Life has a way of celebrating itself. Stanley Lowe [National Trust vice president, community revitalization] and I went to elementary school together. Arthur Zeigler [executive director, Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation] and I became friends in the ’60s, and I later got to meet [National Trust president] Dick Moe. And they validated my work in the ’60s when it wasn’t popular to do so. When my arts program was in a row house in the middle of the inner city, working with poor kids during the riots—we call them “disturbances” these days, but back then we called them what they were, they were riots, and people were getting shot—I wanted to make some kind of a contribution to improving the condition of those folks in that community.
Arthur and Stanley helped me to understand that where I was, the place that I lived, had value and had validity. So I decided to cast my fate in the Manchester neighborhood of Pittsburgh, which is where I was born and where I’ll die. My entire life is six city blocks, for which I am very proud.
This is my autobiography without apology. I’ve only had two jobs my entire life. I run the center I’m going to talk about and I flew jets for an airline called Braniff.
My life was saved by a public school teacher named Frank Ross, who sadly was killed about three years before I built this center, but he lived long enough to see that I was going to be fine.
And this started as magic. I was walking down the hallway of Oliver High School where Stanley and I went. The art room door was open, and this guy was hunched over our one potter’s wheel making a great big bowl. I said, “What is that?” He said, “That’s called ceramics.” I said, “Well, I want you to teach me that.”So for the remaining two years of high school, I cut all my classes to do that, but I was smart enough to give the teachers whose classes I was cutting the pottery I made. And they gave me passing grades and that’s how I got out of the place.
And Frank Ross said, “You’re too smart to die. I don’t want it on my conscience.” Frank drove me out to the University of Pittsburgh where he insisted I fill out a college application. No one had ever talked about college applications at our school. I didn’t do very well on the cholastic Aptitude Test, so I was enrolled as a probationary student.
Well, I’m very pleased to tell you, I’m now a trustee of the University of Pittsburgh. I was the commencement speaker six years ago, speaking to 13,000 people, and I said, “Don’t give up on the poor kids. They might end up being the commencement speaker some day.”
The Power of Environment and Expectations
And basically that’s the story I’m going to tell you today. People are a function of validation and hope and expectations. And environment determines behavior. Now, as preservationists, you all know this probably better than any organized group in the United States because you have dedicated your lives and your principles to these concepts—and I am one of you.
The center started off in an old warehouse with holes in the floor and holes in the roof. It was called Bidwell Cultural and Training Center. I had started my little arts program in a row house, and these people had heard about me and asked me to take over Bidwell.
No windows, holes in the floor, the SWAT team was in and out of that place every week dragging guys to jail— and I decided that I was going to make my stand at Bidwell and take all the principles that I had learned in the arts and apply them to this place and see if we could bring a little life into that neighborhood.
The other thing that Mr. Ross did, he took a bunch of us high school kids to see Fallingwater, just south of Pittsburgh. I was fascinated by the quality of the light that enveloped the house, and I said if I can get that light into my neighborhood, I’m halfway home. So I committed myself to building a “Frank Lloyd Wright” building before I died, and I did. I hired one of his students, who is in Pittsburgh, to build this center. Bidwell is the vocational school, Manchester is the arts program. And we built the center in the toughest neighborhood in Pittsburgh, with the highest crime rate— which is exactly where Stanley and Arthur thought that I needed to build this thing.
The worst part about being poor is what it does to your spirit. Poor people never have a nice day. They don’t even notice most of the time that the sun comes up. So my theory was that if you want to work with people who have been given up on by life, you have to look like the solution and not the problem.
So when the welfare mothers and the ex-steel workers come to my center along with the at-risk kids, the first thing they see in the springtime is a fountain that greets them at the front door. Because I’m in the attitude business—not just the training business. And people are a function of environment and expectations.
We’ve learned some fascinating sociology by creating this building in this neighborhood. We have fabulous artwork throughout the building. We have quilts and calligraphy, and everywhere your eye turns there’s something beautiful. That’s quite deliberate. People are a function of expectations and environment. If you surround them with beautiful things, they will have a tendency to look like the environment where they are. Now that’s not something I studied in sociology class. It’s something that I live every day of my life.
