They are as different as a bicycle is from a horse, as air is from water, as education is from a hole in the ground.
And you may come into contact with them every day in some way or other.
Nonprofits make up a significant piece of the culture of the Birmingham area, and they run a gamut of interests, with basically two elements in common — they depend on committed people, and their business is giving and serving.
“Nonprofits are a great vehicle to provide a voice to the grassroots, your average everyday citizens and the issues that are near and dear to them,” said Nelson Brooke, Black Warrior Riverkeeper.
The BWRK works to protect the Black Warrior River watershed, which, among its other functions, provides more than half of Birmingham’s drinking water.
Brooke, who has been involved with his nonprofit for nearly 12 years, said he got involved because, “I’ve always loved the outdoors and through appreciation of wanting to protect our natural resources I just jumped at the opportunity to become the Riverkeeper when the opportunity presented itself.” Taking on the responsibility to watch out for the river “was an ideal way for me to really fill into my dream job and give back,” he said.
People who join nonprofits are those who “care deeply about the cause that they’re working for,” Brooke said. “And they’re willing to go above and beyond to better the cause whether that’s in a volunteer capacity at a reduced pay scale or increased work hours, people are definitely willing to take that extra step.”
Birmingham has a long history of nonprofit organizations, some of them working like large multifaceted businesses addressing various needs, or like confederations of likeminded, but differently oriented companies — think United Way of Central Alabama. Others are focused on exactly one thing, whether that is air pollution or the quality of water in a very specific river.
“One of my mentors in the nonprofit world said something years ago that stuck with me,” said Michael Hansen, communications director for the Greater Birmingham Alliance to Stop Air Pollution. “’Nonprofit is a tax status, not a business model.’ When I think of successful local nonprofit organizations, I think of those that treat their operations as a startup business whose raison d’etre is to solve a problem through services, education and advocacy.”
“The best organizations view their stakeholders — especially the communities they serve, their volunteers, and their donors — as an integral, interdependent part of the work. These dedicated world changers have a passion for giving back, whether it’s time, skills, or money, and they’re the driving force behind every nonprofit’s work.”
Seen in the broad sense, there are hundreds of nonprofit organizations in or around Birmingham, ranging from schools and colleges, to educational institutions like the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, to charitable groups and foundations. Several are featured in this issue of Weld.
Consider two very different nonprofits centered on very different causes in Birmingham.
Remembering an ageless atrocity
The Birmingham Holocaust Education Center was formed in 2002 as regional education division of the Alabama Holocaust Commission, becoming an independent 501c3 organization in 2014, according to Rebecca Dobrinski, program director for the BHEC, and contributor to Weld.
Through an ongoing partnership with the AHC, the BHEC provides “educational opportunities for teachers, students and communities throughout the state with the mission to ‘keep the history and lessons of the Holocaust alive,’” Dobrinski wrote.
The organization works with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, and strives to keep up with the latest research on the Holocaust and with the best teaching techniques on the subject, providing resources to the public through the BHEC website (bhamholocausteducation.org), various seminars and other outreach efforts including a Facebook page (facebook.com/BHEC.connect), Dobrinski said.
For example, BHEC, in conjunction with the AHC offers free daylong teacher workshops across the state. “During the 2015-16 school year, workshops will take place in Birmingham, Huntsville, Troy and Livingston,” Dobrinski said. “Thanks to [our] generous donors, the BHEC is able to offer teachers a stipend to cover any substitute teacher costs they may incur while attending these workshops.”
BHEC resources also include the Brenda and Fred Friedman Holocaust Studies Scholarship Program, available to teachers all over Alabama. “These scholarships allow educators to attend nationally and internationally recognized Holocaust education workshops at institutions like the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (Washington, DC), the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous (New York and Europe) and Yad Vashem (Israel),” Dobrinski said.
Additional resources for teachers include continuing education credits through their Teacher Cadre program, which meets four times during a school year to examine Holocaust-related topics, and resources to help present the material in classrooms.
The BHEC also offers resources for students, specifically internships for those in high school and college. Those semester-length internships expose students “not only to the vastness of Holocaust education, but also to working in a public history nonprofit,” Dobrinski said.
The center also offers, free to schools and community groups, several educational exhibitions including Alabama Holocaust Survivors Through Photography and Art, Courage to Remember and Darkness Into Life, the latter telling the stories of 20 Alabama Holocaust survivors through original photographs, paintings and narratives. “A portion of the original exhibit will be on display at Vulcan Park and Museum from September 2015 through May 2016,” Dobrinski said. “While the artwork is at Vulcan, an exhibition of student work will be on display at the BHEC office later this fall.”
BHEC offers a speakers’ bureau, which presents local Holocaust survivors or their children and scholars to audiences that number into the thousands yearly.
