How Bill Strickland's Manchester Bidwell Corporation of Pittsburgh has helped people reinvent themselves in everything from the culinary arts to medical technology.
Bill Strickland's philosophy of life is profound in its simplicity: art can transform people, and people can transform communities. Build an arts center and you will create artists; establish a vocational training center and that community will see its members find jobs.
Strickland is a rare person. As head of the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild and Bidwell Training Center on Pittsburgh's North Side, he has inspired thousands upon thousands to improve their lives and pursue their dreams. He's done so partly by example: 40 years ago he established the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild in a dusty old row house. Today, it occupies a huge, modern complex and has become a national example of the right way to reshape and revitalize a community.
"The thing I'm most excited about is that we're here, man!" Strickland says. "We're here and we're thriving and we've helped a lot of human beings who would not have had the benefit otherwise."
That's no idle boast. Bidwell Training Center, which offers free vocational training, enrolls about 200 new students every year with an 81 percent graduation rate and a 79 percent job placement rate. Manchester Craftsmen's Guild, a visual and performing arts center located in the Chateau Street industrial park between Manchester and the Ohio River, served nearly 3,000 local K-12 students last year alone.
Strickland, a product of these very neighborhoods, founded the programs after a city schools ceramics teacher inspired his love of art and propelled him to a career that has earned everything from posts with the National Endowment for the Arts to a 1996 MacArthur Foundation "Genius" Award.
His success as a potter, Strickland says, translated into confidence and academic success—a whole new sensibility that propelled him into the University of Pittsburgh. While still an undergraduate, he founded the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild in 1968 which brought several fresh arts programs to the blighted African-American neighborhood he grew up in. His success in creating the Guild inspired Bidwell Training Center to ask Strickland for leadership as well.
Today, Strickland is president and CEO of both. Through these organizations, he has created everything from the Denali Initiative, which trained community development group leaders from across the country, to MCG Jazz, which, in his words, "offers performances and educational activities with artists who represent both the history and future of jazz music." In his leadership role he has hosted on-site visits for such distinguished guests as Hillary Rodham Clinton, Jane Alexander, and George H. W. Bush.
Strickland has also inspired scores of young and old alike as a motivational speaker with a direct, eloquent style that speaks to people where they are. He has mesmerized everyone from Harvard MBA students to officials at an EPA brownfields conference, as well as organizations he has aided in "reshaping the business of social change," as Fast Company magazine has labeled his efforts.
Strickland’s creation of the National Center for Arts & Technology and his complementary concepts of learning and community development have inspired cities like San Francisco, Cincinnati, and Grand Rapids to create similar programs in media, healthcare, and technology.
Perhaps his approach works universally because of the governing philosophy of both the Bidwell and Manchester programs, which "accepts [kids] the way they are when they come in the front door. It is designed to get them to believe in themselves. It is really attuned to the needs of people who have not really been successful in their lives. That is part of the mission."
So successful has Strickland himself been in partnering with other organizations—and in fundraising—that over the past two decades the combined Bidwell/Manchester facility has added a greenhouse for agricultural training, a medical technology complex, a library, an arts studio and labs, dining and meeting rooms, studios for audio and video recording, and a 350-seat music and lecture hall. The latter has been the venue for several Grammy Award-winning live jazz recordings.
Today, Bidwell offers training in a variety of careers, from culinary arts to pharmacy technician, all geared to the job market. "More innovative vocational education" is on the way, Strickland says, with programs in medical information technology and injection molding technology under development or consideration.
As for the Manchester Guild: "We're just going to deepen our arts programs within the public schools." And get into glass and graphic design for good measure, he adds, "really building on what we have—more of it, and more sophisticated."
Strickland's ambition and efforts should continue to prove a boon to the Commonwealth's future. "We're certainly putting people into the workforce," he notes. "Those are jobs that are going to be needed now and into the future. We're taking people who have lost a job or are unemployed and retraining them. And every one of these kids that we send to college becomes a productive citizen."
What keeps Strickland going at such a fast pace after all 40 years? "Success with the students, both in the vocational world and the group who go to college," he says. "And having built something that really works. My life makes a difference to other human beings—and that's valuable to me."