Pittsburgh is gray from November to May, for the most part. But even on a gray day, our building is flooded with sunlight because it’s mainly glass. The theory was that poor people are always in the dark in terms of their spirit, so we’ve got to get them out in the sunlight and let them know that the sun is for everybody on the planet. In the old days, Bidwell used to teach building trades. And I hired a woodworker from Kyoto, Japan, to produce 60 pieces of furniture for our school. So the welfare mothers and the ex-steel workers and the at-risk kids come to a school where handcrafted furniture greets them every day— because I’m in the attitude business in addition to the training business.
We even have fresh flowers in the building every day— not plastic. We have learned that people are a function of little things that you don’t think amount to very much. Well, the flowers matter and they’re in our building every day of the week.
Connecting with Local Industries
There was a fellow that many of us loved, Senator John Heinz, who was one of the principal people who stood up to get this center built. I was called into John Heinz’s office, which was like going to see the Wizard of Oz.He said, “You’ve done a great job on the north side and we understand that you want to build a new building.” I said, “Yes, sir.” He said, “Well, you could really help the Heinz Company’s affirmative actions goals out if you would add a food program to your new school when you get it built.” Well, we were a buildings trades program back them—bricklaying and carpentry. And I said, “I’m reluctant to go into a field I don’t know anything about, but I promise you if you’ll help me get this center built, I’ll come back in a couple of years andwe’ll get that food program going just like you asked.”
And he said, “What would your answer be if I said I might be willing to consider a contribution of a million dollars?” I said, “Mr. Heinz, it looks like we’re going into the food training business.”
John did give us a million dollars, but just as importantly, he loaned us a researcher from the Heinz Company. We borrowed the curriculum from the Culinary Institute of America, and we created a gourmet cooks program. We built an amphitheatre for the students and we bring in chefs from all over the world to do presentations.
We discovered that if you build world-class facilities, people have a tendency to see themselves as the same. If you build prisons, they act like prisoners. It’s a good illustration of what people are capable of, if you give them the tools and you give them the environment.
The fellow who ran Thrift Drug heard about the training programs for the Heinz Company. He said, “I’d like to get some of those qualified African Americans working for the Thrift Drug Pharmaceutical Company.” I now train pharmaceutical technicians for every hospital in Western Pennsylvania, and every retail pharmaceutical facility has students that have been trained at our school.
We also train chemical technicians. A research chemist from Beyer, which is here in Pittsburgh, rounded up Calgon Carbon, and BASF, and Fischer Scientific, and Nova Chemicals—and I now train technicians for every one of them. We have welfare mothers with no background in science doing analytical chemistry 10 months after enrollment in the program and using logarithmic calculators. And if people tell you that Americans cannot learn technology, particularly poor people, send them to Pittsburgh. We’re doing it fine.
I also teach people how to read. We work with at-risk public school kids, 500 of them. They’re all flunking out of public school for the most part, and we put them in clay, photography, and digital imaging. We graduated 90 percent of the kids and last year I put 90 percent of the kids in college—because we discovered there’s nothing wrong with the kids that affection and good food and flowers and sunlight and a lot of clay can’t cure. By treating these children as if they are the most valuable assets in life, they behave that way.
We now have graduates at the Rhode Island School of Design, and the Pratt Institute, and the Art Institute of Chicago. We have physicians, we have several PhDs. Eight of my faculty are former kids who went through the program, went to college, and are back teaching in the school that saved their lives. And we’ve come to the conclusion that there’s nothing wrong with these kids that a good environment and enthusiasm can’t cure.
Allies in the Arts
Every month I bring in the best nationally known artists in clay and visual arts to mentor these children. To exhibit the kids’ artwork, we have a museum-quality invitation printed up, and we’ve got their parents coming big time. Ten, fifteen years ago I couldn’t buy a parent. We had 200 parents show up at the last show, and we learned that black mothers and white mothers and Asian mothers and Hispanic mothers will go where their children are being nurtured.
I did a slide presentation at the Silicon Valley in California. Afterward, this lady came up from the audience and said, “That was a fabulous slide presentation. My only criticism is your computers are getting old.” Well, I’m not a high tech guy. They all look about the same to me. I said, “What do you do for a living?” She said, “I help run a company called Hewlett Packard.” I said, “My dear, there’s an instantaneous solution to this problem.”
The long and short of it is, HP adopted us to the tune of a million dollars and a systems engineer to go with it, and I now have one of the hippest digital imaging centers east of the Mississippi River, and I am putting kids into the Rhode Island School of Design right out of that imaging center.
