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Speaker shares vision at Harpur Forum

By : Cait Anastis

Maybe the reason William E. Strickland’s vision is appealing is because it sounds like common sense.

Strickland, a Pennsylvania native who has created an innovative, multi-disciplinary center for the arts and learning in inner city Pittsburgh. What he is talking about seems simple — treat people as if they are great, inspire them, provide them with training and they will be great.

However, achieving that goal has taken years of work and a number of partnerships.

Strickland shared his story at the Nov. 18 Harpur Forum breakfast. Armed with slides showcasing the Manchester Bidwell Corp. and its students, he spoke of the accomplishments that all started when he himself was inspired by a teacher.

Strickland was a lost and frustrated 16-year-old in 1963 when he wandered into a ceramics classroom and met teacher Frank Ross. Ross taught him to work with clay and drove his students out to see “Falling Waters,” an area landmark designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

Wright’s use of light appealed to Strickland. He wanted to bring it to the people who inhabited his inner-city neighborhood.

“If I can get that light into my neighborhood, I am half way home,” Strickland said. “If I wanted to impact the poor people I had to look like the solution rather than part of the problem. The idea was to get people out of the dark and show them that the light won’t hurt them.”

What Strickland created was a facility in Pittsburgh’s inner city equal to anything found in the city’s more affluent neighborhoods.

The Manchester Craftsman’s Guild and the Bidwell Training Center educate and inspire members of the urban community, offering them opportunities in the arts, sciences and business.

It is a place designed to provide inspiration. Bright colors and live flowers fill the halls. Water cascades from a fountain. Artwork adorns the rooms. Inside these walls, classes are held to teach cooking and pottery, chemistry and pharmacology.

As Strickland built the program, each success led to another, possibly because the Pittsburgh native refuses to let an opportunity to build friendships and partnerships pass him by. A meeting with John Heinz, the late senator and Pittsburgh businessman, led to the creation of a food preparation training program. The work being done by the food preparation students led to the creation of a catering program, which led to programs to train pharmaceutical workers and chemical workers.

“When you come to Pittsburgh I will show you a welfare mother doing analytical chemistry six months after starting,” he said. “The point of this story is that these are all poor people doing this who all had no talent and no this and no that. It turns out what we discovered is what poor people don’t have is money, which is a curable condition.”

And Strickland gets results. An arts program for children in Pittsburgh’s public schools has inspired children in the city and produced a 90 percent graduation rate.

“You’ve got to treat kids as if they were world class,” he said, adding that in the future, some of those students may be Binghamton bound.

“I am going to start sending them to Binghamton,” he said. “One of the reasons I do this is to build these relationships.”

For Strickland, improving public education needs to be a priority in this country. Schools turn out students who aren’t capable of reading because they are funded based on the number of students they push through the system rather than on what students have learned.

“I am telling you we are going to lose our country if we don’t do something about this,” he said. “The only way we are going to change public education is to build a model and say ‘be this.’ You have got to have kids who can read and do math.”

And what works in Pittsburgh will work in other areas of the country. A new center, based on the Pittsburgh model, just opened in San Francisco, and Strickland is talking with leaders in other communities about the possibility of centers in their cities.

“I just showed you the cure for spiritual cancer and you ought to build one in your town,” he said.

It is a message that has appeal where ever Strickland speaks. During a lecture at the Harvard Business School Strickland said he received a standing ovation from the audience.

“Michael Eisner was there the week before and he didn’t get a standing ovation,” he said. “All he wanted to talk about was stock options; what I wanted to talk about is saving the planet.”
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Last Updated: 10/14/08