Bill Strickland got “chills” as he read the letter from an Arab teacher in a small village near Akko, Israel.
That’s because Strickland, the founder and CEO of the Manchester Bidwell Corporation on Pittsburgh’s North Side, saw in that letter evidence of a “miracle,” he said.
The letter, penned by teacher Ahlam Doawd, describes in detail how the Akko Center for Arts and Technology (ACAT), which opened in 2016, already has changed the lives of her most “challenging” students, offering them a path toward self-esteem as well as a bridge to forge meaningful connections with their Jewish peers.
“This was so encouraging, because what she represents is what we are trying to do over there, getting Jews and Arabs to go to school together,” Strickland said. “This teared me up. That’s why I built this center.”
ACAT is based on the model established by Strickland at Manchester Bidwell, a Pittsburgh nonprofit that has proven that at-risk populations can thrive when allowed to learn in an environment of respect and beauty. For the last four decades, it has reversed the negative trajectory of scores of Pittsburghers through such avenues as photography, horticulture, ceramics and the culinary arts, boosting individual confidence and providing people with skills they can use to find jobs.
The Manchester Bidwell model was replicated in Akko, and since November 2016, has provided photography and three-dimensional printing training to underserved youth, while at the same time supporting coexistence among Jews and Arabs.
The 11,000 square foot ACAT is beautifully appointed, modern in design, with visitors greeted once inside by a striking waterfall measuring 13 feet high. The upscale décor is part of the Manchester Bidwell model, creating a space in which those entering feel valued.
In Doawd’s letter, which was provided in translation from the Arabic to the Chronicle, the teacher from the village of Mazraa describes being hesitant at first to send students with behavioral issues to the combined Jewish and Arab program.
“I was very afraid because I knew that it was very difficult to interest them,” Doawd wrote. “They get bored quickly, they do not always care about knowing and learning new things. And I thought to myself, ‘They will probably drop out,’ and I thought about what they would do with the Jewish students…I was very worried.”
But once inside the facility, she wrote, the students were “surprised” to find a beautiful environment while being greeted by staff with “charming smiles.”
“The students were ‘ashamed’ to interrupt or not to listen after seeing the great investment invested in them,” wrote Doawd. “They felt that the instructors believed in them and taught them very important things.”
Relations continued to improve.
“They began to wait for meetings, among other things, to meet with their friends from the other school,” she wrote. “They had their pictures taken together and also took pictures together, worked on common designs, exchanged telephone numbers and became friends on social networks.”
Moreover, even the students who had assumed they would drop out of the course “became interested and wanted to learn and know more,” she added. “They began to believe in themselves, their self-image rose, their motivation for learning increased.”
The letter seems to prove that the ACAT model “passed the acid test,” said Pittsburgh attorney Mark Frank, who has been shepherding this project since its conception in 2005.
“She had never read Bill’s book, [‘Making the Impossible Possible’], or seen his TED talk, and yet she is using his language of ‘self-esteem,’ and ‘sense of value,’ and ‘feeling their own importance,’” Frank observed. “She found the same things in her students [that Strickland has found], despite her skepticism.”
Israeli society is beginning to take notice, Frank said. Following a recent meeting at the Knesset, MK Isaac Herzog wrote to him to ask for more information about ACAT. After learning additional details, Herzog visited the center and then told Frank he had “never seen anything like this,” Frank recounted. Frank and Herzog are scheduled to meet next week to further discuss ACAT’s possibilities and future.
“ACAT is becoming part of the fabric of the social service network in Israel,” Frank said. “It’s very gratifying. ACAT believes in these students, which is a rare occurrence in these youths’ lives. This letter says to me that this principle transcends international borders and religions. It was quite a moment to see this letter.”
The possibilities that ACAT promises could help transform the region’s political landscape from one of conflict to one of cooperation, said Strickland.
“We can solve the problem of the Middle East right there in Akko,” he said. “There’s the answer right there. The children are bonding. Jews and Arabs are going to school together. You can’t write a book better than that.” PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.