What you need to know about Birmingham Lights, Railroad Park, Innovate Birmingham and other seismic local projects

Railroad Park. Birmingham, AL.
Railroad Park in Birmingham, AL (Photo via Railroad Park)

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You’ve seen the stunning multi-colored light tunnel connecting the northside of Birmingham with the southside.  You’ve enjoyed throwing frisbees at Railroad Park. You’ve attended a leading edge tech talk by Innovate Birmingham.  But, do you know how they projects came to life? Bham Now had a look behind the scenes. Here’s what we learned and how you can get involved.

1) Giant projects take significant, longstanding resources

Every impactful project in Birmingham requires significant dedication and resources.  Did you know The Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham has been investing in our region since 1959?  It’s the largest foundation in Alabama, operating as a permanent resource that connects philanthropists, non-profits, leaders and citizens with the goal of making the Birmingham area better for everyone.  The Foundation serves Jefferson, Shelby, Walker, Blount, and St.Clair counties.

Railroad Park is part of the 3 Parks Initiative
The 3 Parks initiative led to creation of Railroad Park, Red Mt.Park, and Ruffner Mt. Preserve (Photo by Jon Eastwood for Bham Now)

2) Young Birmingham leaders are forging the path

Young leaders in Birmingham, AL, functioning as a catalyst for change
The Catalyst Fund Fellowship program allows Birmingham’s young leaders to function as a catalyst for change (Photo courtesy of The Community Foundation)

The Community Catalyst Funds were established in 2009 as a new pool of flexible resources to support transformational projects in the Birmingham region.

Some of our community’s brightest young leaders were selected to participate in the The Catalyst Fellowship Program.  These young leaders are working towards identifying potential projects for investment of Catalyst Funds over the next ten years.

The inaugural class of Catalyst Fellows, made up of ten young leaders from a variety of industries and professional backgrounds across the region, are twelve months into a two-year program focussed on understanding philanthropic strategy, researching community issues, and learning from current community leaders.

They are:

  • Grant Brigham, ARC Realty
  • Kaija Flood, TheraNest
  • Kendra May, Hope Credit Union
  • Bernard Mays,Jr.,UAB
  • Chaz.C.Mitchell, City of Birmingham
  • Tanya Shunnara, Sirote & Permutt
  • John Smola, Alabama Power
  • Jeff Sokol, Acacia Partners
  • Mashonda S.Taylor, Woodlawn Foundation
  • Whitney Wright, Cook & Bynum

3) Catalyst Fund ‘Wins’

Since 2010, the Catalyst Funds have invested nearly $2 million in large scale community initiatives, such as;

  • Together We Prosper; a campaign to get the people of the Birmingham metro area talking about working together better to help the entire community prosper.
22 Jefferson County (AL) Mayors signed a 'Good Neighbor' pledge as part of the Together We Prosper campaign
22 Jefferson County Mayors sign the ‘Good Neighbor Pledge’, part of Together We Prosper campaign (Photo by Jon Eastwood for Bham Now)

Read more about how ‘Together We Prosper’ led to 22 mayors throughout Jefferson County signing the ‘Good Neighbor’ pledge, to combat poaching between cities and to pursue long-term economic growth for the region.

  • Burning Glass Technologies Report to create alignment between employers and educators to reform workpool pipelines
  • Innovate Birmingham; a platform for establishing a more inclusive innovation economy offering professional training opportunities and boot camps.
Training for young proffessionals as part of Innovate Birmingham
Inclusive professional training opportunities to boost innovation economy. (Photo via Innovate Birmingham Facebook)
  • Researching innovative practices in education to positively impact students in Birmingham City Schools via the Birmingham Education Foundation Strategic Planning project.
  • Birmingham Violence Reduction Initiative: a crime reduction strategy focusing on reducing group violence by creating collective accountability and providing members an “honorable exit” from street life.
  • Birmingham Lights, the artistic LED lighting installations in the historic train underpasses in downtown Birmingham, to encourage daytime and nighttime pedestrian traffic between the north and south side of town.
Birmingham Lights project illuminates one of the historic pathways between north and south of Birmingham, Alabama
The Birmingham Lights project encourages foot traffic between the north and south sides of Birmingham (Photo courtesy of The Community Foundation)

4)  The Catalyst Funds are building relationships across generations

Mayor Randall Woodfin of Birmingham, Alabama. Stood with Community Catalyst Fellows.
Community Catalyst Fellows with Mayor Randall Woodfin (Photo courtesy of The Community Foundation)

Lora Terry, Vice President of Philanthropic Services at The Community Foundation explains that  “Catalysts Funds provide a mechanism for donors to pool resources and partner with the Foundation to support innovative high impact initiatives that work to create transformational change. The Foundation also provides a platform for corporations to support the communities that support them, and it allows many individuals and families to leave a charitable legacy”

The Catalyst Fellowship program aims to build on the past, while planning for the future, by capturing the hearts and minds of the next generation to guide future philanthropic strategy in the region.

Lora said, “We have an incredible legacy of people who have helped create the Birmingham we have today. The Community Foundation strives to be a forward thinking philanthropic organization, and we want to make sure we are passing down our region’s culture of giving”

5) How Community Catalyst Fellows identify potential investments

Catalyst Fund donors, led by a group of 53 families, have developed the following characteristics to serve as guiding principles when identifying potential investments:

  • Builds on assets and possibilities
  • Offers hope
  • Sustainable
  • Unique to Birmingham
  • Noticeable and visible
  • Exciting
  • Broad impact
  • Accelerates progress
  • Collaborative
  • Stimulates and leverages investments
  • Unifying
  • A win for the Greater Birmingham region

6) Understanding community issues

Community meeting held by the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham
Understanding the needs of communities is an essential component (Photo via The Community Foundation, Facebook)

The Catalyst Fellows have spent the last year learning about needs, issues, and opportunities in the community, as well as getting to know each other.

Catalyst Fellow Grant Brigham of ARC Realty, and former Executive Director of Jones Valley Teaching Farm, told us more about the program.

“It’s an opportunity to serve with a group of young professionals that will work alongside the Catalyst Funds donors who have literally been carrying out philanthropic work in Birmingham for generations,” said Grant.

The challenge presented to the group is to understand critical community issues, and identify investment opportunities for Catalyst Funds to be used effectively to deliver transformational change.

The Fellows understand the importance of spending time fully understanding community issues to build on the legacy of what the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham and previous leaders have already achieved, with Grant telling us,

Members of the Catalyst Funds Fellowship program. Birmingham, Alabama
Young professionals will work alongside catalyst Fund donors (Phot via The Community Foundation)

“Birmingham is on an upwards trajectory – we need to bottle up that excitement. But we all also need to realize that there are issues related to equity, inclusion, poverty, education, and health services that need to be addressed in order to create a better region for everybody”

In summing up the aspirations of how the Catalyst Fellows might flourish, Grant said, “we’re excited that the generations that have come before us aim to open their doors to us, and to show us the way, and we also look forward to bringing our new ideas to the table and making them happen”.

How you can get involved

For further information about how the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham is addressing challenging issues and being a catalyst for change,  through the generosity of philanthropic donors, visit www.cfbham.org

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Author: Jon Eastwood

Originally from Wales (UK) and a fluent Welsh speaker. Longtime sustainability and recycling champion. Former county recycling manager in the UK. Career highlights include introducing innovative recycling systems and achieving a point where households throw out trash just once a month. Competed in international coastal rowing championships and followed Wales throughout Europe in their Rugby and Soccer endeavours.