Urban Innovator of the Week: Bill Strickland

By Nicole Rupersburg

Nicole Rupersburg is a freelance writer and editor who covers business development & entrepreneurship, arts & culture, and food & travel for national audiences. She is the project editor and lead writer of Urban Innovation Exchange and Creative Exchange.

This profile was originally published by Urban Innovation Exchange in partnership with Meeting of the Minds and Kresge Foundation. For more stories of people changing cities, visit UIXCities.com and follow @UIXCities.

Bill-stricklandBill Strickland describes himself as “a kid from the neighborhood who got involved in the arts.”

While that is certainly true, he might also be selling himself short just a bit – Strickland, who is the President and CEO of Manchester Bidwell Corporation, is a MacArthur Fellowship “genius” award winner, founder of the Grammy-winning subscription jazz series MCG Jazz, and author of Make the Impossible Possible, about a kid from Pittsburgh’s ghetto whose crusade to inspire others to achieve the extraordinary would lead him to serve as a board member of the National Endowment for the Arts and lecture at Harvard, among other things.

It all started in the 1960s, in the Manchester neighborhood on Pittsburgh’s North Side, where Strickland grew up as a disengaged youth until he met his high school art teacher, Frank Ross. Ross showed Strickland the power of art, education, and community, and instilled in him an interest in working with the kids in the streets through an after-school arts program.

In 1968, inspired by what Ross had taught him, Strickland was running a small after-school ceramics program on a regular basis as a way to give back to his struggling neighborhood. That program is now called the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild Youth & Arts program, serving public school students with classes in ceramics, design, digital imaging, 3D manufacturing, and photography.

By 1972, Strickland had took over leadership of the Bidwell Training Center, a struggling job training center near the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild that he was able to rebuild into a “pretty good” job training and vocational education center in partnership with various Pittsburgh area industry leaders.

Once again, Strickland is being humble – this “pretty good” vocational center is a nationally accredited and state licensed adult career training institution, with programs that range from horticultural to medical to the culinary arts.

“We partner with industry leaders to develop curriculum specific to their industries,” Strickland says. “We have these industry advisory boards that work directly with us so the programs we develop are industry compatible, so as to have a high degree of placement and retention.”

On the arts side of Manchester Bidwell Corporation, there is an abundance of arts education opportunities for public school students in middle school and high school, as well as evening arts education programming for adults.

“Our goal of is to improve the retention and graduation rates of public school students using arts as an intervention strategy,” Strickland says. “As kids get better in the arts, their retention improves. We graduated 99 percent of our kids last year; we average 90 percent, and a lot of these students go on to college. I think this is a very powerful way of adding value to what these kids need to have to be successful.”

Once out of school, arts program alumni can always continue on with Manchester Bidwell in their vocational training (for ages 18 and up).

By talking to industry leaders to determine what their workforce and skills training needs are, Strickland has been able to get them engaged and invested in developing the curriculum and training their future employees.

“It’s a very close working partnership and we think this is a good methodology for building our curriculum.”

Strickland says between 75 and 85 percent of Manchester Bidwell’s vocational students go to work every year in the industries in which they were trained, in addition to the 90 percent average of kids in the arts program graduating from high school. These numbers are also consistent across Manchester Bidwell’seight affiliate sites too.

These eight affiliates operate in different cities across the United States and follow the same model as Pittsburgh’s. There are five more cities with affiliate sites in the works, which Strickland says should all be online in the next 18 months. He says their goal is to eventually have 100 affiliate centers throughout the country.

While Strickland has reason to be proud of the successes of the programs he has built, he remains steadfastly humble. To him, the impactful work of Manchester Bidwell is a relatively simple matter. “I decided I wanted to get involved with the arts in the community and that’s how this started. This has really been a 40-year story of one neighborhood.”

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