Commentary

Bill Strickland: Start Believing in This City

By doing something good for your community, however small, you are transforming your environment for the better, and a better environment drives better behavior.

By Lorne Opler
Published December 02, 2009

So what's this about people in Hamilton not caring about the city? You wouldn't have known that judging by the huge turnout at Hamilton Place this past Monday night.

A thousand people came to hear Bill Strickland, founder and visionary behind Pittsburgh's Manchester Craftsman Guild and Bidwell Training Center, talk about his successes at creating jobs and building futures for some of society's most vulnerable individuals.

Mr. Strickland came to town not just to share in the miracle he gave birth to some forty years ago in a Pittsburgh ghetto, but more importantly to encourage Hamiltonians to think big and consider adopting his unique and wildly successful approach to strengthening community through empowering its most at risk members.

While Mr. Strickland's emphasis and purpose on creating jobs is fundamentally no different from the well-intentioned job training programs of various levels of government, the difference lies in Mr. Strickland's firm belief that the way to pull people out of dependency and into self sufficiency is not to stick the disadvantaged into blank classrooms or sterile labs devoid of character, of life and warmth, and expecting them to be inspired and optimistic.

A far better guarantee of positive outcomes, is through creating learning spaces enriched by a vibrant and visually appealing environment that excites the senses, infuses students with recognition of their untapped potential, and sends a message that they are as worthy of the same quality educational opportunities, amenities and supports, that people from wealthier backgrounds typically receive.

To that end, Mr. Strickland has created an institution that not only provides job training in such varied disciplines as culinary arts, horticulture technology, medical office technology and clinical science technology, but does so in facilities that are masterpieces of modern design and visual appeal.

The results have been nothing short of astounding. Through Strickland's vision, thousands of at-risk youth, laid off steel workers, and welfare moms, have been trained in occupations that not only garner good wages and guarantee a future of self-sufficiency, but also imbue each trainee with a sense of achievement, pride and self respect that he or she many never have experienced before.

Lessons for Hamilton

All this may be very well and good, but you may be asking: what does this have to do with Hamilton? A lot. First and foremost, Bill Strickland's success can be, and already is being replicated in other cities across North America and around the world.

And while Strickland's model can succeed in other cities, Hamilton makes an idea place for this model to take seed. Hamilton, like Pittsburgh, is a rust belt city challenged by the loss of thousands of well paying steel jobs, and a large population living on social assistance.

Bill Strickland demonstrated that even in a city like Pittsburgh, which has witnessed its longstanding steel industry dry up, new jobs and good jobs can be created. Hamilton can do the same.

Perhaps that's why this Mr. Strickland has been here before. Perhaps his keen understanding of the similarities between both burghs is what motivates him to return. Perhaps he knows what some Hamiltonians may not. This city can succeed and reinvent itself, just as Pittsburgh has done and done so brilliantly.

Encourage Civic Engagement and Participation

But again, you may be asking. It's all nice and good, but what I can I do? I don't have millions of dollars to start a jobs training program. I don't have connections to raise funds. And besides, I'm struggling enough to make ends meet on my own.

The point Mr. Strickland was making, at least as I saw it, was more than just about creating innovative job training programs. His point was also to encourage civic engagement and participation - to get people interested in what's happening in their city.

If Bill Strickland could put a theme to his achievements, it might be (in a nice way), "If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem." In other words, if we don't like what we see in Hamilton, don't wait for someone else to do something, because it might never get done.

Environment Drives Behaviour

As Strickland iterated, "Environment drives behavior" - the surroundings we create - be they physical or psychological, influence the way we feel about and the way we behave within our environment.

By doing something good for your community, however small, you are transforming your environment for the better, and a better environment drives better behavior.

Mr. Strickland started small, with one run-down warehouse and an idea. No wads of cash, no influential donors, no fresh flowers in architecturally stunning facilities. But he believed in his city and the people in it. We can do the same. Start believing in this city and the people in it. If we care about it, do something.

I know that Hamiltonians care. How else can you explain the force of a thousand people standing in ovation for a man who has shown the world what one person can do to build community, one face at a time.

