Interview with Bill Strickland
by Mara Peluso
Strickland is the president and CEO of Manchester Craftsmen's
Guild and Bidwell Training Center, Inc. in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Throughout his career, Strickland has been honored with numerous
awards for his contributions to the arts and the community,
including the Coming Up Taller Award and a MacArthur Fellowship
for leadership and ingenuity in the arts. He has also served
as chair of the Expansion Arts Panel of the National Endowment
for the Arts. Widely known as a leading social entrepreneur,
Strickland lectures throughout the world on social enterprise,
the arts and arts education, and community development.
The Manchester Craftsmen's Guild (MCG),
begun by social entrepreneur Bill Strickland, uses art as
an educational strategy to work with inner city students
who may not be doing well in a public school environment.
Over the past 16 years, more than 80% of MCG's students
have gone on to college. MCG's jazz music program, MCG Jazz,
presents and promotes concerts by great jazz artists in
its own auditorium. Having made more than 600 recordings,
MCG Jazz hopes to build a record label that will generate
revenue for the organization.
MCG is housed with its sister organization,
Bidwell Training Center (a neighborhood vocational training
center for adults), in a carefully designed facility that
emphasizes natural light, creativity, and craftsmanship.
Two cities, San Francisco and Cincinnati,
have replicated MCG's program, with five additional cities
What does community
mean to you?
in the sense that I am using it, includes everyone who is
in the vicinity of where we practice our craft. For me,
and for the programs I direct, that means that western Pennsylvania
is our community-not just the North Side of Pittsburgh,
which happens to be the neighborhood where we are located.
Our aim is to appeal to everybody who lives here-poor people,
rich people, black people, white people-whatever. That is
how we define who and what we are, and I think that is one
of the keys to our success-that we are inclusive, not exclusive.
How would you
describe the neighborhood that you work in?
located in a very tough inner city neighborhood. Only 1,500
feet from our building is a poor neighborhood. There is
a lot of crime and street violence here. The largest drug
bust in Pennsylvania took place a mile and a half from our
building, so it is a pretty rough place. We provide an oasis
of sanity where life is allowed to thrive and prevail.
How do you provide
that "oasis of sanity"?
and adults come here, they see a very pleasant and powerful
environment that is well organized and very creative. There
are flowers everywhere, including orchids from our greenhouse.
There is artwork on the walls, and there is usually an exhibit
going on. There is also great food-our culinary department
loves to do their thing. To me, the aesthetics are fundamental
to the conversation-particularly because we have people
coming from distressed environments where things are not
pleasant to look at, they are not well run, and often, the
equipment has malfunctioned. If we want to work with people
and improve their lives, we have to look like the solution
and not like the problem.
We provide a nurturing and sustaining environment;
we believe that is one of the main reasons that we've never
had a fight in 22 years of operation-nor any theft, any
racial incident, or any drugs on the property. We think
the reason we haven't had those problems is because the
aesthetics of the environment let people know in a thousand
different ways that they have value. We have taken that
concept of respecting people by creating an aesthetically
rich environment and have replicated it in Cincinnati and
San Francisco, and we are having similar experiences in
You are often
referred to as a social entrepreneur. Can you describe what
that means to your work?
that social enterprise is really a way of thinking about
solving problems; it is about solving social problems in
an entrepreneurial and innovative way. It's less about getting
rich and more about being innovative and developing a diversified
revenue platform. It's not depending on philanthropy or
individuals or the government to run the place.
At the MCG, we are known for being innovative
in education-for the way we are working with kids. We record
jazz concerts in a pristine environment before live audiences.
We are known for the way we think about our vocational school,
which has elements of a career fair rather than being just
a traditional vocational school.
We are innovative in terms of our physical
environment. We are now managing 150,000 square feet of
business space. We have a training facility and a four-story
office building. We have people who are not from the neighborhood
who have moved their offices here and are increasing the
economic value of the community. We also have a 40,000-
foot greenhouse and we're beginning to sell orchids from
Our funding sources are diverse and include
the state of Pennsylvania and its Department of Education.
We have support from many foundations in Pittsburgh, including
Heinz, Alcoa, R.K. Mellon, Hillman, and Benedum. A lot of
the established Pittsburgh names have been very supportive
of this place.
Would you talk
about how money influences community?
can influence community both positively and negatively.
The best examples of communities in which money has been
an asset are when leaders have viewed money as a resource
and not as an end in itself. I believe that viewing money
as anything other than a resource to enhance community unduly
concentrates on the wrong side of the equation. The community
must be first and last in any discussion about money.
What do people
who want to use money to benefit their community need to
know-about money and about community?
to know how to use, in an intelligent and supportive way,
the resource called money. For that, they need experience
and the perspective of others who already have experience
in this area. A deep working knowledge of community is helpful
if you want to efficiently benefit as many as possible.
Where The Light Is
One Wednesday afternoon in September 1963, Bill Strickland,
then a 16- year-old black kid, was bored by school
and hemmed in by life in a decaying Pittsburgh neighborhood.
He wanted a way out, but he didn't have a clue about
how to find it-until that Wednesday afternoon, when
he went wandering through the hallways of his high
school. It's a moment etched so clearly in his memory
that, 35 years later, he can still recall the quality
of the sunlight streaming in through the school windows.
Looking through an open classroom
door, Strickland saw something he'd never seen before:
a rotating mound of clay being shaped into a vessel
by a man absorbed in his work. "If ever in life
there is a clairvoyant experience, I had one that
day," says Strickland. "I saw a radiant and hopeful
image of how the world ought to be. It opened up
a portal for me that suggested that there might
be a whole range of possibilities and experiences
that I had not explored. It was night and day-literally.
I saw a line and I thought: This is dark, and this
is light. And I need to go where the light is."
So Strickland walked into the sunlit
classroom, introduced himself to ceramics teacher
Frank Ross, the man at the potter's wheel, and said,
"I'd like to learn whatever that is." With Ross
as his mentor for nearly 20 years, Strickland not
only found the way out-one that led to college-he
also found the way in: the path that lets one person
make a difference.
Strickland has mastered the art
of social entrepreneurship, applying his potter's
hands to reshape the business of social change.
As a result, the people who now work with him and
come to his programs at the Manchester Craftsmen's
Guild and at the Bidwell Training Center Inc.-his
Pittsburghbased organizations for urban change -will
tell you that the day Bill Strickland walked into
that ceramics classroom was the day that he began
reinventing this country's approach to social entrepreneurship.
Excerpted and adapted from
, "With his potter's hands, Bill Strickland
is reshaping the business of social change. His
Pittsburgh-based program offers a national model
for education, training-and hope," by Sara Terry,
Issue 17, September 1998, p. 170. Full text is available
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