Birmingham wins top Sister Cities International award for 4th time in 8 years

Birmingham, Alabama, Birmingham Sister Cities
Birmingham, Alabama, Birmingham Sister Cities
Cultural exchange visit to Israel. Photo via Birmingham Sister Cities

Sister Cities International has named the Birmingham chapter best overall in 2018 for a city of its size. It’s the fourth time in eight years Birmingham has earned the organization’s top award. What’s the secret sauce that makes Birmingham Sister Cities so special? 

“We have won awards for the last 10 years, and in the last eight years we have won the top award four times. To put that into football terms, it is Sabanesque and the process works. Great job, Sister City team.”—Scotty Colson, board member and former director

Birmingham Sister Cities sets the standard for what it means to be a citizen diplomat.

Several hundred Birmingham volunteers work to foster community ties and cultural understanding with 14 cities in 11 countries around the world. Through their efforts, Birmingham, a city of over 200,000, reaches 14 million people worldwide.

“Through people-to-people exchanges and getting to know each other, we become a better world, better customers of each other, better prospects for each other and a better, safer world for us and our children,” Colson said.

Birmingham Sister Cities members include Indian Americans, Japanese Americans, Chinese Americans, Ukrainian Americans, Czech Americans—the list goes on.

“We try to get somebody with a local connection (to the sister city), if not with that community, then with that country. It helps with translating and finding volunteers and host families,” Colson said.

These projects had a huge impact in 2017.

1. Akwaaba! That means “Welcome” in Ghana-West Africa. Sixteen Birmingham adults and high school students took an education-focused trip to Ghana to visit local leaders and schools. The group included Birmingham-Southern College faculty who hope to start a student exchange program with a college in Winneba, Ghana.

Birmingham, Alabama, Birmingham Sister Cities
Visit to Ghana. Photo via Birmingham Sister Cities

2. Got a high-tech solution for a global problem? Let’s work on it together. Birmingham Innovation Depot connected with high-tech incubators in Anshan, China. The business exchange aims to develop projects like water permeable parking lots and medical assistant robots. Innovation Depot also works with similar organizations in Japan and Liverpool, UK.

Birmingham, Alabama, Birmingham Sister Cities
Visitors from Vinnytsia, Ukraine, in Birmingham for Open World leadership training. Photo via Birmingham Sister Cities

3. Vinnytsia, Ukraine, we are with you all the way. Birmingham Sister Cities donated medical supplies to the victims of the ongoing war in the Donbas region of their sister city of Vinnytsia. For the past decade the organization has collaborated with Open World to cultivate a new generation of Vinnytsia leaders.

“The program has created a group of young, highly motivated public servants and entrepreneurs who are really making a difference in Vinnytsia. It is a model city in Ukraine for reform and development.”—Scotty Colson

4. Little citizen diplomats in training. In a pilot program, 500 students in two Birmingham elementary schools received “passports.” When a child attended a local international event (Chinese New Year, Ukraine Independence Day, the Greek Festival and so on), they got a passport stamp. Fun!

Birmingham, Alabama, Birmingham Sister Cities
Chinese New Year in Birmingham. Photo via Birmingham Sister Cities

5. Let the games begin! Held every four years in Israel, the Maccabiah Games is the third-largest sporting event in the world. Jewish community centers across the U.S. host their own Maccabiah Games. Birmingham Sister Cities helped bring participants from Rosh Ha’ayin, Israel, and Krasnodon, Ukraine, for the Birmingham games in 2017.

Birmingham, Alabama, Birmingham Sister Cities
People-to-people exchanges build diplomacy at the ground level. Photo of Israel visit via Birmingham Sister Cities
Birmingham Sister Cities volunteers stick with it.

Colson has been involved with the organization since 1986. Bettina Byrd-Giles, president of the volunteer board, has been with it since 1992. If you wonder why, look no further than the rewarding bonds volunteers form with each other and with those in sister cities.

“This is the best group of people I’ve ever worked with. They’re hardworking and committed, dedicated and creative in their approaches to relationships across the globe.”—Bettina Byrd-Giles, board president

Birmingham, Alabama, Birmingham Sister Cities
Sharing cultural experiences fosters understanding and respect. Photo via Birmingham Sister Cities

A few years back, Byrd-Giles hosted a Japanese high school exchange student who she now refers to as her Japanese daughter.

“She’s coming back to the United States to continue her education at Oklahoma Christian University. She’s going to stay with us during university holidays, and we stayed with her when we went to Japan,” Byrd-Giles said.

Colson’s last day as director was July 1. Though he will continue as a board member, it’s clear he’s left big shoes to fill.

“A lot of what we’ve done is the result of Scotty Colson and his dedication and commitment, and we are really going to miss him,” Byrd-Giles said.

Congratulations on your top award, Birmingham Sister Cities!
Birmingham, Alabama, Birmingham Sister Cities
photo via Birmingham Sister Cities

Want to read more about leading Birmingham service organizations with a global impact? Check this out.

Can you name all of Birmingham’s sister cities? Here’s your cheat sheet.
  1. Hitachi, Japan
  2. Maebashi, Japan
  3. Székesfehérvár, Hungary
  4. Guediawaye, Senegal
  5. Vinnytsia, Ukraine
  6. Anshan, China
  7. Chaoyang District – Beijing, China
  8. Plzeň, Czech Republic
  9. Rosh Ha’ayin, Israel
  10. al-Karak, Jordan
  11. Winneba, Ghana
  12. Apaaso, Ghana
  13. Liverpool, UK
  14. Kingston, Jamaica