A more open-minded Oklahoma would produce a more prosperous state, according an unscientific survey of more than 600 state residents.
The online survey, which is not a scientific poll, shows that the state has some perception problems when it comes to dealing with people of different races, cultures and lifestyles.
While there have been instances where intolerance has affected economic development, officials who are or have been responsible for recruiting and retaining businesses and workers say Oklahomans generally do a great job of selling their state.
Commerce Secretary Dave Lopez said Oklahomans are renowned for their warm hospitality, although some widely publicized events may leave the impression that the state doesn't embrace people of other cultures or backgrounds.
“I think because there may be perceptions that Oklahoma is not welcoming, it just gives us even more reason for leadership of the state to be clear that Oklahoma is a great place to work and live and that includes us showing how welcoming it is to people of different backgrounds,” Lopez said.
In at least a couple of instance, companies that were contemplating setting up shop in Oklahoma reconsidered or asked for more information based on diversity issues, he said.
A firm that launched operations in Oklahoma City did so only after state officials assured company officials that one person's intolerant statement regarding “gender preferences” did not represent the entire state, Lopez said.
Former Commerce Secretary Natalie Shirley, now president of Oklahoma State University-Oklahoma City, said the survey reflects a need for more education and more exposure to people with different backgrounds.
“I think that education and exposure and opportunity are the ways that we combat fear and narrow-mindedness,” said Shirley, who also is an adviser to the X Out Exclusion! group that created the survey.
Mike Neal, president of the Tulsa Metro Chamber, said the state's ability to embrace diversity and inclusion is important to its continued economic growth.
“As we look at the demographics of Oklahoma's educational system, which is already minority majority, it is evident that our workforce will follow the same trend,” Neal said.
The OUR Oklahoma Survey is the brainchild of Risha Grant, head of a Tulsa PR firm, who wants to present the survey's results to policymakers and business leaders to develop a plan to address diversity after the survey closes at year's end.
Grant said the survey was born out of meeting with then-Gov. Brad Henry and business executives that included a discussion of the perceptions of Oklahoma outside the state.
“When I travel, I still have people ask me if Oklahoma has black people,” Grant said.
Grant said some high-profile events, including state Rep. Sally Kern's 2008 declaration that a “homosexual agenda” was destroying the country, and a state question on next month's ballot that would prohibit affirmative action in the state, affect Oklahoma's image outside the state.
Whatever solutions are proposed, Grant said, need to be implemented from an “economic standpoint and not from a social justice standpoint. When it comes to business, you have to focus on the bottom line.”
More than 600 people have responded to the survey, with most being white (66 percent), women (64 percent) and college-educated (98 percent).
Nearly 9 in 10 of the respondents to the OUR Oklahoma Survey agreed or strongly agreed that more companies would move to Oklahoma if it were welcoming to people of diverse races and lifestyles.
A similar amount — 86 percent — of respondents agreed that more talented and educated people from other states would choose to live and work in Oklahoma if the state embraced people of diverse races and lifestyles.
More than two out of three respondents strongly or somewhat disagreed that Oklahoma is a welcoming state to people of diverse racial backgrounds, religions and sexual orientations.
While the Commerce Department isn't directly involved in the OUR Oklahoma Survey, Lopez said state officials are following the effort.
“It's another reminder of how when we're competing, this is something we can add to our tool kit to focus on,” he said.
Shirley views the survey as a reflection of the desire among Oklahomans who want to the state to improve.
“I think that Oklahoma is such a wonderful place to be,” she said. “We've got people in this state who are interested in taking what is already a good thing and making it a great thing. That's what I see this work — this survey — has done. It has shown us that we're good and that we have an opportunity to do even more.”
Shirley said she finds the vast majority of Oklahomans are “open, generous, kind, welcoming and inclusive.”
“The hatemongering that goes on gets its 15 minutes of fame and then the rest of us do what we're good at,” she said. “I truly look at these (intolerant) people as 15 minutes of fame. It is not the overall impression of this state. You can always find unpleasantness if that's what you're looking for. In Oklahoma, you're going to have to work at it.”
To take the OUR Oklahoma Survey, go to www.xout