Aside from the living history BHEC presents, the organization is reopening this fall its Holocaust Studies Library, which features more than 2,000 volumes, making it one of the largest repositories of written works examining the connections between the Holocaust and other World War II topics in the Southeast. The library also connects visitors to Holocaust survivors living in this area, Dobrinski said.
“Local Holocaust survivors at one time numbered almost 100; today only 22 remain,” she noted. “The BHEC works diligently to record as many of their stories as possible, making DVD copies of survivor talks available in the library, as well as archiving personal photos and historical artifacts relating to the era.”
Each year, BHEC commemorates Holocaust-related events, including Kristallnacht — the period during November 1938 when Nazis and anti-Semitic mobs carried out a series of attacks on Jews, their homes, businesses and places of worship — and Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day). Commemorations include speakers, programs and an annual spring film series at the Emmet O’Neal Library in Mountain Brook, which Dobrinski said “continues to attract hundreds to view compelling films and engage in discussions following the presentations.”
In March 2016, BHEC expects to present “For a Look or a Touch” at the Lyric Theatre, a “musical and dramatic look” at how the Nazis persecuted homosexual men. “The library includes books on the persecution of homosexuals, Roma (gypsies), the handicapped and other groups the Nazis considered undesirable,” Dobrinski said. “Telling these stories is an important step in combatting hate and prejudice locally and throughout the world.”
Cycling for good
At a completely different end of the spectrum, Birmingham also features nonprofits working on less serious, but still significant efforts such as transportation. One of those is Redemptive Cycles.
“Cycling has grown tremendously in downtown over the past two years, and I feel RC has been one of the main reasons for that,” said Marcus Fetch, executive director of the nonprofit. “We have averaged over 1,000 bicycles refurbished and put back on the road annually,” he noted, with as many as 75 percent of their bikes going to “people getting their first bike and starting to ride again. So based upon our statistics, we have generated a minimum of 1,500 new cyclists over the past two years solely through our bicycle distribution.”
It must be pointed out that Redemptive Cycles, which began about 2013, is not Birmingham’s first bike co-op. That distinction belongs to the nonprofit Bici Co-op or the Bici Bicycle Cooperative, which began in 2009. Bici, according to its website, “has a goal to create easy and equal access to cycling by providing affordable bicycles, maintenance services and education, as well as a forum for sharing bicycle knowledge, activism and community.”
Bici’s founders “believed that Birmingham needed a place for everyone interested in bikes, from cycling enthusiasts to those who might not know how to ride a bike but need reliable transportation, to come together under the common goal of making Birmingham a more bike friendly city.”
Both Bici and Redemptive Cycles work to rehabilitate and repair bikes, and both support local riders through a variety of programs.
“It’s well known how much the growth of urban cycling impacts local economy,” Fetch said. “The more someone rides, the more prone they are to shop local. Also the growth of cycling promotes a more vibrant and active community, stronger social environment, and an attraction to our city. RC started with a focus on helping the unemployed and low income, but over the past couple years we have realized the strong impact cycling can have on the greater community and want to push every aspect of that.”
Fetch noted that as part of its efforts to improve the community, his shop has started an art initiative, which involves creating murals and sculptures, and an ongoing effort to keep the block clean where Redemptive Cycles is located.
He sees Redemptive Cycles — and the name might give this away — as more than just a bike shop, or, as he describes, it, “a bicycle charitable service center. We have somehow, and by accident, created a whole small subculture around the bike shop, based upon simple moral values, and prioritizing kindness and a love for each other’s company above all else.”
Bottom line contributions
Nonprofits of all stripes contribute to the economy of an area, in ways most people don’t consider, wrote Matt Berg in a blog for the Borgen Project, a nonprofit based in Seattle (with associates near Florence) that works to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger. What he wrote about nonprofits as a whole also apply locally: that nonprofits provide steady sources of employment and stimulate other facets of the economy because their employees are also consumers; and the nonprofits themselves consume third-party goods and services like any other business.
“Nonprofits serve one distinct purpose — bettering the world while zeroing out their books,” Berg wrote.
While that economic impact makes nonprofits contributors to the financial wellbeing of their communities, the people who dedicate themselves to causes beyond profits do so for loftier reasons. Hansen quotes Margaret Mead, who said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
“This, he said, “is what animates GASP and many other nonprofit organizations, and why they’re so vital to Birmingham. We cannot depend on corporations or government bureaucracy to effect the kind of positive change our city and state need.”
Hansen said that the various nonprofits in Birmingham benefit from inspiring individuals who “can and ultimately will make an impact through the important work” they do.
Between Holocaust education and cycling co-ops, Birmingham boasts a lot of hard-working nonprofit organizations. For more information, read other articles from this issue at weldbham.com.