Norman businesses welcome diversity with 'welcome' signs
An OU sociology professor’s dream of creating a world that accepts everyone has spread from Campus Corner to the rolling countryside of Italy.
AT A GLANCE
Oklahoma: 5 churches, 21 organizations, 79 businesses
Canada: 7 businesses
Italy: 1 business
Meredith Worthen, a Women’s and Gender Studies faculty member, created the Welcoming Project last year to promote the visibility of businesses friendly to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community.
More than 200 businesses, organizations and churches across the U.S., Canada and Europe have joined the Welcoming Project, displaying a rainbow sign that reads “All Are Welcome” in their windows.
“I wanted there to be some visible symbols,” Worthen said. “It’s about allowing our community to be welcoming to everyone.”
The signs are part of Worthen’s dream of creating a world that accepts anyone regardless of his or her gender, race, ethnicity, religion or sexuality.
Worthen was inspired to create the Welcoming Project in March 2011, when activist Shelby Knox came to OU to discuss gay-straight alliances, she said.
Worthen, already a member of the Sooner Ally program, said she decided to use the Welcoming Project to reach out to a larger community. The project began with the help of Women’s Outreach Center Director Kathy Moxley and local real estate agent Brian Eddins, Worthen said.
The Welcome Project supports advocacy and empowerment, social work graduate student Joe Wilson said.
Ann Benson, also a social work graduate student, said the project embodies the values of social work.
“These include challenging social injustice, protecting vulnerable populations, understanding the importance of human relationships and honoring the dignity and worth of all human beings,” Benson said.
Benson and Wilson were the main coordinators of October’s Welcoming Project mobilization day, which doubled the number of involved Norman businesses, Benson said.
On mobilization day, project members went out into the community to ask local businesses to place the welcome signs on their doors and cash registers, sociology graduate student Amanda Fehlbaum said.
Worthen and volunteers signed up more than 30 businesses that day.
The Welcoming Project is a symbol of a step toward achieving equality because it welcomes everyone, Fehlbaum said.
“It doesn’t have an asterisk that says ‘only if you’re such and such or believe such and such,’” Fehlbaum said. “All means all.”
The project works to ensure that those who identify themselves as LGBTQ no longer have to be marginalized, Benson said.
“It taps into the power of relationship building within the business community toward a goal of social transformation,” Benson said.
The project is a grassroots solution that takes the message directly to the community, Wilson said.
The Welcoming Project is unique because, unlike many other outreach organizations, it does not demand a lot from businesses, Fehlbaum said. In return for putting up the sign, participators get free advertising on the project’s website, Fehlbaum said.
“To me, that seems like a win-win situation,” she said.
Worthen said she and her husband work full time, but they want to continue expanding the project’s reach.
“We want to work with anyone who wants to help,” Worthen said. “There is a lot of work to be done.”
Worthen and Eddins are the soul of his project, Fehlbaum said. They dedicate all the extra time, effort and energy they have to making the project a success.
While many just see injustices, Worthen acts to create justice, Benson said.
The Welcoming Project celebrated its first anniversary this month. During the past year, project administrators participated in local events like Coming Out Day and LGBTQ Month, and they will participate in the 25th Annual OKC Pride Parade in May, Worthen said.
The organization recently became an official charitable organization, meaning they receive retroactive exempt status for all donations, Worthen said. The project will start awarding a $500 scholarship to an undergraduate LGBTQ activist annually, according to the project’s website.
“The Welcoming Project has already demonstrated that change is possible,” Benson said. “It holds promise for even better days ahead.”