A true change in culture brings real results

Business executives like to talk about bringing people together, building teams and changing the culture. But I’m not always sure they’re actually pulling this off. So, the Rivers of Steel Heritage Corp., featured in the Uniquely, was a breath of fresh air in this regard.

Rivers of Steel realized early the historic significance of the Carrie Furnaces wasn’t for everybody, says Ron Baraff, director of historic resources and facilities. Many other avenues could make people fall in love with the site.

“My attitude and the attitude of the organization is that it’s not our place to invalidate someone’s experience. If they are drawn there because of the beauty of the site, because of the aesthetic, because they feel it is their creative muse, then that’s valid because there’s love of place,” Baraff says. “The first step in getting people to work together is to have a commonality, a shared sense that something is important. Why it’s important can be a multitude of shades.”

Carrie Furnaces has gone from a place of work to something more. Part of that change was generational, but it also took an open mindset.

For more than 15 years, people explored the Carrie Furnaces, often being destructive and stealing. But they also created graffiti art and sculptures.

Baraff says Rivers of Steel saved some of the art — not only because it was incredibly beautiful, but also out of self-preservation. Rather than spending time chasing graffiti artists and trying to prosecute them, Rivers of Steel wanted to find a way to work with people who loved the site as much as it did.

It set aside a few ancillary areas on non-contributing structures. That legal wall space changed the paradigm, he says. It changed the culture and allowed for dialogue.

“In the past five years, we’ve probably had about a dozen instances of illegal graffiti. That might sound like a lot, but that was a normal weekend (before),” Baraff says.

Allowing people to explore and bring their own meaning to the site made it that much stronger and more attractive, he says.

As a result, the organization created Rivers of Steel Arts in 2016, which supports artistic projects that further the interpretation of local history and re-imagine the future of familiar places.

It’s nice to see changes in action. It reminds us once again how powerful they can actually be.