Preservation of PrejudiceThe town of Newport RI was a popular summer-vacation spot for uber-wealthy families back in Victorian times, and some of them built their idea of "modest summer cottages" there -- in the form of palatial mansions scattered around town. Nowadays many of them are historical museum sites, maintained by a county-level Preservation Society and open for tours over much of the year. I had visited some of these sites almost a decade previously, and even put together a couple of pictorial writeups of those trips. After a few years the idea for a return visit sometime was floated, which seemed like a fine idea, but there was one minor matter that I needed to check on first.
On poking around on their website and looking through the "common questions"
rundown, I found an objectionable passage concerning footwear that
really needed to get fixed.
Once again, "health codes" had been used as an excuse to discriminate
Thus began the somewhat arduous task of finding the people responsible
for this and how to contact them, and to also see if the City of Newport
health officials knew about the misstatements that had been made and if
The Health Inspector actually encouraged me to bring it up with the
Mansions curators, as long as I was intending to talk to them anyway,
thus saving him the legwork.
It turned out to be quite difficult to reach the relevant people; the only available email address was a general "info" mailbox and their phone system was quite obscure to navigate and did not allow convenient return to a receptionist after getting dumped into somebody's voicemail. In talking to the one or two Preservation staffers I managed to catch on the phone I was assured that their general email address was valid and that any concerns that I sent to it would get appropriately forwarded around and handled. Given that the target people likely had no context on the interactions up to that point, I made my message as self-explanatory as I could. With a slight edge to it, expressing the frustration met with to date in actually trying to reach out to them and running into numerous dead ends.
Date: Thu, 18 May 2017 12:53:52 -0500 From: *Hobbit* To: firstname.lastname@example.org Subject: website & policy problem This is a formal objection to some of your website verbiage and underlying policies, and needs to be forwarded to key people such as John Rodman, Andrea Carneiro, and some of your other leadership as needed. The email is a little long but please read it carefully and take all of it seriously, as you may be placing the Society at undue legal risk as well as setting forth various unwelcoming postures to the public. I am a past visitor to some of the Preservation properties, and have enjoyed them immensely including some of the "behind the scenes" tours. It was several years ago, however, and while considering a return visit and poking around on your website under "common questions" I found this passage in a section about footwear: All public health regulations, including but not limited to the wearing of shoes while on the properties, will be enforced. This is a blatant misrepresentation. There are no regulations, laws, etc concerning footwear in public spaces or accomodations, and you can easily verify that from numerous online sources. False claims of any official legal statement about this are based in nothing other than prejudice, and can actually get you in some degree of trouble. But don't just believe me to point this out to you -- call John Mullen at the City of Newport health department, 401-222-7716, and confirm that with him. He agrees that the text on your website MUST be changed. In addition, your organization would benefit from a little research on individual lifestyles which generally do not include wearing of shoes at all. Start here: http://outbarefoot.org/ and follow some of the links as needed to educate yourselves on why this is a harmless choice and has NO bearing on patron safety. You cannot blindly dictate what you think is most suitable for all your visitors, because you will be wrong in some number of cases. Specifically, mine, as I have lived my life largely barefoot since 1980 and am confident that I would be far more stable, safe, and comfortable around the Mansions and grounds without shoes. I go hiking in the woods and climb mountains without shoes; I'm confident that your venues are far more benign. The Society would do well to adopt a more open policy on this, because otherwise you *discriminate* against anyone who goes barefoot for their own health/safety/personal reasons. Read the linked "Guidelines" page for suggestions on how to proceed. Shutting out guests over such a trifling matter does not reflect well on the goals of the Society, while losing valuable revenue. If you required all visitors to wear, say, Victorian corsets while on the grounds, there would be no end of public outcry. Place footwear in that same context. We are no longer in Victorian times, and individual choices must be respected in a more modern way. Note for Mr. Rodman -- you are impossible to reach on the phone. The one time I did manage to, on 16-May, you were evidently away from the office in your car, driving and talking on the phone *and* eating your lunch at the same time. Please don't try to talk to me about safety. Instead, put some of those investigative-reporting chops to work on the internet, to understand why "barefooters" are perfectly normal people who are still willing to hand you money and enjoy what you have to offer, and are no doubt healthier and more surefooted than many of your other patrons. They are also the ones least likely to try frivolous legal action over some premises problem. And bare soles produce less traffic wear on your flooring than shoes, especially since they don't track in any of the gravel from the surrounding walkways. I would, in fact, suggest this or something similar as alternate text for the relevant section of the website: ... 80 acres of gardens and grounds. We recommend whatever footwear you are most comfortable with for long periods of standing and walking. For our guests who prefer a barefoot lifestyle, we invite you to enjoy the houses as you would your own homes and yards, your experience enhanced by the rich textures and sensations of the floors and landscaping. We ask all visitors to please watch their step, as we are sure they would in any other unfamiliar setting. The last sentence is your "warm and fuzzy" disclaimer that more than covers any possible liability worries stemming from bare feet. When this situation is rectified I will be delighted to come visit the Mansions once again, and if my plea is refused/ignored then this letter must serve as a permanent public record of the Society's contrary attitude toward individual lifestyle freedom of choice. That is not the type of publicity you need, especially in today's political climate. Please don't misunderstand: I am trying to help move the Society's efforts forward and improve what it exists for. In service to the greater good, ...
