Thursday, January 31, 2013

Passing the Bill: A Critical Review of Bill Strickland's Allegheny Presentation

Bill Strickland delivered an eloquent, genuine, and charismatic speech about his journey and his career trajectory with The Bidwell Training Center and The Manchester Craftsman’s Guild. He prefaced his presentation by noting the sense of urgency of his work and our participation—primarily the college students in the audience—in addressing public school inequities and in engaging inner city youths. He emphatically asserted that our country is in trouble if we do not develop alternative educational and afterschool programs in inner city communities—similar to his Bidwell Training Center and Manchester Craftsman’s Guild Programs—that provide economic opportunities for our poor counterparts to break free from the vicious cycle of poverty. His presentation—from the picture slide show to the personal success stories—was proof that his work on the North Side—an in other inner cities around the world—was effective and necessary. He has saved lives, transformed youths through vocational and artistic programs, and restored people's faith and hope in humanity—particularly those who were at their lowest lows—in his almost 30 years of service.

Despite his laudable work, I found several things problematic—and hypocritical—about Mr. Strickland’s presentation.  First, I was intrigued by the way he spoke about the people with whom he worked (i.e. those poor people, the welfare mothers). He spoke about how “beautiful things create beautiful people,” yet he conveyed negative images—to me—about the people with whom he worked—labeling them by the “descriptors” that in some ways oppress them, depicting them as anything but “beautiful people.” As he continued to describe his youths, he distanced himself from them as well.  This was evident when referenced his youths as “those people”—merely disassociating himself from the youths with whom he worked and creating a sense of “them” vs. “us” scenario.

Furthermore, I also thought it was misleading for him to compare his center’s work to that of the public school system—as they are not parallel. His center has the beauty and the opportunity to create an environment free of government policy and legislation. He could merely “ignore” policies such as NCLB and could devise an environment that fosters creativity, art, and expression. His center could operate outside of the public educational system. Additionally, unlike public schools, both of his centers were not often addressing academic curriculum that required students to learn—and become proficient in—English, math, and other science classes. He had the freedom—with his centers—to create a place where students could specialize in a particular area and develop their passions and desires—not that this couldn’t happen in public schools.  However, he did not acknowledge the challenges public schools faced—and continue to face--, or acknowledge ways to incorporate a model of his program into public schools—so that it does not have to exist as a separate entity. Why can't public schools adopt his model? How would they replicate his model in such a restricted institutionalized system? Why can't they coexist—what are the implications of this? These questions led me to additional reservations about his presentation.

As Mr. Strickland concluded, I found it interesting the way in which he talked about his centers--as though they were separate spaces from the North Side community. He did not appear invested in overall North Side community development, or interested in engaging other schools and local non-profits in his work. He noted—on several occasions—that while crime and death surround his center, they did not happen in his center— further separating his work from the overall community. Seemingly, he was only concerned with his centers performance—and not the overall health of the neighborhood in which his centers are located. This is troubling to me—as outside of his center, gentrification is occuring—displacing many poor residents from their homes—in addition to many other neighborhood inequities--- disenfranchising the very same disadvantaged people in the neighborhood in which he serves. Why isn’t he targeting these pressing issues? I am impressed with--but concerned by-- Bill Strickland's work. 

Bill Strickland suggested--several times throughout his presenation--that "environment drives behavior," "beautiful things create beautiful people," and "prisons create prisoners." Research shows that this is in fact true and that this is extremely relevant to the enviornment which schools create. Therefore, I am attaching the documentary titled "The War on Kids"--which compares the U.S. public to the prison system--to continue the conversation about the importance of education and the importance of creating an environment conducive to learning.

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