Updated: Mar 23, 2019
Fifty something years ago I was one of a bunch of teenagers participating in an American Friends Committee work camp in East Liberty, a run-down area near Pittsburgh.
I was in a stairway with 14-foot ceilings painting with my friend Bill. We were both 16, both above six feet tall — Bill is black, I am white. We were picked to paint the stairway because of our height and were up on 12-foot ladders. In the stairway with us were some trash and a bare light bulb hanging down from the ceiling.
Bill looked at the bare bulb, and said, “You see that light bulb — no shade, no nice fixture. That light bulb says we are in a ghetto. The people here don’t think they really live here — they think this is temporary, so they aren’t going to fix it up, make it their own, they won’t even think to make it beautiful — instead they are going to move out. But they won’t, they only think they will.”
“Because dreams rise out of genuine human needs, they feed the spirit in a profoundly satisfying way. A genuine dream brings direction, conviction, substance and satisfaction to your life the moment you commit to it.” -- Bill Strickland.
Bill said he wanted to change that kind of thinking in poor neighborhoods — in his neighborhood. He began a small center where he taught pottery to kids who lived in Manchester. Although I moved away from Pittsburgh not too long after that, I heard Bill had created a center for the arts and was increasingly well known for his pioneering work in Pittsburgh. He was changing lives through art and confidence building, building lives through the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild. (http://mcgyouthandarts.org/)
Finally, in 2000, I went back to Pittsburgh on a business trip. I called Bill and asked to see his program. He said to come on over and check it out. Bill grew up in Manchester, across the bridge and south of the Golden Triangle. Manchester was far from golden; in the 60s it was a poverty-stricken, dangerous, mostly black neighborhood. Bill’s center, the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild (MCG), is not far from the Ohio River, and a Roberto Clemente throw from the home in which he grew up.
Bill’s center is breathtakingly beautiful, filled with gorgeous artwork, handmade furniture, beautiful Amish quilts, and graceful sculptures along with his own incredible ceramics. A large graceful fountain highlights the entry. The architect who designed Pittsburgh International Airport designed MCG, and it is made from the same golden bricks. It is filled with light throughout and contains a concert hall where prominent jazz greats have performed — and recorded for the MCG label, winning Grammy awards.
Walking through the center inspired me. Our conversation those many years before has always stayed with me, so I knew this was sixteen-year-old Bill Strickland’s vision for the transformative effects of art and high expectations. But he had not stopped with a vision; he had made it happen.
Bill has written a powerful book, “Making the Impossible Possible,” and has opened similar centers all over the world. Most recently he opened one in Israel for both Palestinians and Israelis. Here in Boston, Maarten Hemsley heard Bill and decided to open The New England Center for Arts and Technology, now five years old. The many centers, each locally operated and funded, offer artistic and vocational development. They are funded by the directors of major corporations who have seen what Bill has accomplished and helped him to do more.
Two days after seeing the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild in 2000, I left Pittsburgh, intent on opening The Fluency Factory. I had been envisioning it for 12 years, and seeing what my old friend had accomplished, and how he had followed his dreams, made me feel guilty but also re-energized. My goal of establishing an extremely powerful, positive learning center had been pushed aside year after year.
It seemed risky and difficult, and working as a consultant was certainly more lucrative. Walking through the MCG and recalling my memories of Bill’s neighborhood all those years ago was enough to convince me that it was time to aim higher.
The Fluency Factory is now over 15 years old, and it has been a total joy. Seeing our students master the skills they are missing or build new and dramatically stronger skills is every bit as great as I hoped. But there is still something missing.
Last summer I drove to Pittsburgh and had a chance to see Bill again. I had heard he was in poor health, but once again he had time to see me, and we spent several hours together while he threw pots. He had just returned to his artwork, because he had been previously too short of breath to do it. He had also just returned from a double lung transplant! He was strong and thoughtful, and perhaps for the only time when I have seen him he was looking back a little, reflecting. We talked about what I had so far been able to accomplish, but I still felt guilty. Bill is risking his very life to further follow his dream, and I will do the same.
While we have a very advanced way to help young learners, we have only rarely helped the students who are most in need of our skills. Low-income students rarely, if ever, are taught with the kind of dynamic and powerful reading tools that we use at the Fluency Factory.
To reach those who may not be able to reach us, I am working to do larger implementations in school districts in need of stronger reading instruction. Bill offered me one of his beautiful, recently finished pots, with a remarkable, glowing glaze. “First one I have done since the surgery,” he said. I owe Bill so much and hope to be worthy of this gorgeous pot, which is now on display at the Fluency Factory.