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Kay Bickham Explores History And Influence Of Oklahoma City International Visitors Council

Oklahoma City Skyline at night
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While pop-culture references to Oklahoma frequently involve depictions of either tranquil farm folk or tornadic American sharpshooters, few Americans realize the distinctly international role of that the state has. Along with over 200,000 immigrants who call Oklahoma home, both Tulsa and Oklahoma host international delegations through an organization known as Global Ties.

“They [the most recent group] just loved Oklahoma City,” said Kay Bickham, executive director of the Oklahoma City International Visitors Council, a community-based branch of Global Ties. “Most of them do, when they come here, because Oklahoma City is a very welcoming place.”

By visiting smaller communities like Oklahoma City, Bickham says international visitors are able to see a more accurate depiction of American culture. “The purpose-- well, there's lots of purposes, but one of the things is for them to get to know real Americans. In Washington, they're totally in appointments with different agencies. When they come here, we connect them with their counterparts,” said Bickham.

The program, which is tailored to up-and-coming professionals, has hosted several political celebrities in its history. “Indira Gandhi had been on one of these many years ago. Margaret Thatcher had been on one of these,” Bickham said.

For its part, the Oklahoma City International Visitors Council promotes local cultural events as well as coordinating exchanges for visitors. Visitors have had the opportunity to visit several Oklahoma cultural icons, including Lake Hefner and a rodeo. The Council meets regularly on Thursdays. “I have an email list of probably 150 people, just people that are interested in what's going on internationally in Oklahoma City,” said Bickham.

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INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS

On the history of the International Visitors Council

This program started, actually, with the F.A.A. - the Federal Aviation Administration, and aeronautical center here in Oklahoma City. They brought in students from all over the world. They were here for maybe two months. They would stay in apartments, they would go to class, and they would go home. And they approached the Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce and said, "we need you to be involved with these students." And so there was a friendship program started - and that kind of predates the International Visitors Council - where they stayed in apartments, but there were families in the Oklahoma City area that would connect these students.

On her whether she keeps up with former visitors

You know, I actually have. My very first host was for a Bobby, from London. A policeman from London. He actually was a guard at the American embassy there. And I traveled to London, several years later, and had dinner in his home. So that was neat. I also had a parliamentarian from Denmark, who was a woman from Greenland, because Greenland is part of the Danish government, and met her over there, and she took us on tours. So we have followed up with some of them. And some of them have returned.

FULL TRANSCRIPT

SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Kay Bickham, welcome to World Views.

KAY BICKHAM: Thank you.

GRILLOT: And it's great to have you here at KGOU. I think this is long overdue, having a conversation about international activities that are going on in Oklahoma City, and you're heavily involved with that-- so that you for being here. I want to talk a little bit about the work that you're doing with the International Visitors Council, as you lead that organization and have for quite some time. Can you give us a little bit of history about the International Visitors Council in Oklahoma City? I know it has a long history. It has some attachment to different agencies like the U.S. Information Agency, the State Department. Some people aren't really aware that we're actually doing these sorts of things in our major cities around the world, so tell us a little bit about what's going on in Oklahoma City in terms of international visitors coming to town, and why.

BICKHAM: Okay. Let me go back a few years. This program started, actually, with the F.A.A. - the Federal Aviation Administration, and aeronautical center here in Oklahoma City. They brought in students from all over the world. They were here for maybe two months. They would stay in apartments, they would go to class, and they would go home. And they approached the Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce and said, "we need you to be involved with these students." And so there was a friendship program started - and that kind of predates the International Visitors Council - where they stayed in apartments, but there were families in the Oklahoma City area that would connect these students. And so this still goes on, somewhat, until today; we don't get called in that much. When the national council of the International Council of Visitors was formed - and I think this was back in the '50s-- It is kind of a liaison between the State Department, and at one time they were under the U.S. A.A., and the local communities. That now is called Global Ties. It's in Washington, D.C. There are these visitors coming from around the world, they're nominated by our embassies, and it's kind of grassroots democracy. Our ambassadors, and the embassies, know so much more about this program than local people do, actually. You can't volunteer to be in the program. Our embassies notice up and coming leaders in their various countries, and they nominate them for certain programs. They're in the United States for about three weeks. They spend a week in Washington, D.C., and then they come to cities all over the United States - there are 94 cities that are host cities for some of these visitors, and Oklahoma City is considered one of the smaller cities. And they call me, and they'll say we have such and such a program, can you handle this? And then we make the appointments for the individuals while they're here, and it's-- we're all volunteer, so it's a real grassroots democracy type program. The latest one we have was an aviation program, and they were at the F.A.A. for most of their programming. They were here for five days. They had were in Washington for a week, and from here they go to various other cities before they go back home. 

GRILLOT: So these short-term visitors that come - you're just trying to connect them to people that they will know, and develop maybe mentoring relationships with. The purpose of their involvement-- and what kind of people are coming? What kind of areas and industries are they working in?

BICKHAM: You know, you just name it. It's all different kinds. These people are already established in their professions; they're not students. Indira Gandhi had been on one of these many years ago. Margaret Thatcher had been on one of these-- most of the up and coming of the leaders had come through this program. And the purpose-- well, there's lots of purposes, but one of the things is for them to get to know real Americans. In Washington, they're totally in appointments with different agencies. When they come here, we connect them with their counterparts. Usually they have a certain-- like the ones that were just here was air traffic safety. Not only did they go to the Metro Tech Aviation campus, they went to F.A.A. They stayed in a hotel, but they have home hospitality so that they really get to know-- So they were in downtown Oklahoma City. They went to all the events, the concerts, they went riding on the river. They just loved Oklahoma City. And most of them do, when they come here, because Oklahoma City is a very welcoming place. And so we hear good reports from those.

