right now, we’re focused on listening, learning and actively supporting our employees, and making sure they know we are taking a stand against bigotry, racism and injustice. In short, racism has no home here.”
Already coping with a surge in racism against people of Asian descent with the onset of COVID-19, Zillow’s affinity networks have been invaluable in recent months. May brought horrific examples of racism against the Black community, representative of systemic hate.
“This is a critical point in history to stand together,” says Tomczyk. “We have a long way to go, but our affinity networks play an important role in helping to ensure all of our employees understand how they can show up as allies, and influence our business by bringing valuable insight from the larger communities.”
More than 50% of Zillow’s more than 5,300 employees belong to one or more of the company’s nine affinity networks, employee-led groups organized around specific underrepresented identities, from LGBTQ+, to Indigenous peoples, to people of Black/African ancestry, and more. The groups are open to anyone who wants to join, regardless of identity. They provide forums to share experiences and resources, promote recruiting of underrepresented communities, and raise awareness of issues to the broader Zillow community, among other things.
Jonathan Houston is president of the veterans network, and a member of the PRIDE and Black/African Ancestry (“Billow”) affinity networks at Zillow. “I think the world needs empathy, and I think these groups do a great job starting that on the microlevel of the workplace,” Houston says. “That’s where we spend most of our time.”
For Houston, the impact of the affinity networks goes deep. “I was 30 and trying to figure out who I was,” says Houston, who worked as an Arabic linguist before coming to Zillow, working as team lead for Zillow Offers. “There were people who didn’t think I was intelligent because I was Black.” He says his identity as a gay man was challenged by his church and family.
“I always felt like I had to compromise a part of who I was to make everyone else comfortable,” Houston says. “Now I tell people all the time, ‘Zillow is the only place I’ve ever been in my life where I feel I don’t have to compromise my identity to get my work done or to be recognized, or to be promoted, or to be seen, to be heard.’”
Sharing experiences of racism
When political rhetoric blaming China for COVID-19 sparked a rise in racism and hate crimes against people of Asian descent, Zillow employees shared their experiences through the Asian Pacific Islander (API) network. “I fear wearing a mask to go grocery shopping, because I don’t want to attract more attention and add an additional target on my back,” writes one member. “Not only do I have anxiety about catching this virus (like most people do), but I have a greater anxiety that I’ll likely be assaulted for being Asian just to buy food.”
Zillow Premier Agent project manager Christine Ito has been an API network leader since the group started in 2017. Working remotely, she says, “I’m probably connecting more with people in the network than with people in my office (Irvine Calif.) that I would normally see day to day.”
For Asian Pacific American Heritage Month in May, the network hosted several events using the theme “A Place We Call Home,” including a panel discussion with national API leaders about COVID-19 and the long-term impacts on the community. The network found a way to celebrate culture via an “API Cooking Livestream,” a video conference session that took people into members’ kitchens where they made mochi cake, panang curry, gyoza and chicken katsu curry. “It was super fun,” says Ito. “The whole network was tuning in from all different offices.”
Taking PRIDE in identity and belonging
As the Phoenix office Site Lead for Zillow’s PRIDE network for LGBTQ+ people and their allies, Bionca Bond was in full planning for PRIDE month (June) when the pandemic changed everything. “I was setting up everything, getting the parade ready,” she says. The Zillow float in the Phoenix PRIDE parade was going to be based on the Disney movie “Up.” “It just made total sense — Zillow, houses, the rainbow balloons,” Bond says. “Then COVID-19 hit, so we had to pivot into this virtual space.”
Now, Zillow’s PRIDE month activities include a day-long virtual event with each Zillow office presenting its version of PRIDE, based in part on geography. “We’re just finding different creative ways to celebrate together while keeping everyone safe and distanced,” says Bond.
The PRIDE network partners with Zillow’s recruiting team to advise on strategy, and builds bridges with the local community to give members a way to engage and give back. PRIDE network members have also influenced Zillow product development, advising on a soon-to-be-released local LGBT legal protections tool.
With the advent of social distancing came a sense of loss over not being able to gather in person, because for so long, LGBTQ+ people have felt the need to hide their identities. But Bond says the sense of belonging she feels at Zillow as a gay Black woman remains strong. “The affinity networks create a safe space to feel like you’re a part of something greater than yourself, and that your company is behind you and supporting you in that effort.”
Membership in one affinity network often results in the support of others, as the groups rally behind each other during difficult times. In fact, the whole company regularly gets behind networks at key moments to show support and raise awareness, as with last week’s company-wide observance of R.E.D. (Remember Everyone Deployed) Friday, when employees wore red in solidarity with the veterans network.
Bond’s advice to fellow Zillow employees could be relevant for anyone: Look for ways to experience and support people from other cultures and backgrounds. “I’m in almost all of [Zillow’s affinity groups] that I’m able to be in, because I want to learn about other people’s perspectives and cultures,” she says. “So that when something does happen in those individual communities, I can provide my empathy and support for them, just like they continue to do for me.”
Zillow Affinity Networks
- Asian Pacific Islander Network
- Black/African Ancestry Network “Billow” Network
- Able and Differing Abilities Network “ADAPT” Network
- Latinx/Hispanic “Latinos Unidos” Network
- LGBTQ+ Pride Network
- Over 40 Network
- Veterans Network
- Women’s Impact Network
- Indigenous Peoples Network
How to be an ally
Reach out in times of crisis. Even if you’re the only one who reaches out, maybe your reaching out will help someone else reach out and ask a question. Just listen and be there to support and empathize with anybody or any group when they’re going through a particularly challenging time.Jonathan Houston
Stay informed and educated by keeping up with current events on a local, national, and global level. Seek out the stories of others and engage with credible resources that are committed to promoting social justice, systemic change and advocacy for marginalized groups.Christine Ito
As an African American, first we need you to understand that there is a historical context to why Black people are in this country. It was slavery. It happened. It was awful. I understand that it was generations upon generations ago, but we are still feeling the ramifications.Bionca Bond