University of Pittsburgh


Make the Impossible Possible

Written by Ervin Dyer

The gangly limbed youth sulks as he trudges down the long dim hallway of the high school, feeling awkward and unsure of himself, in teenage angst. A teacher motions him into an airy studio. Bright canvasses and clay pots are perched all about. Sunlight sparkles through the wide windows, turning the dust into diamonds. Jazz harmonies blanket the room, and the teacher asks the teen to sit at a pottery wheel, where he has plopped a lump of mud-colored clay.

Slowly the wheel starts turning. Faster. Faster, it spins. The teen fumbles, running his palms and the tips of his fingers through the cold, wet lump. The clay whirls up and falls down. The teen is fascinated, a feeling surges inside, and he handles the moist lump as tenderly as a dream. He’s not sure what is happening, but Bill Strickland keeps his hands on the clay, spinning it into something beautiful and new.

At the time, Bill Strickland was a faltering student. But, that day, everything that would change his life was in that room: sunlight, mentoring, art, and hope.

Strickland’s autobiography, published by Currency/Doubleday, reveals how that change happened and where it led. Make the Impossible Possible: One Man’s Crusade to Inspire Others to Dream Bigger and Achieve the Extraordinary, co-written with Vince Rause, details how Strickland moved from being an aimless teen to an entrepreneur/arts genius who dines with presidents.



“Dignity is dignity,” he says, “sunlight is sunlight, I don’t care what color you paint it. There are some universals in this world, and treating people with dignity is one of them.”

With this mission and the power of the arts to drive him, Strickland (A&S ’70), set out to change the world from his own backyard. He grew up in Manchester, on the North Side of Pittsburgh, a community full of empty lots and lost dreams. After college, he planted the seeds for the Manchester Bidwell Corp. in the bleakest section of the battered neighborhood. What many thought would be a graveyard became a garden.

Today, Manchester Bidwell comprises three buildings and touches the lives of more than 3,700 kids and their parents, who come to build job skills and character. He adorned Manchester Bidwell with art, flooded the corridors with natural light, and filled classrooms with people who cared. It offers classes in photography, digital imaging, drawing, painting, and, of course, pottery. There are lessons in horticulture technology, culinary arts, and jazz. As its budget grows, so does its national reputation. In between saving lives and preaching the gospel of social enterprise, Strickland—a University of Pittsburgh trustee—has lectured at Harvard, won a $295,000 “genius award” from the MacArthur Foundation, and sprouted more centers like Bidwell: There are now centers in San Francisco, Cincinnati, and Grand Rapids. He’s not long back from Israel, where he’s had conversations with Arabs and Jews to build a center in the West Bank.

Recently challenged by a student to show his skills, Strickland is back at the pottery wheel, shaping pots and vases, once again using those long slim fingers to mold clay as carefully as he shapes dreams.