Bill Strickland has helped thousands of people find direction through the arts at Manchester Bidwell Corp.
By Anthony Castrovince
More than 50 years ago, Bill Strickland was just another high school student with bad grades and very little motivation. Then he met Frank Ross, an art teacher at David B. Oliver High School in Pittsburgh, and everything began to change.
“He was a very cool guy, very bright, and he knew a lot about the arts and about jazz,” Strickland says. “When you’re a young kid growing up in a tough neighborhood, you’re typically poor and you don’t have much hope. One thing the arts is good at is instilling hope in people, including a guy like me.”
Ross took Strickland under his wing, mentoring him through his teen years and showing him the power of art, education and community.
“I was flunking out of high school and he got me interested in jazz and excited about ceramics,” Strickland says. “He said, ‘You’re too smart to die. You’re going to college,’ and he hounded me until I went to college. When you’re in a difficult situation, you learn by being around people who bring out the best in you, people who let you know that you’re not a liability, you’re an asset.”
Ross helped Strickland gain admission to the University of Pittsburgh, and as much as he was chasing his own personal growth, he was already sowing the seeds of an incredible career spent giving back to his community. In 1968, while still attending college, Strickland launched Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild (MCG) to bring arts education and mentorship to inner city youth in his neighborhood. It was the first step to building what is now Manchester Bidwell Corp., an organization that has helped thousands of people find a way forward through their own creative talents.
Time to get serious
Manchester Bidwell operates Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild, Bidwell Training Center and the National Center for Arts and Technology. Through those organizations, Strickland helped secure funding for projects such as a 40,000-square-foot production greenhouse, a 350-seat music/lecture hall, a library, art studios and career training labs, and state-of-the-art audio and video recording studios.
“Bidwell was a poorly run poverty program in the 1970s,” says Strickland, founder and executive chairman at Manchester Bidwell. “I showed up with my suit and said, ‘Alright, we’re going to make this thing into something respectable.’ I bought the drinks and the paint and we started to paint the building. That’s literally how it started. After a couple years, people figured out I was serious, and I started getting them to be serious about themselves. We started to work with industries to get jobs lined up that were in line with what we were teaching the students.”
A major technology company was one of the first to step up, Strickland says, and Bidwell became a demonstration project site for the still-evolving company. Today, students can earn a degree certifying them as a laboratory technician or a diploma in culinary arts, horticulture technology, pharmacy assistant, medical assistant and other fields.
These programs help Strickland and his organization give students a wide range of options as they pursue their dreams. Manchester Bidwell has worked hard to keep up with the latest in career development. But the organization has also maintained its commitment to a full and vibrant range of art and music program offerings.
“Art gives people a different way of expressing their feelings through the sociology of meeting other people who have experienced success,” Strickland says. “We bring in nationally known artists, and it changes people’s perception of how the world works. It inspires them and gives them a look at what is possible through hard work and commitment.”
Since 1987, MCG Jazz, a program of Manchester Bidwell, has hosted almost 1,700 concerts and produced five Grammy Award-winning albums.
“It’s been a heck of a ride,” Strickland says. “The arts is vital to the work that we do and is focused on kids just like me when I was growing up.”
Persistence pays off
Most of the students at Manchester Bidwell have faced tough times in their young lives; Sharif Bey, Ph.D., was one of them. Strickland says that when Bey was an eighth-grader, he could see he had talent.
“He didn’t realize he had the talent,” Strickland says. “He was very shy, and in my view, very introspective. He ended up seeing something in himself. Our center brought it out in full bloom.”
Bey says he spent as much time as possible in high school at the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild.
“I remember my first day,” says Bey, a dual associate professor in both art education and teaching and leadership at Syracuse University. “It was a very simple thing, but the instructor gave me a big mound of clay and had very basic instructions to make a head. What really inspired me was I had more clay at my disposal that day than I had in my entire tenure as an art student in school. It opened up a world of possibility.”
Everything at Manchester Bidwell, whether it was creating art in the classroom or displaying the finished product at a show, was done with class.
“To give that to me and then to have an exhibition of my work, along with my friends’ work, and to have the same standards, the same caterers, the same jazz trio, the same track lighting, the same pedestals,” says Bey. “Bill always said, ‘If you treat people with respect, integrity and hope, you’re going to raise good citizens.’ We were entrusted with something from the beginning, and people knew that it was special.”
Helping students comes down to persistence, determination and an excellent faculty, Strickland says.
“A lot of people think, ‘OK, I can come in and snap my fingers, and all of a sudden, kids are going to be middle class and act right,’” Strickland says. “That’s just not how it works. You have to look like a solution and not the problem. You have to lead by example. It’s not magic; it’s hard work. You have to have the ability and the energy to stay with it.”
See the possible
In 2007, Strickland published “Make the Impossible Possible: One Man’s Crusade to Inspire Others to Dream Bigger and Achieve the Extraordinary.” For Strickland, the book’s title represents a mantra that has guided his approach to work and life.
“When you’re poor and you don’t have any hope, you’re not sure where your next move is coming from in terms of advancing your life,” Strickland says. “What I decided to do was to change that to a conversation about hope and possibility rather than limitation and failure. By building this training center, we were able to change the conversation pretty dramatically about how these kids can live their lives. That’s why it’s called Make the Impossible Possible.”
Strickland’s work has earned him an extensive list of honors, including 22 honorary doctorate degrees. He’s also received the University of Pittsburgh’s Johnson Institute Exemplary Leader Award, the Eleanor Roosevelt Val-Kill Medal, the EY Entrepreneur Of The Year award and the GOI Peace Award, to name a few. He has served as chairman of the Expansion Arts Panel of the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, D.C., and served a six-year presidential appointment as a council member to the National Endowment for the Arts. Strickland views his many accolades as a product of his dogged determination to never give up, even in the face of skepticism.“Either I’m a magician who has fooled a lot of people, or somebody has to come to the conclusion that this guy is actually making sense,” he says. “It’s about the kids and about the neighborhoods, not me personally. That’s why I do this for a living.”
Strengthen the community
One of Bill Strickland’s key mentors in his career has been Stephen D. Steinour, chairman, president and CEO at Huntington.
“Steve has been very encouraging to me as both a mentor and a role model,” Strickland says. “He taught me to care for your customers not by preaching, but by living it and setting an example.”
Huntington has been a strong supporter of Manchester Bidwell, both financially and through board participation. Susie Shipley, president of Huntington’s Western Pennsylvania and Ohio Valley region, and Sandy Pierce, senior executive vice president, Private Bank, and regional banking director and chair, Michigan, have also “collectively helped and admired the work here at Bidwell, for which we are very grateful.”
In return for the business community’s support, Manchester Bidwell provides superior talent to boost the workforce.
“We’ve gotten very good at taking people in the vocational space and training them to be competitive for world-class companies like Huntington,” Strickland says. “We’ve been very effective at taking people others gave up on and turning them into productive citizens who are capable of pulling themselves out of poverty and developing a lifestyle and an income stream that allow them to participate in the economy quite actively.”
For more information, visit manchesterbidwell.org.