In a story I first shared in the fall of 2010, I encountered a former student of mine in downtown Rochester who, during our brief but friendly exchange, confided in me that he was riding over to another part of town in order to sell drugs. It broke my heart. What made it all even more difficult to swallow was that I had nothing to say to him other than, ‘please be careful.’ The look on his face at that moment was not of despair but of resignation. He opined that it had been challenging for him to find meaningful gainful employment and so he felt obliged to immerse himself in a far more dangerous and unpredictable livelihood.
I recall him being one of several former students at the former Monroe 1 BOCES Rush Campus program (in Rush, New York) who often suggested that their fortunes would soon dramatically change due to them becoming professional athletes, hip-hop stars or drug kingpins. For many of them, that’s all they realistically had to strive for at that particular point in time. The Rush Program as we all knew it was about to come to a screeching halt, as local participating districts felt an overwhelming need to save money by eliminating some services and consolidating several others.
The Rush Campus program was one that worked, offering emotionally disturbed and/or learning disabled high school students a chance to acquire and hone specific skills that would eventually translate to improved overall academic performance and consequentiall employment skills. Nevertheless, federal mandates and an insufferable amount of shortsightedness demonstrated at all bureaucratic levels ultimately pulled the carpet out from underneath these disadvantaged youth. It’s not like they had too many options to choose from.
I don’t want to discount the numerous success stories that have emanated from the scores of BOCES-affiliated programs, in addition to other positive outcomes resulting from various partnerships between local school districts and cooperating businesses. Yet there are still far too many area youth, specifically city children, who are simply falling through the cracks and there appear to be no signs of mitigation with the sweeping cuts being made to countless social and other programs.
My wife tipped me off to an individual in Pittsburgh who has been operating an extensive educational and social services program in and around the Greater Pittsburgh area. The person in question, Bill Strickland, founded the Manchester Craftsmen Guild in the late 1960s, which in short order was producing tangible results. Within a few years, he was tasked with assuming the leadership role of the Bidwell Training Center, and together with MCG, at last became the Manchester Bidwell Corporation. Strickland’s inexhaustible determination and ability to relate his personal story – and that of his immeasurable charges – to those in positions of considerable power and influence – has enabled thus far two generations of disenfranchised souls in Pittsburgh to get on, or back on, their feet and make rewarding lives for themselves.
What Strickland and his team have done mirrors that of what the city of Pittsburgh has undergone the past few decades, which has evolved from a foundering steel town to one that has experienced a renaissance of sorts, Greater Pittsburgh’s economy has become more dynamic and demanding, and Strickland and company have developed myriad programs that address the flourishing regional economy’s ever-changing needs. Various accredited programs in fields such as culinary arts, horticulture and chemical lab engineering routinely graduate former high school dropouts and the drug-addicted homeless and place them in substantive employment opportunities. These programs involve substantial input and collaboration with corporations such as Heinz and ebay. There is an amazing Jazz program that involves kids in the promotion and production of jazz, introduces them to jazz greats and has even earned Grammy awards for its recording work. They MCG Jazz program has become a staple in the Pittsburgh arts scene. A win for the entire community!
Upon hearing of and conducting some extensive reading of Strickland and his remarkable story, I wanted to know if other Rochesterians had even heard of him. I asked around but it seemed that no one had, at least the persons to whom I reached out. It doesn’t mean that one of our local movers and shakers hasn’t had a conversation or two with Strickland. Either way, I’d want to know why such an enterprise is not up and running in Rochester, which could, like those in Pittsburgh and in several other larger urban centers throughout the country, serve hundreds, if not thousands of local marginalized citizens. He has started several similar programs in American cities including Cincinnati, Cleveland and Grand Rapids, MI. I understand there is a proposal also being considered in Buffalo.
Unlike Pittsburgh, what the Rochester area has continually lacked is a sense of urgency and a collective call to action. Instead, we’ve been mostly imposed upon and saddled with such gems as the Fast Ferry and Renaissance Square. Neither of these ventures produced much, if any, in the way of sweepingly sustainable employment and elevation of our community’s status. Communal purpose and sensibility has not been the Rochester norm, and it has cost us dearly. Why not give Bill Strickland a call and get him up here for a visit and consultation? It couldn’t hurt, could it?
How many more of my former students do I have to talk to or read about who were not given fair and reasonable chances to succeed earlier in life and are now leading lives of crime? There are a lot of kids and young adults in Rochester in similar predicaments. How many more excuses can we come up with around here? I’m tired of hearing things like, ‘It’s not that simple,’ or ‘there’s more to it.’ Baloney and baloney. We need to discover a sense of urgency and we need to do it now.
Rause, V., Strickland, B. (2007). Make the Impossible Possible. New York, New York: Broadway Books
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