Thursday, January 24, 2008

"If you build world class facilities, you will get world class students. If you build prisons, you'll get prisoners."

We went to see Bill Strickland in the Poe Room at the Enoch Pratt Library last night. Cha went to schmooze with the movers and shakers ahead of time, and I was going to meet her there for the actual book talk at 7. Apparently she didn't believe me because she called poor Ellen C. and guilted her into giving me a lift in order to make sure I'd show.

I fully intended to go. Strickland has done incredible things in Pittsburgh, starting an educational and training center for poor people, single mothers, drug users, etc. He believes the arts are transformative, that everyone is a first-class citizen, and that if you give people a welcoming aesthetically pleasing place to show you what they can do, most everyone can be successful. Instead of giving a speech or reading from his book, Strickland showed slides of his center and what the students have accomplished. He punctuated his talk with homey bits: "This was done by poor people who can't learn," or "Here I am, a black guy from the ghetto, and the Dalai Lama is holding the door open for me." He made sure to point out along the way that he got everything done by showing these slides to rich and powerful people across the country who in turn gave him what he needed to build the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild. His resume is inspiring, and could make about 99% of humanity feel lazy and incompetent and purposeless by comparison; of course the point is to make you realize how things can get done if you're willing simply to get out and do them.

Strickland wants to build 200 more centers like the one he built in Pittsburgh. He says to do it he needs to get on Oprah. He says "Tell people about my book. My book tells my story." I haven't read it yet, but I shall. I'm telling you about it now, however, so you can at least Google the guy and see what's been going on in "a poor black neighborhood with a high crime rate" for the last 20 years. I think if Oprah got Bill Strickland on his show that Bill and Melinda Gates would build his centers for him tomorrow.

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