Bill Strickland: Can Beauty Change A Life? Civic leader Bill Strickland says beauty can rescue young people from poverty.

Can Beauty Change A Life?

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It's the TED Radio Hour, from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. On the show today, beauty, and how beauty actually changed Bill Strickland's life and the lives of the people around him.

BILL STRICKLAND: It's 10:00 here, and there's arts kids coming in the front door.

RAZ: Bill's in Pittsburgh and this is his tour.

STRICKLAND: We're passing photographs of Dr. King.

RAZ: There's no easy way to describe the place but it's basically a vocational center called Manchester Bidwell. And it's in a rough part of Pittsburgh, where the word beauty, not usually the way people describe the neighborhood. Except that beauty is the guiding principle behind everything inside Manchester Bidwell.

STRICKLAND: The building is very hopeful and it's very bright, even on a gray day, because we believe that the philosophy of being positive and being hopeful and literally being in the light is part of the strategy to recover people who have had some challenges in life.

RAZ: There's a big kitchen, where a student chef named Malcom Jarett has just made...

MALCOM JARETT: A chickpea puree, you know, sauteed spinach, with a nice filet, with a demi-glace, with thyme wine reduction demi-glace on top. So, to me, that was a beautiful plate that could be as beautiful as like, a Van Gogh or a Renoir, or anything like that. It's your art that you contribute to the world.

RAZ: And on the second floor, well that's where Bill Strickland's favorite spot in the whole place is.

STRICKLAND: So we are literally now walking into the recording studio. You probably can hear some music like, right now.


STRICKLAND: I'd visualized, when I was in high school, that someday I'd have the hippest, coolest jazz recording studio in the world, and I'd be standing there doing exactly what I'm doing today. So this is very cool for me, too, man.


STRICKLAND: It's a great honor to be here with you.

RAZ: When Bill Strickland spoke on the TED stage, Herbie Hancock, the jazz musician, sat behind him. Both men were improvising, Herbie on the piano. Bill telling the story of how he built his center, a place where all kinds of art, jazz and ceramics and photography and food, all come together in one of the worst parts of town.


STRICKLAND: The whole story really starts with me as a high school kid, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in a tough neighborhood that everybody gave up on for dead. And on a Wednesday afternoon I was walking down the corridor of my high school, kind of minding my own business, and there was this artist teacher, who made a great, big old ceramic vessel. And I happened to be looking in the door of the art room, and if you've ever seen clay done, it's magic. And I had never seen anything like that before in my life. So I walked in the art room and I said, what is that, and he said, ceramics and who are you. And I said, I'm Bill Strickland, I want you to teach me that. And he said, well, get your homeroom teacher to sign a piece of paper that says you can come here and I'll teach it to you. And so for the remaining two years of my high school, I cut all my classes. But I had the presence of mind to give the teachers' classes that I cut the pottery that I made, and they gave me passing grades, and that's how I got out of high school.


RAZ: And when he got out of college, Bill raised the money to build his art center in that part of town.


STRICKLAND: We have quilts and clay and calligraphy and everywhere your eye turns, there's something beautiful looking back at you. That's deliberate. That's intentional. We even have flowers in the hallway, and they're not plastic, those are real. And now that I'm giving lots of speeches we had a bunch of high school principals come and see me and they said, Mr. Strickland, what an extraordinary story and what a great school, and we were particularly touched by the flowers and we were curious as to how the flowers got there. I said, well, I got in my car and I went out to the greenhouse and I bought them and I brought them back and I put them there. You don't need a task force or a study group to buy flowers for your kids.

Literally, students walk in the front door on any given day and there's an orchid that greets them at the front desk, which is the first thing that they see when they walk in the place. And I believe in introducing those magical moments on a work day, not just on a weekend, but on Monday morning.

RAZ: You couldn't look at an orchid and not see it as a beautiful thing.

STRICKLAND: No, and now that many of our students who have never been in touch with orchids or seen them before, it is now becoming a part of their vocabulary. They're assuming that the world is made up of pretty things like orchids, and they're absolutely right. And the world that they're going to enter into, they're going to be seeing a lot of orchids. They, in some ways, become an orchid.


STRICKLAND: I have 400 kids from the Pittsburgh public school system that come to me every day of the week for arts education, and these are children who are flunking out of public school. And last year, I put 88 percent of those kids in college and I've averaged over 80 percent for 15 years. We've made a fascinating discovery. There's nothing wrong with the kids. For that, I won a big old plaque, Man of the Year in Education. I beat out all the PhD's because I figured that if you treat children like human beings, it increases the likelihood they're going to behave that way.

RAZ: So for you, and I guess, really for all of us, beauty isn't just this thing, this concept. I mean, it has this transformative power.

STRICKLAND: When I think of beauty, I think of life and hope in all of its enormous possibilities. So that this beauty is not just for the imagination, it actually is a way of altering human behavior for the better. And so, this is a real practical example, a living example, of how beauty and aesthetic can transform a community that had literally been, in some ways, been given up on for dead.

RAZ: When Bill Strickland gave his TED Talk back in 2002, he described a time when all kinds of people, politicians and philanthropists and artists, they'd come up to him and they'd ask, how could we go back to our cities, you know, and build something just like this.


STRICKLAND: But I met a guy named Quincy Jones along the way, and Quincy said, I want to help you, man, let's do one in LA. And Quincy said, where did the idea for centers like this come from? And I said, it came from your music, man, because Mr. Ross used to bring in your albums when I was 16 years old in the pottery class, when the world was all dark, and I said if I can follow that music, I'll get out into the sunlight and I'll be okay. And if that's not true, how'd I get here?

RAZ: That's Bill Strickland. Since he gave his TED Talk, replicas of his art center have been built in San Francisco, Cleveland, Cincinnati, New Haven, and Grand Rapids.

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