Bill Strickland in the ceramics classroom of his Manchester Bidwell centre, Pittsburgh
Bill Strickland in the ceramics classroom of his Manchester Bidwell centre, Pittsburgh © Hector Emanuel

As a “black kid growing up in a bad neighbourhood” in Pittsburgh in the 1960s, Bill Strickland understood all about the hopelessness of the ghetto. Running away from an angry cop or hitching a ride from a friend in a stolen car could wreck your life in an instant and forever.

But Strickland’s life was transformed for the better by a chance meeting with a worldly-wise arts teacher, who instilled in him an improbable passion for pottery and the self-discipline needed to win a place at the University of Pittsburgh. No matter how many times he has told his story, the tall, stooping, somewhat shy Strickland still grows misty-eyed when recalling that life-changing encounter some 50 years ago while attending the David B Oliver High School.

Walking down a school corridor one Wednesday afternoon, Strickland was drawn to the art room by the smell of coffee. Inside he found the art teacher, Frank Ross, throwing a pot in a room suffused with sunlight. Mesmerised, Strickland had a go and lost himself in a new obsession. By opening his hands, eyes and ears to the wonders of pottery, architecture and jazz, Ross sparked a latent sensibility in the 16-year-old boy and a reason for getting up in the morning.

“He saved my life, man,” Strickland says, glancing up in acknowledgment at a black-and-white photo of Ross at a potter’s wheel. Every individual should have a similar opportunity to shape their own destiny, he believes. Making something beautiful out of a lump of clay has become the metaphor for Strickland’s remarkable life.

Upon graduation, Strickland vowed not to turn his back on his downtrodden neighbourhood. Instead, he has devoted his whole life to trying to uplift it. Inspired by Ross’s example, Strickland has spent more than four decades striving to bring purpose to the lives of thousands of disadvantaged kids in Pittsburgh’s North Side. By introducing them to the arts, he says he can help cure the “cancer of the spirit” that still sickens so much of inner-city America.

Today, at a time when the 66-year-old Strickland might have considered retiring to spend more time with his third wife and their 12-year-old daughter, he still burns with a mission to spread his philosophy of hope and his educational methodology around the world. “I am type A. I can’t quit while I’m ahead,” he says.

The Manchester Bidwell centre
The Manchester Bidwell centre © Hector Emanuel

More than 45 years of trial and error have taught Strickland some simple truths about educating disadvantaged children that he believes can help revolutionise the failing public schools in the US and beyond. “Environment shapes behaviour,” Strickland says, sitting in the boardroom of the gleaming $7m purpose-built arts and training centre he founded. “We have to build places of hope rather than places of despair. The public school system here is built to contain kids, not educate them. If you build prisons, you create prisoners.”

The contrast between the high school that Strickland attended and his own arts centre is arresting. Although it has recently closed, the building that housed his high school remains a grey, forbidding edifice with security cameras on the roof, grates on the windows and a view straight into a cemetery. But just a few blocks away, Strickland’s Manchester Bidwell Training Center is an altogether more welcoming establishment, with sunlight streaming through its large windows, orchids blooming in its reception and colourful quilts hanging on its walls.

“You need to be able to live what you teach,” he says. “You need a beautiful space dedicated to the school, full of wonderful furniture and sunlight and fabulous food. The first thing you have to do is to keep these kids on the planet.”

Bill Strickland at a UPMC breakfast meeting
Bill Strickland at a UPMC breakfast meeting © Hector Emanuel

Strickland’s first attempts to teach arts to poor students were only fitfully successful. With funding from the Episcopal church he opened a ramshackle arts school, known as the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild, in 1968 to bring some joy to the lives of the local community. Four years later he was asked to take over the Bidwell Training Center, helping redundant steel workers and “welfare moms” to rebuild their lives. But Strickland spent those early years working in grimy premises, living on shoestring budgets and writing countless grant applications. It was only when his efforts collapsed, forcing him to fire most of his staff in an alcohol-fuelled haze, that he hit on a radical solution.

