For Bill Strickland, the road to where he is today — president and CEO of an organization that has changed the lives of thousands of people through education and job training — starts with ceramics and a mentor. He was a high-school student in Manchester, an inner-city neighborhood in Pittsburgh, going nowhere fast, when he happened to poke his head into a classroom where an art teacher named Frank Ross was working at a potter’s wheel. Strickland was instantly captivated, and asked Mr. Ross to teach him ceramics.
He spent the next two years under Mr. Ross’ tutelage, and when he graduated, Mr. Ross helped him get into the University of Pittsburgh, where he studied American history and foreign relations. While he was at Pitt, Strickland thought about what ceramics and his relationship with Mr. Ross had done for him, and started the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild (MCG), an after-school arts program for underprivileged kids in Pittsburgh’s North Side.
Strickland graduated with honors in 1969 and devoted himself full time to MCG. In 1972, he was asked to take over leadership of the struggling Bidwell Training Center, which had been created to offer vocational training for workers who were displaced by Pitts- burgh’s declining steel industry. Forty-five years later, he’s still at it — serving as president and CEO of Manchester Bidwell Corporation, which offers career training for adults in areas such as culinary arts, laboratory and pharmacy tech work, and medical-claims processing. The MCG Youth & Arts program is part of the mix as well, with after-school classes in ceramics, design arts, digital arts, and photography.
Their facilities are beautiful, full of art and flowers and natural light, with a courtyard fountain and a world-class kitchen — all deliberately “built in a tough neighborhood where people have been given up for dead,” Strickland says in a TED Talk he gave 15 years ago. “My view is that if you want to involve yourself in the life of people who have been given up on, you have to look like the solution and not the problem.”
Strickland will present the Closing Main Stage session at PCMA Convening Leaders 2018 next month. Recently he spoke to Convene about not treating disadvantaged kids as liabilities, remembering a student who went on to become a Fulbright scholar, and scaling up around the world.
Do you still work in ceramics?
Oh yeah, big time, man! At least once or twice a month I’m back in the studio making pots. One of these smart-ass kids [at MCG] said, “I don’t think you make pots. I think that’s a myth.” I said, “Yeah, okay, man. Stay right here.” I went out and changed my clothes and I made a big ol’ 14-inch bowl, and that quieted him up. I said, “Don’t put the goat out to pasture just yet. I still got a few pots left in me.”
How important was the experience of having a mentor like Mr. Ross?
It changed my life. It changed the whole direction of my life, period.
All the work you’ve done since then has involved trying to foster similar experiences for young people. How do you create programs that allow those sorts of relationships to thrive?
By hiring smart people and getting out of their way.
Manchester Bidwell occupies a beautiful building. How did you come to decide that the physical environment where you offer these programs is so important?
Trial and error. Try A, try B, try C, try D, and sooner or later something sticks. You know, if kids are depressed, you create environments that are not depressed. If kids are hungry, you get them something to eat, but not McDonald’s; you get them gourmet lunches — good for the stomachs, better for the heads. And put them in beautiful surroundings. If they’re in environments in which they’re told that they are liabilities, put them in environments that tell them that they’re assets. So, it’s kind of common sense. Don’t tell anybody — everybody thinks that I’m this genius, because I figured out what’s right in front of your face. Or it should be.
Is there anyone who’s come through your program that you’re particularly proud of?
Dr. Sharif Bey. I had the kid in seventh grade, in ceramics. He got pretty good at it. He came from a tough neighborhood, wouldn’t even look you in the eye when he first started to show up here. The kid got good. He got a four-year scholarship to a college, won a Fulbright scholarship to go study contemporary ceramics in Europe, got a Ph.D., and is now an associate professor of ceramics at Syracuse University. He’s coming back as a visiting associate professor in ceramics at the very studio that he learned in when he was in seventh grade.
Why are these types of programs so important?
Well, the practical reality is these kids, many of them flunking out of school, graduate at a 20-percent higher rate after coming to our after-school arts program. We can dramatically increase the graduation rate for these kids with an after-school arts program based on the subjects that we’ve talked about — photography, clay, digital imaging, etc. So there’s a practical effect for that. And then [with] Bidwell, we take guys that are on welfare or public assistance, and we turn them into productive citizens who go to work for Fortune 100 companies, and are out of poverty and don’t come back.
And you’re not just in Pittsburgh anymore, right? We have nine centers open and operating: Chicago, Boston, Buffalo, New Haven, Cleveland, etc. And we’ve got one center open, one opening in three weeks, and four more in planning, [all] in Pennsylvania. And then we have a handshake with the Rockefeller Foundation to build a hundred more around the world. We’re open in Israel, by the way, and we’ve got the Jews and Arabs going to school together today. They’re getting along fine. And if you went to that school, it’s indistinguishable from the center in Pittsburgh. Same environment, same tranquility, same mutual respect, etc.
The trick is, how do you build a hundred of these things and have the same level of intimacy, quality, innovation, and peace? Anybody can do McDonald’s. The trick is to build something as complex as we’re talking about and do it in Ramallah, or Singapore, or Johannesburg. That’s going to be the challenge.
What’s the one thing you’d like your audience at Convening Leaders to take home with them? That we can make the world a better place, particularly for poor folks. And that I need their help in order to get there — like, yesterday, because I’m in a great big hurry.