I also had the presence of mind to stick a music hall in the north end of the building while I was building it. And I’m very glad I did, because Dizzy Gillespie showed up. And I said to Dizzy, Why would you come to a black-run school in the middle of the inner city that doesn’t even have a reputation in music?” He said, “Because Billy Taylor told me a black guy built it and I didn’t believe him. And I’m very glad I showed up here. You’re too young to appreciate what I’ve seen. You ought to build one of these in every city in America, and I’m going to help you do it. I’m going to allow you to record my concert, and I’m going to give you the rights to the music,” which he did.
More musicians showed up, including Herbie Hancock, Nancy Wilson, Shirley Horn, Wynton Marsalis, and Betty Carter, and we now have 600 recordings. The most important collection of contemporary jazz recordings in the world is in my center ten minutes from where you’re sitting, and we’ve won three Grammy Awards for our recordings. We’ve now spun off our independent jazz label called MCGJazz.
We sell out our concerts in subscription three weeks after the season is announced. And we’ve never had one act of vandalism or theft or drugs or alcohol in 23 years of operation on the north side of Pittsburgh. People will go where there is celebration of life.
More Programs in Pittsburgh
I discovered I liked building buildings. There was a place that was burned out during the riots which I had to look at going to work everyday. I had the site cleared. In the middle of the site we built a 60,000-square-foot medical tech building. The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center took half the building for their building operation. On the strength of the lease, I went out and borrowed the money and built the building, and we’ve never looked back. It’s full of tenants and does very well.
I built a 40,000-squarefoot greenhouse next to my training center in the middle of the inner city. Now stores in the Giant Eagle and Whole Foods grocery chains are selling our orchids, and most of the high-end florists within Western Pennsylvania are buying our product. The point of the story is not to get rich growing orchids. It’s a diversified revenue platform, but more importantly I figured out that welfare moms need to grow orchids because it will bring them back to life.
Orchid Society had its symposium at our center recently, and the welfare moms and the wealthy Orchid society people were talking about orchids, and I said, “That’s the cure for the cancer.” You have to stop talking about poverty and start talking about orchids, and we can solve this thing.
When I was back in the Silicon Valley giving my slide show I met another person. This kid says, “Man, that was a heck of a presentation.” I said, “Thanks, man. What do you do for a living?” He said, “Oh, I built a company called EBay.” I said, “Oh, that’s cool. You got a card?” I didn’t know E-Bay from a glass of water.
But there was something about the kid—so I came back to Pittsburgh and I asked one of the little techie kids in the imaging center, “What is E-Bay?” He said, “Oh, Mr. Strickland, that’s the electronic commerce network.” Later, I called him up and said, “Mr. Skoll, I’ve come to have much deeper appreciation of who you are.” Jeff Skoll laughed and said, “I thought you’d figure it out sooner or later. ”And he said, “You are really on to something. Here’s a half a million bucks.” I said, “What’s that for?” He said, “Your first replication.”
We hired some guys from the Harvard Business School and we created a division called the National Center for Arts and Technology. These centers are now being built around the country: San Francisco, Cincinnati. At the Cincinnati Arts and Technology Center, we doubled the graduation rate in 12 months for black kids in the 12th grade in the Cincinnati Public School System. The newest one is now open in Grand Rapids, Mich. And New Orleans is now in the planning column.
Partners for Change
I want to thank you for allowing me tell you this story for two reasons. One, I do want to change the world—yesterday, preferably. And I want to join a partnership with you guys to do it, because you’re the people who can get it done. You’ve got the values. You’ve got the vision. You’ve the hope and you’ve the experience, and you never give up.
I am betting that you may be the only group that has enough value and enough vision and enough determination to join us in this cause to save our country, because ultimately that is what I think you are really talking about. I think you’re talking about saving buildings and land, but you are also talking about saving America—and I want to join you in that and make my contribution in the area of saving lives.
Number two, the reason I really do this is also very personal. The work I do is impossible. I make it look easy because that’s my job. But my mother left me with a gene before she died. It’s a gene that prevents me from blocking out suffering. And, unfortunately, at three o’clock in the morning I watch CNN, and see the flies on the mouths of the children in Africa and these kids eating out of garbage dumps in São Paulo and people sitting on the streets of New Orleans without a glass of water or a prayer, and I can’t block them out of my mind. So, from time to time, I suffer a kind of occupational depression.
But I have found the cure for it. If you make friends in every community where you go, particularly friends like you, the chances are that you won’t be lonely the next time you come back. So I’m glad to be here with you, and God bless you. Publication Date: