Before a crowd that braved late-winter snows on Feb. 11 to see and hear him, noted community developer Bill Strickland stated upon his introduction that he did not have a lecture to present.
Since Strickland had been brought to SouthArk to give the final address in the 2009-2010 SouthArk Lecture Series, the statement might have taken some of those in attendance by surprise.
But in short order, Strickland clarified.
“I stopped writing prepared speeches. I find that people were more interested in the length of the speech than its content,” he said. “I believe in being a person, and telling what your story is.”
And so the Pittsburgh native told his story, explaining how his innovative approach to reaching the disenfranchised poor has achieved such success that it now is being mimicked in a number of places all over the country.
Strickland said the he was a flunking high-school student himself before a ceramics teacher’s craft caught his eye. His developing interest in this artistic pursuit was enough to keep him in school, but his grades still were not great. The teacher insisted that he had too much talent not to further his education, so Strickland took the SAT—and tanked.
He was able to enter the University of Pittsburgh only on probationary measures, but then, finding his niche, soared to success.
Now Strickland is a member of Pittsburgh’s board of trustees.
“I actually sit on the board that let me in on probation,” Strickland said.
While still a university student, Strickland began the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild as an after-school program in 1968. His successes in reaching out to and training inner-city young people in this poor Pittsburgh neighborhood encouraged the directors of the nearby Bidwell Training Center to approach him about assuming leadership of that organization in 1972. Strickland did, and saw similar successes in training young disenfranchised adult workers.
The success of both projects prompted Strickland to launch a capital campaign in the late 1980s that grew Manchester Bidwell into a vocational and arts center with separate divisions that focus on culinary training, pharmaceutical research, jazz music, horticulture and a wide array of other disciplines, partnering with regional and national industries.
Strickland showed pride in the beauty and majesty of the MCG facilities. Utilizing a photographic slide show, the speaker said that his institution’s students deserve to attend school in a beautiful environment even though they are in a poor inner-city area.
“It’s in the toughest neighborhood in Pittsburgh...deliberately,” Strickland said of MCG. “People are a function of their environments.
Attitude and environment drive behavior.”
The speaker said that he added serene courtyards, fountains and live flowers to MCG because the poor students who he caters to need them and take pride in them...and that on some level, it inspires them to want more from life.
Strickland said that society’s poor do not lack talent, but need to be shown a clear route out of their situations. The training that they have received at MCG has helped students find jobs and become productive citizens, Strickland said, or to go on to college—something that he said happens at a very high rate.
“I’ve got it figured out: The thing that children need the most is hope,” Strickland said. “I’m in the attitude business, not just the training business.”
Now Strickland’s model is being used in places all over the country...and possibly in the future, will be imitated throughout the world.
“The only thing that happens to be wrong with poor people is that they don’t have any money,” Strickland said.
Bill Strickland shakes hands with the public after his speech.