A Tale of Two Clients
I’ve written about the time I went to a client’s office just after I broke my leg, when I couldn't get into the bathroom because there was no way to open the door while on crutches. Frustrated, I looked around and noticed there were no gender-neutral bathrooms either.
I brought this up to their DEI lead. She lowered her voice.
“I know,” she said to me quietly.
“But the most embarrassing thing is that we just built a new building in another city with the same problems—no accessible or gender-neutral bathrooms. Brand new. We haven’t even moved in yet!”
I was shaking my head along with her.
“I asked someone in human resources about it,” she continued, “and they said that the operations people didn’t even talk to them. Either their team or mine would have brought these issues up if we had just been asked.”
I was remembering this exchange recently when working with another client: Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge.
They’re a cemetery and a garden, a National Historic Landmark, an “urban oasis” full of peaceful greenery and historic monuments.
They’ve embarked on a visioning process as they approach their 200th anniversary. They’ve hired landscape architects and architects to help, of course. But they also want to put a DEI lens on all of it.
The space is free and open to the public every day of the year—but is it truly welcoming for everyone? Looking around, you see groups of mostly older, white women enjoying the gardens. Why are other people in the neighborhood walking by the gate?
I am excited to be working with them. I can see their process is inclusive, which is the key.
It’s about hearing from different people inside your organization, from different levels and different backgrounds. Whether it’s through a survey, affinity group interviews, or general focus groups, your people can tell you what they need and notice if you create a space and ask them. You can take a similar approach to information gathering with neighboring individuals, organizations, and associations.
As I was walking the grounds of Mount Auburn Cemetery, making observations about signage, languages, and accessibility, I was grateful to be working with them on a visioning process that employed a DEI lens from the beginning.
And I remembered the client with the brand new building without inclusive bathrooms.
They evidently missed this step.
And so did the building’s designers. An architecture firm should have an internal DEI function—if not a full department, at least a checklist. If you’re designing for people, shouldn’t you be thinking about the needs of all people, not just those who are able-bodied and cisgender?