July 29, 2006

It started with a lump of clay...

"Entrepreneurs and artists are interchangeable"
Bill Strickland can tell you when his life began:
It was a Wednesday afternoon in September 1963.
And he can tell you how it began:
It started with a lump of clay.
Strickland, then a 16-year-old black kid, was bored by school and hemmed in by life in a decaying Pittsburgh neighborhood. He wanted a way out, but he didn't have a clue about how to find it - until that Wednesday afternoon, when he went wandering through the hallways of his high school. It's a moment etched so clearly in his memory that, 35 years later, he can still recall the quality of the sunlight streaming in through the school windows. That's the day he came face to face with hope.

Looking through an open classroom door, Strickland saw something he'd never seen before: a rotating mound of clay being shaped into a vessel by a man absorbed in his work.

"If ever in life there is a clairvoyant experience, I had one that day," says Strickland, now 51. "I saw a radiant and hopeful image of how the world ought to be. It opened up a portal for me that suggested that there might be a whole range of possibilities and experiences that I had not explored. It was night and day - literally. I saw a line and I thought: This is dark, and this is light. And I need to go where the light is."

So Strickland walked into the sunlit classroom, introduced himself to ceramics teacher Frank Ross, the man at the potter's wheel, and said, "I'd like to learn whatever that is." With Ross as his mentor for nearly 20 years, Strickland not only found the way out - one that led to college - he also found the way in: the path that lets one person make all the difference in the world.

He mastered the art of social entrepreneurship, applying his potter's hands to reshape the business of social change. As a result, the people who now work with him and come to his programs at the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild (MCG) and at the Bidwell Training Center Inc. (BTC) - his Pittsburgh-based organizations for urban change - will tell you that the day Bill Strickland walked into that ceramics classroom was the day that he began reinventing this country's approach to social entrepreneurship.