If Mister Rogers knew Taz Romine-Mann, he’d probably consider him a kindred spirit.
Taz’s job was to move a major solar company’s operations to the Sun Valley neighborhood in Denver. Sun Valley is a primarily residential, inner-city neighborhood. It’s culturally diverse, home of Blacks, Hispanics, Ethiopians, Middle Easterners, and more, and it’s close knit. It’s also the poorest neighborhood in Denver.
According to Taz, his company (employee-owned Namaste Solar) is predominantly white.
And its footprint would be big – a warehouse full of solar panels, and all kinds of structural supports, people and trucks coming and going.
“When the building was being renovated, we had two tagging incidents, very common on constructions sites,” Taz said.
Not a good start. Namaste folks felt uncomfortable, fearful. They talked about it and offered various, and typical, solutions, bigger fences, better lighting, more security.
Taz saw a different way. Maybe his being bi-racial played into it, or maybe he’s just enlightened. Namaste Solar is, after all a B-Corp, and with a name like Namaste, it better be special. Taz is also a supporter of Conscious Capitalism – which seeks to humanize business.
He wanted to turn fear into friendship. Not only did he want to cut down on tagging and graffiti, he wanted “to show gratitude and thank people for living beside us and being our neighbors.”
Like Mister Rogers, Taz’s priority was being a good neighbor.
Did the dozen people on the Namaste facilities task force buy into that? Not at first.
It took what Taz calls “fragile conversations.”
“We started to do a lot of diversity work, to understand others, and Namaste did a good job of pivoting, of turning away from potential fear,” Taz said.
About this time, Taz reached out to another company relocating to Sun Valley, Meow Wolf. (Meow Wolf creates “immersive art experiences that transport audiences to fantastic realms.”) They, too, wanted to be part of the neighborhood, not dominate it.
Taz’s main contact was Zoe Williams, director of community engagement for Meow Wolf. She had been a community organizer. Zoe and Taz put their heads together. They decided to engage with the community in a positive way.
They came up with the idea of having the community paint a mural on one of Namaste’s warehouse walls. Then the next – and Taz might say equally important — part of the plan was to have a community celebration. They invited the people who lived in Sun Valley to celebrate the mural, and to tour the inside of the warehouse, to eat free locally catered food, to play games in the parking lot. Namaste hired local restaurants and caterers to provide food for the whole community. The party took place in late June 2019.
Marketing people thought this was a great opportunity to tout Namaste’s good works. It’s what most companies do. But Taz had an opinion about that, too.
It was, “Let’s not use the local community to make ourselves look good. Let’s just be good in the neighborhood.” (Mister Rogers would be proud).
In business, usually nothing much is done that doesn’t make money – or have solid publicity potential.
So what was the value of this exercise? A recent ride-by shows no graffiti.
And can you put a price on Mr. Roger’s cuddly sweater? Or social capital? Now, as protesters’ voices and demands for change rise to a roar, more than ever, goodwill has value.
Story by Bojinka Bishop, July 2020