Photo by Sarah Finnegan.
Mark Jackson works with Birmingham Sister Cities Commission, a nonprofit group dedicated to cultivating cooperation and understanding with cities around the world.
When Mark Jackson was growing up in Bluff Park, he would set an alarm to wake himself up in the middle of the night, go get the phone book and hide in the closet. And then he’d start making calls — expensive ones.
“I would go to the page that had all those country codes, and then I would dial until I could get someone to answer,” the Brook Highland area resident said.
He did this all the way through middle and high school. His parents didn’t mind, he said, “but I had to do yard work to pay the phone bills.”
Once, Jackson got someone in Luxembourg who could speak English, and she put him on the phone with her daughter, Mary Ann.
“We stayed pen pals for 15 years after that,” he said. “She talked me into taking French.”
Even now — just like then — Jackson finds it amazing that something as simple as a phone call can make friends in other countries.
“My interest has always been global,” he said. “My father and mother always instilled in me that the world was bigger than Bluff Park.”
That’s why Jackson, CEO of Moreson Conferencing and a Brook Highland resident, spends his life investing in organizations like the Birmingham Sister Cities Commission, a nonprofit group dedicated to cultivating cooperation and understanding with cities around the world.
The group — which Jackson has served as chairman for the past four years — has led Birmingham to partner with 15 sister cities since 1982. Its first sister city was Hitachi, Japan. Its most recent is Liverpool, U.K. And there are cities from Zimbabwe to China in between.
“Your typical Sister Cities program focuses on things like education for schoolchildren, but it also can include commercial and economic partnerships, relationships from government to government, people to people,” he said.
The organization was founded on the idea that countries that are friends don’t invade each other, he said. That’s why he believes in the Sister Cities vision.
And that’s why Jackson — an honorary consul general of Japan — is actively seeking the role of the next U.S. ambassador to Japan.
“The U.S. and Japan are such strong allies,” he said. “I think we’ve got a tremendous relationship. When you think about our history with Japan, 73 years ago we were embroiled in a tremendous war with them. After that, we’ve worked together to rebuild two of the strongest economies in the world. Today, they are such an important partner for us. I’d like to be picked for that role.”
To be selected as an ambassador, you have to have a credible reason to be considered, Jackson said. In his role as an honorary consul general, he’s already functioning as a diplomat to Japan, “and they know me well and trust me,” he said.
Jackson also has strong relationships with U.S. officials involved in the selection process and has made his interest and willingness known.
“I’ve let them know I would do my best to represent our country to Japan, and I think I have a good chance of being chosen,” he said.
In his role with the Birmingham Sister Cities Commission, Jackson has also been a strong leader and diplomat and has “been very good at helping us get sponsorships and more financial support,” said Scotty Colson, assistant to the mayor of Birmingham and point person for the commission.
“But even beyond that, where Mark comes and makes a difference is in is his genuine desire to see people come together,” Colson said.
This Christmas, Jackson hosted a holiday party at his home for more than 130 people from 18 countries.
“It’s not an act — it’s how he is,” Colson said. “He loves to bring people together — it’s the sort of thing that makes him giddy. It’s just an expression of who he is and where his spirit is.”