GRILLOT: So you have host families that volunteer their time - people like you and others and me, years ago - to bring these people into their homes, and take them out and about town--

BICKHAM: --exactly.

GRILLOT: --just engage with them, is so the notion is that-- they have a professional connection, here, but they also have that personal connection that helps share information about, and share a culture, American culture, with others around the world--

BICKHAM: --which is what they remember.

GRILLOT: So speaking of that, what kind of follow-up is there? Have you seen history-- I mean, you mentioned this as being kind of a grassroots democracy movement, in the sense that you're engaged with people from around the world that are just up and coming leaders leaders, or people in their early days of their professional lives, or whatever it may be. But do you do any follow-up? Do you notice that people stay in touch with their visitors, and kind of see how they develop over the years?

BICKHAM: You know, just on a personal basis, here - we don't follow up professionally or anything, but Global Ties does. In Washington, they have started alumni networks in countries all over the world. And some of these people are brought back to our national meetings, which are held in February of every year. And they talk about what they have established in their country as a result from what they learned.

GRILLOT: So I'm really interested in how you got involved in this. Tell us a little bit about your history and your interest in international things, and how you go about promoting this, and maybe how others might get involved.

BICKHAM: I got involved in International when my son went as an exchange to Australia. He will be 54 this year. So that was when he was a junior in high school. And then I got involved with the local exchange student program, where I found homes for students and this type of thing. And there was a great woman that was my mentor, by the name of Lois Crooks, who just passed away this year. And she was part of this International Visitors Council, which came down from the Global Ties. She had gathered together all the different people that were involved in International Student Exchange, and just so that we would have a network to talk to each other, and then that kind of filled into this program that I'm in now. And we try to be an umbrella group, with different kinds of people that are interested in international exchange. And we have a speaker, once a month, that's on something international. It's a non-membership group; no fees to come, everybody invited to come. We have probably, oh, 12 to 20 people that come to our meetings. I have an email list of probably 150 people, just people that are interested in what's going on internationally in Oklahoma City. We connect with Open World, which is another group that's funded by the Library of Congress, that brings visitors in, and professionals, to Oklahoma City. Some we're connected with Friendship Force. We have representatives on our group that are part of Sister Cities-- just any type of international interest. The original program that I'm talking about is funded through the State Department. And it's through the education and cultural part of the State Department. The internationals that come are paid for entirely by our taxpayer dollars, but all that money goes back into our economy because that's what pays for their hotels and various things like that. And so they are-- you know, it comes into our local economy.

GRILLOT: I think that's an interesting point. When we talk about some of the benefits of this, clearly there are benefits to those international visitors who are coming and connecting with professionals and friends in the community. There are, as you mentioned economic arrangements as well, in the sense that these are State Department funds that come and support local communities to engage with these visitors. Can you talk more as well about some of the personal benefits that you've received from this? I know my experience in it, and my experience in general of just hosting international visitors over the years is just the tremendous opportunity to learn more about other cultures, other peoples-- to develop kind of a more of an open mind about what's going on on the world. And so have you noticed among your membership that kind of growth and personal excitement and rewards from this type of opportunity?

BICKHAM: Well, basically, it makes the world a smaller place. To go to one of these meetings-- everybody has a smile on their face. You just-- when you talk about meeting internationals and know what's going on in the world, it's just a wonderful opportunity. And when I bring some of these people to my house for dinner, just for an evening-- I like particularly the multi-regional groups, because that'll be one person from each region of the world. And to just see the interaction that they have with each other, and then to learn how different things we consider ordinary are happening in other different parts of the world-- it's just, it's very stimulating.

GRILLOT: I mean, it's interesting to think that this is a little hub of international relations right here in Oklahoma, where, like you mentioned, people from different parts of the world that come together. And you have Americans and people from different regions that are all interacting - a little mini-U.N. going on, if you will. That breeds a lot of goodwill and shares a lot of American culture. You know, people say so often-- and I was just actually talking to a member of my board yesterday about sending some Chinese scholars here to the United States. But he wanted to make sure that they came to Oklahoma, because they're going to New York, they're going to Washington, they're going to the usual places, but coming to Oklahoma, they see the "real" America, he said. There are presidents that are famous for saying this is the past, this is where you find "real Americans," and they love it. They get outside of those really more international communities, if you will, on the East coast, or the West coast, and come to a place that is international, but that is also very, very American and that's really important for them to see in order to understand the United States. Have you had the opportunity to go and follow up with some of your visitors and travel to their parts of the world, and see them in their home countries?

BICKHAM: You know, I actually have. My very first host was for a Bobby, from London. A policeman from London. He actually was a guard at the American embassy there. And I traveled to London, several years later, and had dinner in his home. So that was neat. I also had a parliamentarian from Denmark, who was a woman from Greenland, because Greenland is part of the Danish government, and met her over there, and she took us on tours. So we have followed up with some of them. And some of them have returned.

GRILLOT: Alright, well Kay, thank you so much for being here today and sharing this information. I think it's important for us to remember that we do have a role to play in international relations, even if we're just daily citizens living our lives here in the Oklahoma arena-- that foreign policy and international affairs are a part of our life, and it isn't just left up to those in Washington and elsewhere to engage in the rest of the world. So I appreciate you sharing this information, so thank you very much for being here.

BICKHAM: Thank you.

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