All Are Welcome. Interview With Meredith Worthen of The Welcoming Project
Hi Meredith, please introduce yourself and describe a typical day at The Welcoming Project.
I am an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Women’s and Gender Studies at The University of Oklahoma and I created The Welcoming Project to reach out to the LGBTQ community and their allies. The majority of the work I do for The Welcoming Project involves generating new interest in the project and trying to get businesses, organizations, and churches to become a part of the project. I am also actively involved in creating new programming for The Welcoming Project including our newly created undergraduate scholarship award and our annual events which include Gay Pride OKC and our quarterly luncheon.
Where did the idea for The Welcoming Project come from?
The Welcoming Project was an idea that I thought of after attending an event at The University of Oklahoma where activist Shelby Knox discussed gay-straight alliances in America. The event inspired me to ask myself what more I could do in my community to contribute to a more positive environment for LGBTQ individuals and allies. I am actively involved in the LGBTQ educational campus program at The University of Oklahoma, The Sooner Ally Program, so I wanted to think of ways that I could extend the idea of The Sooner Ally Program beyond campus borders. One important part of The Sooner Ally Program involves posting visible “Sooner Ally” signs to indicate LGBTQ-openness to students, faculty, and staff. I wanted to provide a service like that for the larger community. With the help of Kathy Moxley of the Women’s Outreach Center and co-creator Brian Eddins, The Welcoming Project came into being. Since then, it has really begun to take shape with more than 35 LGBTQ-friendly businesses, organizations, and churches participating across the United States. We like to think of the project as a nation-wide or even global effort to promote the visibility of LGBTQ-friendly entities, stimulate educational efforts, and encourage advocacy.
How many people volunteer for The Welcoming Project?
The Welcoming Project team is made of up me and my husband, co-creator Brian Eddins.
How did you decide on the All Are Welcome slogan?
That is actually a funny story. After discussing the project with Kathy Moxley and Brian Eddins, I knew that a “sign” was going to be a big part of this project. I didn’t know what the sign would be but I woke up one morning with the idea of “All Are Welcome” and it just seemed to be perfect. It really fit with what I wanted to do with the project since I wanted to promote acceptance of diversity. I got on my computer and opened up PowerPoint and began creating ideas for graphics. The rainbow flag was chosen because I think it is the most easily recognizable LGTBQ-friendly symbol that transgresses borders and communities. Unlike other symbols (for example, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) symbol which only some people recognize as a positive LGTBQ symbol) most people know what the rainbow flag stands for. The addition of our slogan “All Are Welcome” further solidifies the goal of The Welcoming Project.
What’s the connection with Norman, Oklahoma?
I live in Norman and I wanted to make a difference in this community as well as others. Norman is a unique community because it is a typical “college town” that has a transient college population but it is also located in a very conservative state (Oklahoma). Norman itself is recognized as the most “liberal” area in the state but it still faces challenges. The Welcoming Project is an ideal addition to the Norman community because Norman has many LGBTQ-friendly places that should be easily visibly recognizable so that the new college students can locate “safe” spaces when they come to Norman. I really feel that this is the perfect time for Norman and other parts of the country to show support for LGBTQ individuals and allies. With the recent 2010 victory of the City of Norman Human Right's Commission's initiative to declare October as Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender History Month, the community is aware that LGBTQ individuals and allies are an important part of it
What’s the biggest challenge about raising awareness for The Welcoming Project?
Awareness is one of the main goals of The Welcoming Project and it is quite a challenge. The use of social media (i.e. Facebook and Twitter) has really helped us get the word out there about the project in the short time since its launch. But unfortunately, social media outlets only reach people who are already LGBTQ-friendly. We would like to reach out to those who maybe haven’t thought about the LGBTQ community before or maybe don’t understand the unique needs of the LGBTQ community. We want to educate business owners, organization coordinators, and church officials about the fact that the LGBTQ community and their allies are a part of every community and that displaying a visible welcoming sign can have a huge positive impact.
What has the reception been like so far for businesses featuring Welcoming signs?
I have actually been very impressed with the interest that The Welcoming Project has generated in the short time since its launch in late March 2011. We have contacted hundreds of local businesses, organizations, and churches and many have responded with positivity and support. We hope to continue to see as much positive interest as we move forward with the project.
What about their patrons?
My husband is a realtor and he has The Welcoming Project symbol posted on the homepage of his website, www.brianeddins.com. He actually had a potential client contact him because she saw the symbol! This is actually exactly how I hoped the project would work! The idea is that the display of the welcoming sign, whether it be on a website or in a window, would allow patrons to feel welcomed. Not only that, the symbol promotes a positive message and those who support that message may also want to support that business.
Also, our Facebook page has nearly 200 followers and many are potential “patrons” who are very supportive of businesses, organizations, and churches as they become a part of the project.
What’s been the biggest surprise so far about The Welcoming Project?
I think the surprise has really been the positive encouragement we have received from the Norman community and beyond. When we started the project, I really had no idea how people would respond. I have been pleasantly surprised by the overwhelming amount of support we have received. We only hope it continues.
What would you say to business owners and/or church groups tentative about joining the program?
I think the main point I want to get across to business owners and churches is about the power of welcoming symbols. It is truly remarkable how much a small gesture like displaying a welcome sign can positively impact LGBTQ individuals and allies. I think many people underestimate the power that a symbol like this can have, but I know that when I see symbols like this, it is extremely powerful. For example, I would much prefer to be a patron of a welcoming business or a member of a welcoming church if I had the choice. I think that others who are supportive of the LGBTQ community feel the same way.
Where can people get involved?
People can get involved in several ways:
- Tell a business owner, organization coordinator, or church official about The Welcoming Project!
- Download our brochure from our website and share it with others! http://www.thewelcomingproject.org/downloads/The%20Welcoming%20Project%20brochure.pdf
- Follow us on Facebook! www.facebook.com/thewelcomingproject
- Follow us on Twitter! www.twitter.com/thewelcomingpro
- Promote us either on your website or in your newsletter and we will you list you on our website here: http://www.thewelcomingproject.org/news-web.php
- Sign up to receive our quarterly e-newsletter here: http://www.thewelcomingproject.org/mailing-list.php
- Attend one of our events! Information about The Welcoming Project upcoming events can be found here: http://www.thewelcomingproject.org/events.php
- Donate to The Welcoming Project!
The Welcoming Project is a non-profit organization. We count on donations from supporters to reach our fundraising goals and give back to the community. We greatly appreciate any and all donations in any amount. When you make a donation to The Welcoming Project, you can help in the following ways:
- You can provide 100 Welcoming Signs for businesses, organizations, and churches to post in their windows for just $20.
- You can contribute to The Welcoming Project Scholarship $500 Award and provide an outstanding undergraduate student who is an energetic LGBTQ activist with a financial award that will help him/her succeed in completing his/her undergraduate education.
- You can help us keep our website up to date and keep the community informed about The Welcoming Project by contributing toward our monthly website maintenance fee for just $60.
- You can help The Welcoming Project achieve visibility in Norman through donating as little as $5 to help us pay for membership fees to be a part of the Norman Downtowners Association, Norman Chamber of Commerce, Norman Next Community Activism Group, PFLAG Norman, and Gay & Lesbian Rainbow Pages.
You may make donations to The Welcoming Project by mail or online through PayPal. Information about donations can be found here: http://www.thewelcomingproject.org/donations.php
Thank you so much for your time, Meredith!