To learn more about Bill Strickland's work, visit:

Lorne Opler is a freelance writer on the side, and has recently moved to Hamilton from Toronto. Coming from a city where anonymity is a way of life, Lorne is amazed by how friendly and approachable people are in Hamilton, and finds himself always telling people from Toronto (who don't know better) what a great place Hamilton is.

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By grassroots are the way forward (registered) | Posted December 02, 2009 at 23:56:38

Mr Strickland presentation was uplifting. It was his own experiences that were awe inspiring.

His message was one that goes against the many comments that I have read not only here but in other places about those who struggle. His words that everyone is an asset and not a liability, is in opposition to many comments that the poor are lazy, that is it their fault, that they should be bulldozed out of the city.

The current system views people as a liability, not assets just look at the Ontario Works system. The many dead end programs, that lead no where, the fact that the focus is on pushing you into precarious or minimum wage jobs, where your rights as a worker are not taken into consideration. Where you are penalized for trying to earn wages, trying to break the cycle.

We must also focus on the fact that a year pass since the introduction of the province's poverty reduction strategy, in which nothing has moved forward. The province's Ontario Child Benefits has proven to either have families getting less money then before or only gaining around .66 cents per month, is telling.

What I find simply abominable, is that many of the agencies do not speak out, they adhere to the very policies that keep people in poverty because they will lose their funding. We need to move away from their "poverty industry" and get some new and fresh ideas from new people into the mix.

Maybe the Jobs Prosperity Colleraboration should of included those voices from the grassroots, those who truly advocate for real change.

The only thing to fear is fear itself and for those bodies who are to afraid to speak out, please move out of the way and let the voices of the people come through.

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By kdslote (registered) | Posted December 03, 2009 at 14:58:28

In Encounters: Architectural Essays, Juhani Pallasmaa writes the following:

"The disappearance of beauty in our contemporary world is alarming. Can this mean anything else but the disappearance of human value, self-identity and hope? Beauty is not an added aesthetic value; longing for beauty reflects the belief and confidence in future, and it represents the realm of ideals in the human mindscape. ...A culture that has lost its craving for beauty is already on its way towards decay."

I agree with Strickland's view on the relationship between vibrant visually appealing spaces, psychological wellbeing, and empowerment. Too many of our urban spaces shatter rather than nourish the psyche (expanses of asphalt parking lots downtown, 5 lane one way arterial highways through the core, the Jackson Square Rooftop, etc, etc).

We need more of this kind of thinking in Hamilton. Thank you for posting.

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By andyk (anonymous) | Posted December 03, 2009 at 15:54:13

I thought the kids at the beginning were pretty talented. But what did it teach about strategies Hamilton can take in a post-industrial economy? And how many introductions do we really need? That Siemens lady was brutal!

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By guylaine (anonymous) | Posted December 03, 2009 at 16:41:06

Imagine a centre like that in the heart of Hamilton in one of our bombed-out buildings, for example, like the Connaught or Lister. Imagine students coming for after-school art classes, adults taking evening art classes, and day student adults training for all kinds of jobs. Imagine tourists visiting the art gallery on the main level, enjoying gourmet meals cooked by trainee chefs in the cafeteria. Imagine, as Strickland says, a centre that "looks like the solution, not the problem."

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By Localguy (anonymous) | Posted December 07, 2009 at 18:05:22

I have visited the Manchester Craftsman Guild and Bidwell Training Center and the pictures don’t do the facility justice. I heard about Mr.Strickland the last time he was in Hamilton and just had to see for myself! We have so much potential as a community; It just seems that leadership is one of our City’s biggest challenges, funny how we have a plan for 2015 Pan Am games but don’t have a vision for Hamilton 2010-2011-2012?

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By highwater (registered) | Posted December 07, 2009 at 22:03:09

We have a plan for 2015?

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By Dave Kuruc (anonymous) | Posted December 08, 2009 at 14:59:57

It's called dole out the most public money possible to as many concrete companies as possible. Building boom. Hamilton's problems solved. Or that's what they will want us to believe...

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