Rather than continuing to fail conventionally, Strickland decided to raise his ambitions and try to succeed unconventionally. Dreaming big, he persuaded Tasso Katselas, one of Pittsburgh’s leading architects and a former student of Frank Lloyd Wright, to design a new arts and training centre and then trekked around town badgering business leaders, charity foundations and the public authorities for the money to build it. Miraculously, he raised the funds and opened his centre in 1986 on the site of industrial buildings burnt down during the 1968 riots that erupted after Martin Luther King’s assassination.

Over the years, Strickland has added a “culinary amphitheatre”, where students learn to cook gourmet food, and a commercial horticultural centre, which grows spectacular orchids. Working with local companies such as Heinz, Bayer and the UPMC healthcare company, he has created vocational training programmes in food technology, chemical testing and primary care. But his particular joy is the centre’s throbbing 350-seat jazz hall, which has attracted many of the world’s most legendary musicians – including Dizzy Gillespie, Wynton Marsalis and Ahmad Jamal.

“You have to build something that is so cool and hip that no one can refuse to fund it. And I was right,” he laughs. “You cannot keep going with this incremental poverty alleviation bullshit.”

Bill Strickland with a group of visitors from Denver
Strickland with a group of visitors from Denver © Hector Emanuel

With an annual budget of $10m, the Manchester Bidwell centre runs an after-school arts programme for up to 500 children a year. Strickland argues that those students who attend the centre’s arts programmes are far more likely to complete their high-school education as a result: their graduation rate is 98 per cent, twice the local average.

While the arts programme aims to give students a “first chance”, its adult training centre attempts to give those who have fallen off the ladder a “second chance”. About 200 adults a year train at the centre, which ranks among the top-rated vocational establishments in the US. Eighty per cent of those who finish its courses soon find jobs.

Pittsburgh, which was the crucible of the American industrial revolution in the late 19th century, has a long history of philanthropy and civic engagement. After making a colossal fortune from the region’s steel industry, Andrew Carnegie then gave away most of his wealth, endowing 3,000 public libraries and many other educational institutions around the world.

According to one local journalist, that legacy has left the city with the mentality of “a nation-state rather than a city”. Strickland has adroitly tapped into that philanthropic tradition and is revered by many in the local business community.

At a dinner in his honour in the opulent Duquesne Club, where Carnegie once held sway, local business leaders line up to praise Strickland’s achievements. Greg Jordan, the former managing partner of Reed Smith, Pittsburgh’s largest law firm, who has just become general counsel at PNC Financial Services Group, introduces Strickland as a “miracle worker”. Another financier, who marvels at Strickland’s ability to squeeze money out of even the most reluctant donors, advises: “Whenever you talk with him stare at his tie knot, not his eyes. Otherwise you will find yourself opening your cheque book, no matter what your intentions.”

Former students Jayla Patton (left) and Latrice McGinnis, who still return to the centre to do pottery
Former students Jayla Patton (left) and Latrice McGinnis, who still return to the centre to do pottery © Hector Emanuel

To finance his training programmes, Strickland has spent much of the past decade incessantly touring the US, telling his story to anyone who will listen and stump up some cash. His TED talk, “Bill Strickland Makes Change With a Slideshow”, accompanied by Herbie Hancock on the piano, has been watched more than 425,000 times. His book, Make the Impossible Possible, has sold more than 85,000 copies. His unconventional corporation has even attracted the attention of business academics and been written about four times by Harvard Business School. He also featured in the acclaimed 2010 documentary Waiting for “Superman”, which investigated the US public education system.

Backed by an impressive roster of local business leaders and charitable foundations, Strickland has opened another eight centres in the US and is aiming to found up to 100 within his lifetime. He is also in talks with potential partners in the Caribbean, Japan, Israel and the UK with a view to opening 100 more abroad. “I want to open in London yesterday,” he says.

He believes that his message of self-help has universal appeal and that his methodology – a rare hybrid of public and private sector initiative, as well as artistic creativity and practical training – has universal application. Welfare programmes have failed in so many western countries, he believes, that maybe it is time to scale something that works.

