Inside the newly renovated lobby of one Downtown Madison insurance business, a 25-foot wall of 360 marble gray tiles displays the company’s diversity, equity and inclusion statement — but not in a way the viewer might expect.
Etched into the 18×8-inch tiles that adorn National Guardian Life’s entrance are what award-winning Black architect Michael Ford called a hieroglyphic-like alphabet that he conceptualized using computer software and his artistic intuition.
Ford’s mosaic wall, which the company plans to unveil with events in July and August along with its soon-to-be-completed renovation project, deconstructs the diversity and inclusion statement letter by letter, using a process Ford created that converts music lyrics into architecture based on syllable counts, rhyme schemes and other mathematical information that can be extracted from the text.
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“Valuing diversity of thought, background and beliefs are key to living our cultural values of integrity, dependability, collaboration, compassion and growth,” the wall reads. “It’s vital to our promise of helping customer’s face life’s challenges with confidence, dignity and grace. We strive to create an environment free of racism, discrimination and intolerance — fostering equal opportunities and promoting belonging and inclusion.”
The designs etched into each tile, which are a half-inch thick, loosely resemble a West African type of writing known as adinkra, whose geometric symbols are classically used in fabrics, pottery and logos to convey messages of wisdom, Ford said. Some of the tiles feature straight horizontal lines, while others depict jagged edges and circles.
But Ford also wanted to create something new and original, he said. Known as Madison’s “Hip Hop Architect” and founder of architectural firm BrandNu Design, Ford seeks to increase the diversity of talent in his industry. In 2019, jut over 11% of architects in the U.S. identified as a racial or ethnic minority, according to research by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards.
National Guardian Life, founded in 1909 with 300 employees, has in addition to the art piece been on its own mission to become a more inclusive workplace since the 2019 hire of CEO Knut Olson, said Jessica Grann, chief culture and communications officer, adding that’s demonstrated in a remodel that’s meant to promote the well-being of workers, as well as updates to benefit offerings and customer policies.
The 2020 killing of George Floyd, which spurred racial justice demonstrations all over the world, furthered that objective, she said, adding that National Guardian Life is best known for offering customers all over the U.S. with preneed life insurance, which covers the cost of funeral expenses.
The company is also making moves following a Madison Region Economic Partnership survey that late last year said employers in the Dane County region are at a “starting point” in creating a welcoming environment for workers. The proportion of both women and people of color in top leadership positions has “increased by an average of 2.5%” each year from 2016-2021, the survey said.
The remodel project (roughly $10 million-plus) has transformed the interior of the company’s headquarters, which is just blocks from the Capitol, Grann said, adding that the motivation was to aid an increasingly remote workforce. The wall itself cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, she said.
All seven of the company’s floors received upgrades, Grann said. Madison architect Strang helped National Guardian Life update its building to include open offices, collaboration and conference space, quiet rooms, a cafeteria and access to natural light and views of James Madison Park — and with a color palette of teals, burnt oranges and grays to complement the art piece.
The business intends to lease its fourth and fifth floors to tenants, Grann said, adding the company could host community events there as well.
She said National Guardian Life is looking to get its WELL certification. The International WELL Building Institute uses a set of specific criteria to determine how well a company is promoting the health of its workers. Grann didn’t provide a specific timeline for when the certification may happen.
Beyond the art
Grann said some employees recently underwent training to better understand implicit bias, which includes attitudes people harbor toward others without conscious knowledge. Implicit biases can influence hiring and retention decisions in the workplace, various studies show.
Employees have also within the last few years received eight weeks of paid parental leave following the birth or adoption of a child, said spokesperson Maria Lubick, adding that National Guardian Life through an independent agency also conducted a staff survey to see how the company could improve in terms of diversity and inclusion.
The results of that survey were not released.
Another goal of National Guardian Life’s is to better support its Spanish-speaking customers, Grann said of the ways the company is looking to accommodate diverse clients.
One of the company’s largest preneed organizations is based in California, where large populations of Hispanic people reside. A few possible routes for supports are translation services and marketing materials printed in Spanish, Grann said.
“I hope the wall will be a visual reminder to all of us to stay on (this inclusion) journey throughout the course of our daily lives,” Olson said in an email statement.