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Social Entrepreneur Bill Strickland's 'Business' Puts People Back into Life


Whenever Bill Strickland walks down Buena Vista Street in his boyhood neighborhood he remembers the racial riots that rocked Pittsburgh and the nation in 1968. He was a college student at the time and had agreed to run an after-school arts program for children in an abandoned brick row house. He hoped art would change the kids' lives as it had his own, after a high school teacher introduced him to the creative potentials of the pottery wheel. "I lived up stairs in a sleeping bag, built [pottery] wheels downstairs, had a kiln out back and started working with kids on the streets."

Bill and his father renovated the house and hung out a sign offering free clay. "They'd start to wander in and say, 'Mister, what is this place?' And I'd say, 'Come in and I'll you show you. And after a while we got a couple of kids, and the middle school across the street started sending kids and the art teacher heard about it, and it started to snowball."

Thirty-eight years later, Bill Strickland is President and CEO of Manchester Bidwell Corporation. The 10-million dollar a year enterprise offers after-school and summer programs for hundreds of middle and secondary school students and year-round vocational training for adults. Strickland says the success of the program has allowed people to reestablish their dignity as tax-paying, earning citizens. "On the arts side, the kids go to college at extraordinary rates and they literally save their lives as a result of getting a college degree."

On this day the art gallery on the ground floor displays new pottery by Bill Strickland. Proceeds from the sale will go to the Center. Elsewhere on campus are art studios, a photography darkroom, an industrial kitchen, a chemistry laboratory, a greenhouse complex, and a concert hall. The programs these facilities support are offered to all students at no cost, thanks to corporate, state and private grants. "We adjust our standards based on our outcomes," Strickland says. "We are in the business of putting people back into life. If that doesn't happen, we change the program."

Strickland says the reason his educational initiative has been successful where others have failed is that it meets precisely the economic needs of the community, instead of training people for jobs that often don't exist. "I came up with a very revolutionary idea a number of years ago," he says. "Go ask the employers what they want before you start teaching it. That is the key to all of our training programs," he says. "They get involved on the front end. They lend us faculty. They help design the curriculum. They develop the job specification, and they stick around to make sure that we are doing it right."

Horticulture program director Gary Baranowski echoes that philosophy. He says students at Bidwell get hands-on training and they learn by doing. "That is something that Bill has always believed it. If you can't feel it, touch it, experience it, how can you be proficient at it? Bill has been backing that up all of these years. And when something falls into place he is on to the next page. Every day is a new day in the story of Bill Strickland."

It is also a new day for 29-year old former barber Gabriel Garrett, who was down on his luck when he enrolled in the Bidwell culinary program.

Today he's making soup stock as part of his final graduation project. He says he came to Bidwell ten months ago with a passion for food and is leaving with business know-how and a better sense of self. "I know this is one thing that I can take with me for the rest of my life and look back on it and say I did the right thing!"

The same strategy has worked for Bethany Altieri, 37, who is tending basil plants in a greenhouse built in what used to an abandoned strip mall. She was anticipating a job layoff when she heard about Bidwell's horticulture program. "It's a wonderful program, both to learn about plants and to be a part of Bidwell, to be a part of an organization that changes people's lives," she says.

Strickland has some very specific ideas about how to turn around America's education system, which he says is failing too many of the nation's poor people. He travels across the United States to promote the model, which four American cities have already adopted. "My vision for the future is to build 100 centers in the United States and 100 around the world, preferably yesterday. So we are going to play out this hand and see where it takes us. This is the beginning of the conversation, not the end of the conversation."

Bill Strickland says his goal is to change the way societies perceive the poor people among them who are hungry and displaced, and to become more responsive to their needs. He has no illusions about the difficulty of reaching this goal. "We have to move the planet," Strickland says.

For earlier profiles in VOA's American Profiles series click here