“It costs a lot of money to keep people poor. We spend $7bn in Pennsylvania on welfare out of a $28bn budget. What I am saying is invest in young people and give them the chance to be productive citizens. You do not have to subsidise them,” he explains. “We have doubled the graduation rate for inner city black and Hispanic kids. It is a methodology. We have figured this out. With all the presidential commissions and PhDs and Rand Corporation studies we still do not have the outcomes we want. But here is Bill Strickland and his arts programme with a way to double the graduation rates of kids.”

It may seem a deceptively simple solution to a hugely complex problem, one that perhaps works better in practice than in theory. But as Strickland says: “All great ideas are simple. What is hard is getting to the place where they are seen as simple.”

Paulo Nzambi is wearing a suit so sharp you could graze yourself on it and shoes so polished they would make a parade-ground Marine grin. As a former criminal defence lawyer and a playwright, Nzambi also has a neat line in words. As he stands by a pair of giant Chinese vases in the spotless reception area of Manchester Bidwell, the corporation’s chief operating officer explains why it is so important to introduce poor students to the finer things in life. “Students think they matter to the extent that you invest in them,” he says. “This investment says that we mean what we say. We are going to invest in giving you the very best to keep you on the asset side of the balance sheet, rather than the liability side.”

Manchester Bidwell’s chief operating officer Paulo Nzambi: “a former playwright, he has a neat line in words”
Manchester Bidwell’s chief operating officer Paulo Nzambi: 'a former playwright, he has a neat line in words' © Hector Emanuel

Tight budgets have meant that many high schools in Pittsburgh, and across the US, have been cutting their arts programmes. But Nzambi argues they can often be the key to educational success. Not only do arts programmes offer aesthetic rewards, they also give staff the chance to interact with students in a more creative and constructive way. “Most schools think that arts and music programmes are discretionary. We think they are essential. The key thing to understand is that while it’s an arts programme, it is all about mentoring. Arts is a key to engagement.”

Ninety per cent of the students who attend the after-school programme, which runs from 3.30pm every day for 10 weeks, come from Pittsburgh’s public high schools. But at one to eight, the ratio of staff to students is far higher than you would expect in a regular school.

Teachers, therefore, have time to mentor the students, encouraging them to stick with the tricky and, at times, frustrating challenge of throwing a pot. “The idea is to get young people excited about learning,” he says. “We are trying to instil the notion of perseverance. You are going to have to try and try and try to achieve anything worthwhile. Failure is a learning experience.”

That level of engagement also appears to help the students who finish Manchester Bidwell’s part-time arts programmes to do far better at their own full-time high schools.

Jeff Skoll, the first president of the ecommerce company eBay, who sits on the Manchester Bidwell board, acknowledges that only the most committed students are likely to attend its arts programmes. “I think that there is a self-selection bias. The ones who go through the programmes are more likely to be driven people in the first place,” he says. “But if these programmes did not exist they would find a dead end and would not have a chance to aspire.”

The spiritual heart of Manchester Bidwell is the ceramics centre, which contains 16 potter’s wheels, three electric kilns and four gas kilns including one for raku ware. Here students can throw pots, mix glazes and fire their creations. There are similar programmes for visual and digital arts, photography, video production and music.

Alongside the arts centre is the adult training centre, where older students have a chance to rebuild their lives. Working with local employers, Manchester Bidwell has created tailor-made vocational programmes in food technology, chemical testing and primary healthcare.

At times, Nzambi and other members of staff display an almost religious fervour in talking about their “movement” for change. Is this Martin Luther King’s movement? “Absolutely,” Nzambi replies. “It is a way of seeing people as having intrinsic value. It is a philosophy of hope.”

The head of arts programmes, Justin Mazzei
The head of arts programmes, Justin Mazzei © Hector Emanuel

That sense of hope is certainly radiated by some of the students at the centre. One 17-year-old girl, who has been attending for more than four years and wants to study clinical psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, says there is a level of trust there that does not exist at her high school. “At school I cannot leave my bag out the way I do here,” she says. “Because people are not forced to be here, you want to respect this space.

