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Book review: Bill Strickland and the Manchester Bidwell story

A TALE OF TWO CITIES with guest speaker: Bill Strickland. Nov. 30 at Hamilton Place Theatre Doors open at 6 p.m. Program begins at 7 p.m. Admission is free; tickets are limited or call 905-667-6230.

Make the Impossible Possible: One Man's Crusade to Inspire Others to Dream Bigger and Achieve the Extraordinary

By Bill Strickland

Bill Strickland's coming to town Nov. 30 with a pretty cool story that our business and civic leaders really need to hear.

Strickland is president and CEO of Manchester Bidwell, a community arts education and job training centre. Located in one of Pittsburgh's poorest neighbourhoods, the centre's cracked the poverty-to-prosperity code.

The centre's Manchester Craftsmen's Guild gives at-risk kids after-school courses taught by established artists and skilled instructors.

The private-school calibre courses ignite a creative fire that keeps kids off the streets, in school and on to college. More than 90 per cent of youth at the centre earn high school diplomas, and 85 per cent go on to postsecondary education.

"Our students stop defining themselves by what they can't do and get the first glimmer of what a meaningful life might feel like," says Strickland .

The grown-ups get state-of-the-art training for in-demand and ahead-of-the-curve jobs at the Bidwell Training Centre. Unlike other training centres, Manchester Bidwell steers clear of preparing people for work in stale industries or overcrowded fields where there's stiff competition and few real job prospects.

Instead, the centre develops cutting-edge programs in partnership with companies in need of highly skilled workers. Those partnerships pay off. Nearly 80 per cent of adults complete their vocational training, and 86 per cent get hired for meaningful work and good jobs with paycheques that lift entire families out of poverty.

Strickland calls poverty a cancer of the spirit. He says you can't cure it with an all-too-common approach of defining the poor as people in need of help or by dreaming up social programs to fix everything that's broken in their lives.

"You cure poverty by understanding that poor folk are human beings before they are 'poor' and by providing them with access to the fundamental spiritual nourishment every human heart requires: beauty, order, purpose, opportunity — the things that give us a meaningful human existence."

That motivated Strickland to move Manchester Bidwell  from a rundown warehouse to a new home back in the early 1980s. Even though meeting payroll was a challenge, Strickland met one of Pittsburgh's leading architects and shelled out $10,000 for a scale model of a $5-million dream home. Strickland then took his model on the road and started selling his dream of putting the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild and Bidwell Training Center together under one roof in a new home complete with a fountain in a courtyard and hallways filled with art.

"Everywhere I went, I met with the same dubious stares," says Strickland. "'You want to build this in Manchester?' someone would say. 'Isn't this a little elaborate for a poverty centre?' someone would ask. 'It's not a poverty centre,' I'd answer. 'It's a centre for success.'"

Strickland persisted, and enlightened corporate and civic leaders bought into his dream. The fountain and the museum-quality art on display throughout the centre was never meant to be window dressing, says Strickland. It was intended to deliver a powerful and much-needed message.

"You can't show a person how to build a better life if they feel no pleasure in the simple act of being alive. That's why I built this place and why I fill it with art, and sunlight, and quilts and flowers. We put them in a beautiful place, give them a small taste of what a decent, dignified future might feel like, and that makes all the difference.

Strickland also fills Manchester Bidwell with jazz. He built a concert hall at the centre in 1987 that brings the world's greatest jazz musicians together with sold-out audiences. The concerts, in turn, have spawned a Grammy-winning record label for the centre.

"Jazz was such an integral part of my life that I knew I had to find a way to make it a part of Manchester Bidwell — and not just as background music piped in through the PA system. It had to be woven into the cultural fabric of the place so it could do for our students what it had done for me."

Running through the jazz concerts, the arts programs and the job training is an underlying and unifying philosophy.

"Every human being, despite the circumstances of his or her birth, is born full of potential," says Strickland. "And the way to unlock that potential is to place individuals in a nurturing environment and expose them to the kind of stimulating and empowering creative experiences that feed the human spirit."

And Strickland hasn't stopped dreaming. He's looking to build 100 centres like Manchester Bidwell across the United States and another 100 around the world, all fine-tuned to meet local needs.

There are National Centers for Arts & Technology in Cincinnati, Grand Rapids and San Francisco.

Groups in Cleveland, Columbus, Philadelphia and New Orleans have secured the $150,000 US preliminary grants needed to get new centres off the ground. Chicago, Los Angeles, Reno, New Haven and Charlotte are also working hard at getting early funding and moving to the planning stage.

So while Strickland's talk on Nov. 30 at Hamilton Place is free of charge, thanks to the Jobs Prosperity Collaborative, here's hoping a local business leader steps up, parts with some hard-earned cash and makes a down payment on replicating Strickland's magic here in Steeltown.

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