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Bill Strickland Created A Place Of Hope Amid Chaos, Now He’s Stepping Down From The School He Built

Sarah Schneider
90.5 WESA
Bill Strickland poses for a portrain in the ceramics studio at the Manchester Bidwell Corporation. He's holding a piece of pottery he made.

Bill Strickland stepped down July 1 from his role as the CEO of Manchester Bidwell Corporation 50 years after he founded the craftsmen’s guild.

He is now the Executive Chairman of the organization and will focus on helping other communities replicate the model he created.

In 1968, Pittsburgh erupted in riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. At 19, Strickland wanted an alternative to the chaos. As a student at the University of Pittsburgh, he opened a ceramics studio in Manchester, the North Side neighborhood where he was raised.

Over the years his work has evolved and expanded to include vocational training and other arts.

But his founding principal has remained: environment shapes people.

From the photo of MLK in the lobby to the fountain in the courtyard, everything in the space is intentional.

“Many of the people I work with are coming from environments in which they are academically and intellectually challenged,” he said. “And so by providing industry-specific training for those students, they develop a capability, an ability to earn a living and dramatically improve their self-esteem and improve their income so that instead of liabilities they become assets in the community. And that's the key to the puzzle.”

The original ceramics studio was located in an abandoned halfway house on Buena Vista Street.

Now in an industrial park, the school houses a series of programs including youth arts, vocational training, horticulture, agriculture and technology.

“We believe that our history of programs that started under impossible economic and social circumstances and were transformed into world-class arts and education organizations continues to serve as a powerful source of hope locally and internationally,” Strickland said.

He doesn’t think the poverty that impacts his neighborhood will be eradicated in his lifetime. His goal is to elevate people through the arts. For Strickland, art is practical.

Art is a way of thinking about life," he said. "It's a language and we've been able to so far mastered the language of speaking the arts in real time, not in a museum sense, but in a life sense. So the kids are living the art. They're eating the art [in the culinary program], they are practicing the arts. Every day it becomes their vocabulary."

That guiding principle has proven successful.

Every day I run into students now who have their own families and whose kids are going to college and people who have graduated from companies like Bayer and Calgon Carbon,” he said. “And so you see hard evidence of the return on the investment. So it's not theoretical. This is actually real and measured in real time. And that's a very gratifying way to make a living.”

Strickland will now focus on expanding the model he created to other cities. The corporation has already been launched in 11 other cities around the world including Cincinnati, Cleveland, Chicago and Boston.