“In the first class you attend you hear Bill’s story. You understand why this matters so much. This is someone’s dream and life. I think it is something particular to the culture. It filters out people who do not care. It is a more freeing place.”

A 16-year-old boy, who has been coming to the centre four times a week for three years, has become an expert at screen printing. He has developed his own brand – Over Exposed – and sells his T-shirts to his relatives and friends to help keep food on the family table. “While you are here you are doing something you enjoy doing. But the basic principles of trusting the students and treating them with respect would go a long way in every school,” he says.

Justin Mazzei, a hyperactive teacher who runs the arts programme, says he loves working at the centre because he knows he can have a positive impact on people’s lives every day. “I don’t know what these kids have going on but I know it’s rough. When they come here it’s something special. That changing lives thing, man, is for real.”

On the 62nd floor of the US Steel Tower, the talk is as big as the view is expansive. At a sweep you can survey the curves of Pittsburgh’s rivers, the contours of its strikingly hilly terrain and the up-and-down history of the city’s industrial expansion, contraction and regeneration.

The top floors of Pittsburgh’s tallest skyscraper are occupied by UPMC, the healthcare company that is one of the city’s biggest employers and a keen supporter of Manchester Bidwell’s adult training programmes.

Strickland has come to a breakfast meeting at UPMC to update them on his expansion plans. “As of November we will have eight centres up and running. Every one has a med team based on the UPMC model,” he says proudly. “It costs $38,000 to keep people in penitentiaries for a year, or $13,000 to put them through my training centre. Which is the better deal?”

Strickland’s interlocutor is Jeff Romoff, UPMC’s chief executive, a bald, intense man, fond of talking in punchy sentences about grand ideas. Romoff knows all about how to scale a good concept. The son of two musicians who told him he wouldn’t make it as a professional trumpet player, Romoff went into business instead, and over the past 40 years has helped to expand UPMC into an $10bn revenue company with some 62,000 employees.

UPMC is now a leading example of the way Pittsburgh’s universities and health companies have spearheaded the city’s economic revival following the collapse of its steel industry and the halving of its population over the past 50 years.

“The major issue for the future of humanity is how do you find a solution for the underclass,” Romoff says. “Sometimes we call these people terrorists and sometimes we call them poor. But unless we can find a way to include and energise these people there will be a natural tendency to retribution and destructiveness that will bring down civilisation.”

Explaining why UPMC has supported Strickland so actively and contributed $3m to his foundation, Romoff says: “Education is the core. I think what Bill is doing is an overpowering thing. Why Bill is scalable is because this is a vision that resonates here: how do you make people good citizens in an extremely efficient way? Bill does the right thing in the right way.

“The business model is not just converting liabilities into assets. It is recognising that, ultimately, if these liabilities are not converted into assets they will take the world into bankruptcy. The balance sheet of the world is already overburdened with liabilities that exceed its assets.”

One of the other guests at the table who enthusiastically endorses Romoff’s message is Kevin Williams, a former Navy Seal, who looks as though his body has been chiselled out of granite. After leaving the military, Williams studied for an MBA and went to work for Kiril Sokoloff, the CEO and founder of 13D Research, who wants to open training centres across the Caribbean. Williams has come to Pittsburgh to study how Strickland operates. He strongly believes his model can work internationally too.

“I am not a creator, I’m a destroyer. We all have our skill sets,” Williams says to general laughter. “But this has to be a scalable idea. I have spent time in Afghanistan and Pakistan. People scratch their heads and wonder why they manufacture militants to join the jihad. Well, if you were a 15-year-old kid in Pakistan who was offered a choice of farming dirt or having three square meals at a madrasa and fighting holy war, which would you choose?”

