Nurturing Inclusion and Diversity on Staff

Nurturing Inclusion and Diversity on Staff

  |  November 7, 2018

Takoma Park Silver Spring Co-op
Silver Spring, MD
Year founded: 1981
Number of members: 10,000
Member investment: $100
Number of employees: 48
Retail square feet: 4,600

The Takoma Park Silver Spring Co-op (TPSS) in Takoma Park, Maryland is a cooperative that is known for its diversity and inclusion among staff and customers. Currently, 48 employees from 20 countries work at the food co-op. Amongst them they speak 13 languages. Being considered a “melting pot” as a co-op is a point of pride.

Takoma Park is just across the border from Washington, DC and the Maryland state line is right across the street. “We keep two feet in different areas of our city,” said Irene Cox, the co-op’s current human resources manager. She believes that they are fortunate geographically because many different people are attracted to live in the area and love the co-op. “We have staff and customers who come from all over the world. They notice the diversity in our co-op and they think it’s cool.”

Creating that atmosphere of welcome and exchange is something that they continually work on. “Once you enter our co-op you feel welcome,” Cox said because people are actively engaged in helping people feel comfortable as staff and shoppers. “Candidates are drawn to apply for a position here because they think it will be an open workplace.”

An initiative led by staff, for example, demonstrates how the co-op puts out the welcome mat for a diverse clientele. “They wanted to include the languages they speak on their name tags so they can share that aspect of themselves with customers.” Cox noted that it was a voluntary effort, “People were very proud to do it, especially in a small organization where diversity is so big.”

Cox admits that their proximity to Washington, DC and numerous strong immigrant communities nearby helps fuel their diversity, yet she thinks that having a more inclusive workplace is a matter of effort rather than simply neighborhood demographics. “Most people who come here don’t know anything about co-ops. At TPSS people typically start to learn about them and find that they really like the cooperative idea.” Part of their onboarding includes working with department managers, gaining on the job training, as well as learning about cooperation.

Hiring immigrants and people of color in the organization, especially in leadership roles, has also demonstrated to the community that the co-op is making it a priority to support workers and customers from diverse backgrounds. “People are attracted to the co-op because of it,” she said.

“This is also an area where people are all about supporting local business,” Cox said. In her opinion that contributes to a strong sense of community identity. “We have a small-town feel surrounded by a big city.” It’s the best of both worlds, a livable community with many surrounding amenities. That’s the intent.

“We have no chain-type places in Takoma Park. It’s all locally owned. We don’t even have fast food. We are the only grocery store and that’s very important. People like to buy local and they work hard to keep it that way.” Cox said that some of the customers have grown up in the co-op, having shopped at the co-op since they were children. “They are very community minded.”

As for her advice for other co-ops seeking to be more inclusive, Cox said that in addition to training and recruitment, having a workplace that includes ideas from staff on how to improve the workplace has contributed to a more open culture.

This doesn’t mean the co-op doesn’t face marketplace or development pressures. They are currently negotiating a union contract with staff, and recently reached an agreement with the city of Takoma Park regarding the land their parking lot is situated on. “There are some challenges,” Cox said, “But that doesn’t mean we will stop trying to attract the best people to work at the co-op. We want to engage people, no matter what language they speak.”

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