Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Passing Empowerment Down Through the Arts

MacArthur “genius” Bill Strickland founded an urban arts center that grew into a community.

January 28, 2009

Shape Futures:

A passion for pottery changes hands.

Credit: Gregory Cherin

Growing up poor, black, and discouraged in a neighborhood boiling over with racial tension, Bill Strickland happened to walk into a classroom where he felt a different vibe. He heard jazz playing, smelled coffee brewing, and met Frank Ross, a high school arts teacher who introduced Strickland to the potter's wheel. "His classroom was physically the same as every other room," Strickland recalls, "but he created a space of extraordinary excitement."

That was more than 40 years ago. Almost ever since, Strickland has been working to bring the arts, plus a heavy dose of mentoring, to other young people growing up in poverty.

At the core of Strickland's vision is a community arts center, the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild (MCG), just blocks from his old high school on the north side of Pittsburgh. Wedged between warehouses and a noisy freeway overpass, the center offers a contrast to urban decay: No bars on these big windows. No graffiti. No metal detectors. And some 900 students coming through the two-story brick building each year for serious art study.

Time, Space, and Possibility

Perched on a stool in the design studio, a lanky 17-year-old who calls himself Blue (preferring not to use his real name) waves a hand at the windows as he describes life "out there," in his neighborhood. Out there is where his peers party and skip class. When they do show up at school, he says, "teachers at other schools control you with detentions and suspensions."

At Blue's inner-city high school, art supplies are kept under lock and key. He ventured into an art store once on his own but says, "I felt like I needed a scholarship just to be there."

When Blue started coming to the MCG three years ago for after-school and summer programs, he found the best materials available free. The studios, unlike his crowded high school, offer plenty of room to spread out. Using state-of-the-art equipment, he took photos, tried his hand at ceramics, and made digital art. He was quiet at first, sizing up the place and the people. He liked the way teaching artists would give him pointers, "then give you time and space to figure it out on your own." He warmed up fast to the give-and-take. And although he enjoyed exploring various art disciplines, he kept coming back to his favorite skill: drawing.

On a late summer afternoon, Blue holds up a self-portrait in oil pastels he's been working on for weeks. His serious gaze looks out from the page. "My goal was to make it look like my real face. It's right. This is a good one," he says, sliding the piece into a portfolio that he will present for critical feedback.

Blue hopes to go to college, something not many in his family have done. With the MCG's help, he has made repeat campus visits. "I'll be stepping out," he says, but he won't forget where he got his start. "This place is like a root."

Art Creates Opportunity

Almost to his surprise, Blue has started stepping into more of a leadership role. He stands up at area high schools to give recruiting talks about the value of the MCG. As a paid intern in an MCG-sponsored internship program called Arts Leadership and Public Service, he preps materials and assists newer students in the studio. Applying for the ALPS internship meant filling out an application and going through formal interviews. By the time he was picked as one of about 20 leadership interns, he felt up to the role.

Recently, the ALPS interns chose an issue they wanted to address through the arts. They brainstormed a list of woes, many affecting their own families: gangs, domestic violence, drugs, and alcohol. One girl talked about boarded-up storefronts, asking her peers, "Why can't small businesses make it here?" Eventually, they narrowed their focus to something they all want to see end: community violence.

Create Space:

Bill Strickland pauses in the student art gallery.

Credit: Gregory Cherin

Assembling their best artwork, they staged a benefit show to support a local organization that helps victims of violence. "It gave me a good feeling to know our work is helping someone," says Adriane, another ALPS intern and an aspiring printmaker who, with her riot of curly hair, is a familiar presence in the design studio. "I've been coming here for three years," she says. "This place feels like family. Everyone is so warm and trusting."

In this inspired place, that's how the art of social change happens. Creative sparks fly. Kids and caring adults forge a bond. And opportunities open. "Art creates pathways that have been closed to too many kids," Strickland says. Create enough such moments, he promises, "and we can change the conversation about what education can be." It may start with something as simple as a student and a teacher talking over a potter's wheel. But just get it started, Strickland adds, "and you may be surprised where this conversation takes you."

A Vision Seen Through Many Eyes

The next morning, teaching artist Dave Deily arrives at the MCG ceramics studio to find the conversation already in full swing. A slender teen struggles to keep a lump of clay from wobbling off center as she turns the potter's wheel in slow circles. She pauses to push up her glasses and steal a glance at the next wheel. Strickland, in a clay-splattered T-shirt, is busy cranking out the last of ten pots he will make this morning. They all have the same basic shape, rising like an upside-down hive from narrow base to broad shoulder. But each is slightly different.

"I like to work on one problem at a time," Strickland explains. "You can see it more clearly that way." On the surface, he's talking about making a top-heavy pot that keeps its balance. But it's also an apt metaphor to describe how he built the MCG, overcoming one challenge at a time. While he's talking, a young photographer focuses her lens on the CEO. That sets him off on a story about the day his dad bought him his first camera at a pawnshop up the street. Another message is tucked into that story: This is my neighborhood, too.

Deily grins and grabs a stool. He loves this energy. He soaked it up when he was a teenager, growing up in a working-class neighborhood a few miles away. He would come to the MCG after school to work alongside adult artists and learn from their example -- and their stories. Years later, he realized the feeling of safety he got from the steady presence of these adults. After earning a degree in fine arts, Deily came full circle and today is manager of studio operations at the MCG.

Credit: Gregory Cherin

Now that it's his turn in the mentor role, Deily takes care to create the same atmosphere that challenged him to grow. If kids want to make ceramic monsters, more power to them -- as long as they take the work seriously.

Recently, he worked with a group of teens referred to the center by the county juvenile department. Despite being known as "some rough kids," during a three-hour ceramics workshop on a Japanese-style of firing called raku, they showed complete respect. Deily reflected on the workshop: "I was pretty serious about glazing that pot. And they knew it."

The MCG has refined its approach for working with at-risk youth. In the early years, kids would just drop in. Now, more formal after-school apprenticeships encourage longer-term engagement. The program still costs kids nothing -- except their commitment. Funding comes from a stream of support, including traditional grants and more entrepreneurial activities such as the MCG's own Grammy-winning jazz recording label.

Bringing kids into this exciting space is only half the story. A partnership with the Pittsburgh Public Schools also sends MCG teaching artists out to the classroom. Working side by side, artists and classroom teachers design arts-infused projects that meet standards in creative ways. These projects bring rich art experiences to hundreds more young people each year. "The way to change education," Strickland insists, "is to demonstrate how it's supposed to look."

Strickland has long since turned over day-to-day teaching duties to his capable faculty. Since earning the MacArthur "genius" fellowship and a raft of other honors for what he has accomplished in Pittsburgh, he spends most of his time sharing the Manchester vision with communities interested in emulating this model. Sister projects have been launched in San Francisco, Cincinnati, and Grand Rapids, Michigan, and others are in the planning stages as far away as Israel. But when he's in town, he still puts in time in the ceramics studio.

A plaque at the doorway of the ceramics studio is a reminder of how all this started. The room is dedicated to Strickland's late art teacher: Frank Ross.

Suzie Boss, a journalist who lives in Portland, Oregon, is coauthor of Reinventing Project-Based Learning: Your Field Guide to Real-World Projects in the Digital Age. She also blogs for

Go to "How To: Mentor At-Risk Students in Art."

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