Although Strickland has been talking for years about opening new centres across the US, his earliest experiences of expansion were not encouraging. A centre he opened in San Francisco did not work out as originally planned. Simply replicating the Pittsburgh model, shorn of the inspirational drive of Strickland himself, was not a sustainable model. Since then, however, Strickland has recruited a team of professional managers from some of Pittsburgh’s leading private sector companies, who are developing a methodology that can be applied elsewhere.

There are, of course, plenty of educationalists in the US who believe they could solve the country’s woes, given enough money. What is unique about Strickland’s model? Could it survive without him? And what convinces his backers that the concept can work elsewhere?

Former eBay president Jeff Skoll argues that there is something unique and replicable about Strickland’s approach and is backing that conviction with his own hard cash.

Skoll first met Strickland in 1999 when he came to tell his story to some Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. Everyone laughed when Strickland pulled out a battered box of slides held together by duct tape and wire, he says. That was not the way to impress an audience of tech tsars. “But when Bill started speaking it was as though a veil had lifted from the room. He was just so passionate and exciting.”

After pocketing billions from selling down his stake in eBay, Skoll went into the philanthropy business, setting up the $1bn Skoll Foundation, which has since invested in 80 social enterprise organisations around the world. It is a measure of his respect for Strickland, he says, that the only one of those organisations on whose board he sits is Manchester Bidwell.

“I think the world of Bill and what he has been doing. The demand for his centres is real. Now we just have to fulfil it,” he says.

Skoll has been heavily involved in the running of Strickland’s San Francisco centre, helping to turn it around after its sticky start and targeting its training programmes towards the demands of Silicon Valley. He is convinced that Strickland and his team have finally “cracked the code” for successful replication by fusing the best ideas from the private and public sectors. A new generation of “mini-Bills”, as Skoll puts it, is now emerging to take development forward.

“No two centres are exactly alike. Start small and grow over time. Find a local champion,” he says in a telephone interview. “All of these centres operate on the same principles and the results are the same. Put kids in an environment where they can find dignity and purpose and they respond. Bill has a saying that in the ghettos what matters most is faith, hope and love – but hope is the most powerful.”

Such is the power of this model, Skoll says, that it could yet prove to be the “eBay of social change”. As he puts it, “eBay took the idea of person-to-person trade and used the internet to make it a global phenomenon. We turned garage sales and flea markets into a global trading platform. What Bill and his centres are about is the same empowerment of people and helping them find good jobs. This should be the model for schools everywhere in the world.”

One of the other centres that Strickland has supported is in Grand Rapids, Michigan, which has been strongly backed by the locally based Steelcase, the world’s largest office-furniture company.

Jim Hackett, Steelcase’s chief executive, who is something of a self-confessed geek when it comes to organisational theory, argues that Strickland’s model has a particular resonance today. Government and corporate bureaucracies may have been good at solving the problems of the 20th century, he says, but it is networks of like-minded organisations that are more effective in addressing the challenges of our times.

“The whole reason Bill started this was because the legacy system does not work very well. Bill intuitively understands what to do. He is the systems integrator of networks,” Hackett says. “Bill has realised that there is power in a network in which people learn from each other. It is in the nature of complex systems to produce complexity and reduce progress. Information moves so much faster in networks than bureaucracies. Networks are also colour and class-blind. Our educational system needs to be redesigned and Manchester Bidwell is a good place to start.”

As he sits in his packed concert hall on a Saturday night listening to the New Gary Burton Quartet, Strickland stares intently at the band and sways gently to the rhythm. Like so many of the jazz musicians who have played in his venue, Strickland has mastered the art of improvisation: he has made it all up as he has gone along. According to Marty Ashby, who runs the jazz programme: “Bill is one of the greatest jazz musicians – and he can’t play a note.”

Perhaps the only true measure of Strickland’s achievements will come when he himself has retired from the stage. Will he be remembered for his dazzling performance in Pittsburgh? Or will he have been able to inspire a whole new school of educationalists? In the meantime, one thing is certain: while he remains on stage Strickland will just keep telling his story. “It’s like water on granite, man,” he says.


John Thornhill is the FT’s deputy editor.

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