Pittsburgh potter wants to mold Israeli minds

Pittsburgh potter wants to mold Israeli minds

Akko’s municipal general manager, Ohad Segev, learns how to silk-screen a T-shirt while on a tour of Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild.  (Photo by Toby Tabachnick)
Akko’s municipal general manager, Ohad Segev, learns how to silk-screen a T-shirt while on a tour of Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild. (Photo by Toby Tabachnick)

Bill Strickland is still a prolific potter.

Take a peek inside the ceramics studio at Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild (MCG) — the nationally recognized after-school arts education center that Strickland founded on Pittsburgh’s North Side — and you will see a shelf full of his elegant ceramic platters alongside student work waiting for the kiln.

The metaphor is almost too obvious: The lump of clay, shapeless at first, but holding great potential, becomes something magnificent when molded by the right hands. If the potter puts too much pressure on the clay, it collapses in on itself. If the pressure is too light, it remains without form.

Strickland has been helping shape the lives of at-risk youth for decades at MCG, inspired by his own experience of being taken under the wing of Pittsburgh Public Schools art teacher Frank Ross in the 1960s. At the time, Strickland, an African-American youth headed down the wrong path, needed some direction. Ross showed him the power of art and the importance of education, changing the trajectory of Strickland’s life and consequently, the trajectory of tens of thousands of other lives as well.

Strickland created MCG and its affiliated adult career training program, the Bidwell Training Center (BTC), to help the underserved and at-risk populations of Pittsburgh through a model that provides education and creative inspiration in an environment of respect and beauty.

The success of MCG now is extending beyond Pittsburgh. It has already been replicated in eight cities across the United States and is primed to be replicated abroad.

Its first overseas project could be in Akko, Israel.

Akko’s municipal general manager, Ohad Segev, was in town last week to meet with Strickland, take a tour of his facilities and learn more about the operation of the Manchester Bidwell programs.

The center itself is beautiful, its halls and rooms decorated by vibrant paintings and sculptures and photographs created by students and instructors. The environment is a crucial part of MCG’s success, Strickland said in a meeting arranged to provide background to Segev.

“If you treat people like human beings, they act like human beings,” said Strickland. MCG’s outcomes have borne this out.

Teenagers who attend MCG have a 99 percent high school graduation rate, double the average in the area’s high schools.

“This is a school for poor folks who haven’t been regarded very highly by the community,” said Strickland, adding that adults attending his vocational center quickly become productive members of society. “In 12 months, we can have them productive, working in the environment and generating tax revenues.”

Adults who train at BTC study horticulture, culinary arts or medical technology, fields for which employment demand is high locally.

“We’ve developed a strategy that’s now gaining some momentum,” said Strickland. “I think we can scale this idea all over the world.”

His goal, he said, is to build 100 centers in the United States and another 100 overseas.

He is committed to seeing one built in Israel, he said.

“The Jewish community has been fundamental in making sure this center is here,” said Strickland. “I have a personal responsibility — not just a professional responsibility — to get one built in Israel. I am very passionate about it.”

Local attorney Mark Frank, who has known Strickland for 40 years, has been helping him get the Akko project off the ground.

The two began discussing the possibility of an Israeli center in 2007 with the thought that it might be located in Karmiel/Misgav, Pittsburgh’s Partership2Gether sister city and region.

“I wanted to be supportive of the partnership, but it just didn’t resonate with them,” said Frank.

He began doing his own research, with the idea of locating the center in a city that had a population of Arabs and Jews who could come together in a learning environment like MCG.

Despite its diverse student bodies, none of the centers modeled on MCG have had any racial incidents, said Frank, which led him to believe it could present an Arab/Jewish conciliatory opportunity in Israel.

“What these programs prove is that if you give people hope, their aspirations trump that which would divide them,” explained Frank. “If you sit down and develop a new sense of yourself — that you matter and that you have value — what difference does it make if you come from a different culture?”

Akko seemed like the perfect location for a MCG-type center, said Frank. The population is 30 percent Arab, and while Arabs and Jews attend different schools, there are some neighborhoods in which Arabs and Jews live together.

A pilot program of the MCG model is scheduled to run this fall, said Frank, where students will learn 3-D printing. If the pilot program is successful, the hope is to build a new permanent center, which will house an after-school arts program as well as adult vocational training, likely in horticulture and culinary arts.

The city of Akko is committed to the project, said Segev.

“The municipality gave the land for free,” he said. “Now we are looking for the seed money to build [the facility]. Most of the money will come from the U.S. to build the building. Afterwards, the Israelis will give the money to run it.”

Frank is helping to fundraise for the project and said he is looking primarily to private donors and foundations on a national scale.

“But I would love to be able to say to people that we have a very solid Pittsburgh base of support,” he said.

Strickland recently addressed the Jewish Funders Network at its International Conference in Miami, where he generated a lot of interest in the Akko project, according to Frank.

“I think this project in Akko will be a big deal,” said Strickland. “I think this Israel project will be very significant in changing the conversation about reconciliation.”

(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at tobyt@thejewishchronicle.net.)

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