Design, Dignity, and Community

Laurie and Debbie say:

We were struck by this short piece by Courtney at Feministing about the new offices of GEMS, a nonprofit organization serving girls and young women who have been in the world of domestic trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation. Basically, GEMS worked with a local architecture firm who designed their space as a charitable donation.

Courtney is responding to the way many people involved in social change “initially dismiss such efforts as nice window-dressing in comparison to the “real issues” that we must tackle as feminist activists.”

That kind of dismissal is understandable: effectively all nonprofits want to do more than they can do, and the more that they are attempting to serve an under-resourced and under-protected population, the harder it is to put either money or energy into the design of their own space.

Nonetheless, Courtney is also right when she says (quoting herself in an earlier post at The American Prospect):

Suddenly, I realized how deeply I was affected, how deeply all human beings are affected, by the spaces we inhabit. All of these profound, if unconscious, messages are spoken to us through color, shape, space, air, light, or lack thereof.

If an organization is working in a space where the people they serve spend time, it’s really important to make that space respectful, and welcoming. Note that this doesn’t necessarily mean spending money: we’ve all seen beautiful apartments (and even the occasional beautiful office) put together from Salvation Army and craigslist bits and pieces by someone with a good eye. It also doesn’t necessarily mean finding architects who will design your space for you, which might be “free” design in money, but takes energy, time management, and finding the money to make the design a reality.

What it does mean is finding out from the people you work with what makes them comfortable as a group. Individuals have different tastes, but ethnicity, age and class (among other things) all affect patterns of expectation and comfort levels. What feels respectful and easy to the people who come in and out? What feels off-putting or makes them feel like they “don’t belong”? What free or inexpensive sources can they identify for items that enhance comfort and livability? Which of those choices also work for the staff and volunteers? Where are the compromises and when is it important not to compromise? This process also takes energy and time management–and helps the organization create a community of staff, volunteers, and the people for whom the organization exists. And it will also result in choices that surprise almost everyone–usually in really helpful ways.

For organizations that don’t have people coming in and out, the same community process will work with the staff and volunteers as community–and again pay back the energy it takes to get through the process.

Resources are always limited: you will never have enough money, time, and energy. Sometimes you really don’t have the resources to contend with this issue at all. Sometimes the space seems intractable (and sometimes it is). But this is a process where, if you can get it going, the process will greatly benefit your organization and your community.

1 thought on “Design, Dignity, and Community

  1. Yes. Exactly. Every word.

    The first time I walked into my current primary hospital, the visual and aural effect of the rocky “hillside” with waterfalls and trees rising 3 stories and stretching along one entire side of a 300-foot atrium, I immediately thought, “I don’t ever want to be hospitalized, but if I need to be, I want to be hospitalized here!

    When it comes to hospitals, staff knowledge and quality of care are of course more important than a huge, rocky hillside, trees, and a waterfall. But my instant impression was one of comfort, of calm. I want that environment for myself and for the people who spend their working hours caring for hospitalized patients.

    My only complaint about my subsequent overnight stay following gall bladder surgery was that I didn’t get to go walkies on the path through the hillside. I’ve seen and talked with longer-stay patients taking their walkies there, but I only got to see the hillside and listen to the waterfalls when I was coming and going. My small bit of walking was restricted to the unit I was on.

    St. Vincent’s is a great place to go to for outpatient services, too. I’m sure the atrium doesn’t appeal to everyone (nothing does), but it is gobsmackingly respectful and welcoming to me. I moved to Massachusetts to live in the woods. I never expected to find rocky hills and woods in my hospital. I love that they’re there.

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