Thursday, January 24, 2008

You Are What You Build

I believe that people were born into this world as assets, not liabilities. —Bill Strickland

I once had a conversation with Ed Burns, a writer and producer on The Wire. Ed was a Baltimore City cop for many years until he quit the force to become a city school teacher. Tired of locking up kids, he resolved to be a part of the solution. Ed talked about what he saw in those school buildings. Beyond the graffiti-covered walls and the concrete exterior, through the metal detectors and past the security guards, there was a decaying building of peeling paint, sagging ceilings, empty library shelves, and dank, dark hallways. There was no air conditioning to offset the stagnant heat of Baltimore's famously humid summers and the water fountains—poisoned by lead—were shut down. A few water coolers scattered throughout the building were dry by mid-morning. Is it any wonder that 60% of high school students in Baltimore city public schools drop out?

Last night at the Enoch Pratt Library in downtown Baltimore, Bill Strickland gave a talk in support of his new autobiography
Making the Impossible Possible. Strickland has built a career on the simple idea that people are a function of their environment.

Strickland can pinpoint the moment his life changed, the moment he made this connection between environment and mindset. It was a Wednesday afternoon in 1963 in an inner-city Pittsburgh public school. A teenage Strickland passed the door of an art teacher who was working a lump of clay on a potter's wheel. He was transfixed.

"If ever in life there is a clairvoyant experience, I had one that day," Strickland told a reporter in 1998. "I saw a radiant and hopeful image of how the world ought to be. It opened up a portal for me that suggested that there might be a whole range of possibilities and experiences that I had not explored. It was night and day—literally. I saw a line and I thought: This is dark, and this is light. And I need to go where the light is."

Strickland studied ceramics from that day forward.

Falling Water

This same public school teacher piled Strickland and a group of young black men into a bus and drove them to Western Pennsylvania to see Frank Lloyd Wright's Falling Water. Strickland never forgot it.

"I remember how the light felt coming through that house," Strickland said last night. "And I vowed then and there that I would bring some of that light into my neighborhood."

He would go on to found the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild and Bidwell Training Center in Pittsburgh. The school is a stunning architectural vision in an urban space. Designed by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright, attendees are greeted by a massive fountain and a light-filled arts and crafts structure. Inside, the walls are covered with over $100,000 in art and student work is exhibited in a state of the art gallery. A furniture maker who studied under George Nakashima created the furniture. Paul Prudhomme helped design a culinary kitchen and Paul Simon's engineers designed an auditorium where jazz greats like Dizzy Gillespie and Nancy Wilson play and record.

The Music Hall. The Manchester Jazz series attracts the top performers from around the world and sells out its subscription season each year. Four Grammy winning records were recorded here.

In the 23 years that the center has been open, there has never been any theft or graffiti. Strickland fills the building each day with fresh flowers. "I've never figured out the aesthetic purpose of plastic flowers," he said.

Those fresh flowers carry an important message. "It's all in the way that you treat people that defines who they will become," he said. "This is part of the cure for spiritual cancer."

Manchester has a 90% graduation rate and most students go on to attend college.

After hearing a talk about the successes of the school in Pittsburgh, Jeff Skoll, the founder of EBay decided that Strickland was the "EBay of the social side." He believed that his Pittsburgh school was a scalable model that could be replicated in cities across the country and the world. Today, three schools are already up and running in Cincinnati, Grand Rapids, and San Francisco and plans are in the works for many more.

Strickland has earned numerous awards and accolades for his work, including a MacArthur Genius grant. He vows that he will never leave the neighborhood of his youth. "I want to show these kids that you don't have to go anywhere to make a difference," he said. "They are not a stepping stone to something bigger, they are the stone."

You can watch video of Strickland's speech and learn more about his life and his work by clicking here.