As part of the Center for Arts & Media (CAM) open house celebration last Thursday, Nov. 7, a select group of Salt Lake Community College students participated in a private chat with Bill Strickland, president and CEO of Manchester Bidwell Corporation. Strickland’s message was clear, with a call to action for all in attendance.
“I want to get you guys engaged in changing the country, like right now,” says Strickland. “I came out here to recruit you guys. To help us change the conversation in this country.”
On the verge of failing high school, one day Strickland happened upon a teacher, Frank Ross, who was throwing pottery at a potter’s wheel in Strickland’s high school. Strickland was mesmerized by the process and asked Ross to teach him.
“I’m an inner-city black kid flunking out of school and an art teacher saved my life,” says Strickland. “I was walking down the high school corridor, the art-room door is open, I’m kinda minding my own business. As it turns out, it was one of those life moments that turned out to be very, very prophetic.”
Ross became Strickland’s mentor and hounded him to go to college. Strickland filled out an application to the University of Pittsburgh in pencil, thinking there was no way he would get into the school, but the university accepted Strickland as a probationary student.
It was his experience at the university that spurred Strickland to begin to believe he could make a change in society.
This call to action is a life-long pursuit for Strickland, which he hopes will spread to SLCC students, influencing them to make a change.
“My point is that we gotta change this conversation in this country or we’re going to die. We are dying,” says Strickland. “If you go to any public school system in this country, 50 percent of the minority kids are not graduating. There’s no way that can be sustained. So, I’ve decided to dedicate my life to changing that conversation.”
Strickland began changing the conversation with clay and a potter’s wheel one kid at a time during the race riots of the late 1960s, by starting an art school in the very neighborhood where he grew up.
“It was almost like some kind of tent ministry sort of thing, you know, I’m saving souls with clay,” says Strickland. “It started to catch on in the neighborhood that whatever I was doing up there, the kids were starting to show up [at school]. It got to be a nice little buzz in the neighborhood.”
After a couple of years Strickland noted that there was nothing wrong with the children of his neighborhood.
“I figured it out, there wasn’t anything wrong with the kids, the school system was the problem, the kids were fine,” says Strickland. “They need someone to care about them and enough clay and enthusiasm that you could pretty much cure what was troubling these kids. So, on that basis, I founded Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild in 1968, literally during the riots: to save kids with clay, and I’m still doing it.”
Strickland’s interest in architecture inspired him to build a beautiful vocational school in the middle of his Pittsburgh neighborhood. But not just any building, a Frank Lloyd Wright-type building, full of sunlight, waterfalls and beautiful flowers. The Bidwell Training Center provides opportunities for adults and children to change their own circumstances by pursuing an education in an environment of culture and beauty.
“I said, ‘If I can build one of these buildings, it ought to change the conversation about what it means to be poor.’ Because the message is, we built it for you, you deserve this space,” says Strickland.
In the middle of the highest crime ridden area of Pittsburgh, Strickland says his school has never had one incident of crime. There are no metal detectors or cameras in his building.
“The architecture has defined the conversation,” says Strickland. “And the highest compliment the kids pay is they say it feels like a home, it doesn’t feel like a school.”
The system Strickland has set up appears to be working, so well in fact, that he’s now opened up eight of these centers in cities across the United States with plans for several more. According to the Bidwell Training Center’s website the overall graduation rate is 76 percent with a job placement rate of 75 percent.
At the heart of Strickland’s message is something of a personal slogan.
“I believe that people are born into the world as assets, not liabilities. It’s all in the way you treat people that drives behavior,” says Strickland.
Strickland expressed an urgency to change the way our country’s school systems treat our children. He urged SLCC students to get involved and influence that change on a local level.
“Our country is at a standstill; our Congress can’t even pass a budget, man. I mean, really. This is the United States of America, we can’t even pass a budget,” says Strickland. “So, why did I come out here? To change this conversation, that’s why I came out here. You can sleep in the next life; we got work to do in this one.”