What I forgot to mention was the fact that I had also hiked the majority of the Cliff Walk, a path that hugs the shoreline much of the way around Newport and is rather rugged in spots, happily barefoot. There's some great rock-hopping to be done along there, with the added fun of tidal variations.
My message didn't bounce, but also didn't elicit any response whatever even though I gave full email and phone contact information. About a week later I called and managed to reach the administrative assistant who handles the "info" inbox, who ostensibly checked their accumulated mail and the spam folder and claimed that she couldn't find the message at all. How convenient, huh. If I sent another copy, she said, she would acknowledge receipt when it came in. A seemingly successful re-send was then also met with solid crickets.
In the meantime, I had learned that their personal email address format is pretty simple -- first initial, last name @ newportmansions.org. With permission, I tried a couple of simple "please tell me if you received this" test messages directly to who I understood to be the website and support people, explaining that I was still trying to get a longer message into the right hands, again with no result other than someone's vacation autoresponder. I was getting the distinct impression that they had received everything I sent just fine, but were doing their best to ignore me, hide behind their silence bred of superstition, and just avoid thinking about the question at all.
It really is its own kind of astounding how readily and freely people will lie about email-related issues. Not just in this case, but anywhere and in any business context. It is too easy to just delete stuff and then blame "spam filters" as an excuse to avert responsibility, especially after assuring someone on the phone that "yes, I'll forward it to the right people" and then failing to. All that does is shortcut decision and response processes that really should be fielded by the people genuinely in charge and most aware of an organization's needs. With arrogant underlings that routinely apply their own personal bias to a flow of customer-service issues, it's no wonder the people at the top are so often out of touch with reality. Happens all the time, and it's killing credibility for countless organizations.
I have to wonder, do they also treat those reaching out in the interest of potential philanthropy in the same glacially unresponsive way?
Sporadic tries on the telephone over the next couple of weeks never managed to raise anyone, so finally I got back to the Health Dept guy and told him I'd been unable to deliver the relevant advice. As a final semi-desperate move, not because of any burning need to visit the Mansions but simply because raising *anybody* over there had been so impossible, I managed to reach the CEO of the Society on the phone and asked her if she had heard a whisper of any of this. She said she had not, and asked me to try sending the original message directly to her. Still somewhat dubious, I did, with an added note that the city officials were still in the loop about the misleading website and that I was expecting a formal response regardless of outcome.
For what it was worth, that finally cracked the shell. Ms. Coxe took enough responsibility to forward my opus on to their "guest experience" guy, the same one with the car and the phone and the lunch who I had failed to reach before. Over a month after this effort began, I finally got something resembling an answer.
From: John Rodman <JRodman@newportmansions.org> Subject: Your question. Date: Tue, 20 Jun 2017 15:37:45 +0000 Dear sir, We appreciate your interest in the Preservation Society and the properties of the Newport Mansions. We have reviewed the relevant materials and we will continue to require footwear at all our properties. Thank you for your questions. [JRsignaturescan0001.jpg] John G. Rodman Director of Museum Experience The Preservation Society of Newport County 424 Bellevue Ave Newport RI 02848 401 847 1000 x117 (m) 401 662 2490
I have to give the fellow some credit for restraint, after I had singled him out in front of his peers like that for his indiscretion about driving distractions. Perhaps his terse statements carried an overtone of simple vengeance against me, who's to say? He certainly didn't offer any solid reasoning, despite my having asked for that via the re-send to his boss. I was past caring anymore, since they had all been so frustrating to deal with in the first place.
However, while losing on one point I did win on the other -- the verbiage on the website *did* get changed, so obviously I had at least forced them to think about that and take some action. That probably got the issue in front of a few more more eyeballs within the organization, at least making them more aware of it. Perhaps Mr. Mullen had come by in the meantime and reinforced the point with them. Checking the "questions" page a little later showed that the offending text had been changed to
... For your comfort and safety, we recommend that you wear sturdy walking shoes or sneakers. Shirts and shoes must be worn at all times on the Preservation Society's properties.So they had traded one piece of bad sixties mythology for another. But you could ask anyone who parrots that idiotic phrase, what do shirts and shoes have to do with each other?? Shirts do not physically harm their wearers, whereas shoes very well can especially when worn under duress for long active periods. Mr. Rodman is welcome to sit by the exit door and smell a few of them as visitors emerge; perhaps that would bring the *real* health problem home to him.
The arbitrary statement is not entirely surprising, though. The Society is clearly quite the stuffy traditionalist sort of group -- one only has to look at the photographs of their gatherings and events in some of the Annual Reports, where they're all dressed to the nines. That's their right to enjoy, of course, if that's what they're into. But someday they may begin to realize that their general public doesn't necessarily live that way, and maybe expects a little more accomodation and freedom of expression for their money while engaging in casual tourism. It therefore looks like the Preservation properties are simply off the list until they wise up to what healthy diversity among their paying patrons really means.
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