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Innovative Pittsburgh job center trains disadvantaged youth


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: Despite a robust job market in the U.S. right now, the career path for some, notably young people of color, is often dampened by a lack of skills that are needed for good jobs in today's economy.

In Pittsburgh, one group is trying to clear that path.

Correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro reports for the series Agents For Change and arts and culture, Canvas.

Fred de Sam Lazaro: It's a place where many of Pittsburgh's civic and business leaders come to visit, a place where world-leading jazz artists regularly come to perform.

But for most who enter it bright spaces brimming with art, this is school, a training center for many who have struggled after leaving high school or perhaps didn't even graduate.

Person: We got to get those cakes done.

Fred de Sam Lazaro: In various training programs, these adult learners are able to set or reset their career paths in several in-demand fields, to be bakers, for example, or chefs.

Person: What if it wasn't olives, but mushrooms?

Fred de Sam Lazaro: Chemical lab or pharmacy technicians, medical assistants.

Person: Exam done, please.

Fred de Sam Lazaro: Horticulturalists.

Bill Strickland, Founder, Manchester Bidwell Corporation: They didn't sign up for a poverty program. They signed up for a world-class training center. And that's what this is.

Fred de Sam Lazaro: More than a half-century ago, Bill Strickland founded an institution now known as Manchester Bidwell. Its main building was recently named in his honor in Pittsburgh's North Side, a tough place, he says, when he was growing up here.

Bill Strickland: A lot of violence. I'd say 30 percent of my buddies ended up dead or in the penitentiary by the time they were 30 years old.

So it was that kind of environment.

Fred de Sam Lazaro: He fit right in he says, drifting, failing in high school, until:

Bill Strickland: Until I walked by Mr. Ross' room. And I saw him that great big old bowl. And it was like, Fred, I found what I was looking for. Only, I didn't know it at the time.

What I'm trying to do is to make my pottery feel like the music, elevated, fresh, bright, hopeful.

Fred de Sam Lazaro: That chance encounter with an art teacher put them on a lifelong journey, massaging clay and his imagination, with the jazz always on, just as Frank Ross did in class, as he took the young Strickland under his wing.

Bill Strickland: And Mr. Ross says: "You're not going to die on the streets like your buddies. You're going to college."

Fred de Sam Lazaro: College put him on a solid career path, including a stint as an airline pilot. But, for most of it, he's tried to replicate that formula that uses art and music to enhance learning.

He began with an arts and performance center in a row house donated by the bishop of Pittsburgh's wealthy Episcopal Diocese.

Bill Strickland: And he introduced me to the Mellon family and the Hillman family and the Heinz family.

Fred de Sam Lazaro: Wealthy funders he would later approach to support training programs he'd started in construction work for people being displaced by the dying steel industry.

One of them was John Heinz, Pennsylvania senator and scion of his namesake food giant.

Bill Strickland: And he said: "I want to hire some Black people for the food industry."

And I said: "But we're a building trades program. We don't do food training.'

He said: "Well, what would your answer be if I said I give you a million dollars?"

I said: "Well, Senator, it good looks like we're going through the food training business."

Fred de Sam Lazaro: Today, the very popular culinary programs benefit everyone, with gourmet meals at school lunch prices.

Bill Strickland: This is the message.

Fred de Sam Lazaro: Which is?

Bill Strickland: Light, good food. The music is oxygen.

Marty Ashby was hired to start the music program 35 years ago.

Marty Ashby, Executive Producer, MCG Jazz: We built the program one musician at a time.

Fred de Sam Lazaro: From a family of jazz musicians himself, Ashby used his connections to attract big names like Dizzy Gillespie.

Marty Ashby: Dizzy came down and hung out with the people, and as did Billy Taylor and Kenny Burrell and Max Roach.

Fred de Sam Lazaro: Under their own MCG Jazz label, they have produced records for major artists, garnering five Grammy awards, and sold millions of C.D.s.

But it's the school outreach that Ashby says will have enduring impact.

Marty Ashby: Jazz is life. When do this program, when we bus in all of the third graders in the public schools, thousands of kids for a series of 10 concerts, they come in, and they know from the downbeat that the musicians are trusting each other implicitly.

You can't play jazz music unless you trust each other.

Fred de Sam Lazaro: That trust and respect are evident in results, says Kevin Jenkins, who took over the day-to-day running from Strickland seven years ago.

As many as 15,000 students have come through here over the decades, some with checkered, even criminal pasts. But the only criteria for admission are high school or a GED and passing a basic math and reading test.

Kevin Jenkins, President and CEO, Manchester Bidwell Corporation: I think on all levels of the organization for us, internally and externally, it's about relationships.

Fred de Sam Lazaro: A relationship cemented by a tuition-free education, without which most students wouldn't be able to attend, he says, and a message:

Kevin Jenkins: The sky's the limit. You can do whatever you want. We're not saying you have to do it by yourself. And that's why we're here.

Fred de Sam Lazaro: That resonates with students like Mila Keyes.

Mila Keyes, Student: When you walk in, there's like that weird wire sculpture that's like hanging over the thing. It makes me feel like this is like a space that promotes creativity. And I like that.

Fred de Sam Lazaro: While those attending here are resetting career paths, the goal is to help set the path earlier. Hundreds of current public school students come here after school to explore the arts, in screen printing, sewing, photography, and, of course, ceramics; 16-year-old high school junior Jason Garland is a poster child protege of Bill Strickland.

He first came here six years ago, and recalls watching ceramics teacher Bryce Hemington.

Jason Garland, Student: He got on the wheel and he just started this large shape of clay. And just like the idea that a small thing can turn into something that big just, of course, got my brain interested.

Fred de Sam Lazaro: An innate curiosity that's been enriched over the years by pottery, horticulture and robotics. At Manchester Bidwell's greenhouses, he uses all three, tending a garden with a farm bot that he programmed.

Jason Garland: It does everything from weeding, seeding, growing. It gives you alerts. It take photos.

Bill Strickland: Build a private school for poor people, and you will be close to the solution.

Fred de Sam Lazaro: The blighted neighborhood of his youth is changing today, its proximity to downtown a major attraction for redevelopment.

It's a short distance, but a world away.

Bill Strickland: Absolutely. And that's the point of my center. Flood to place with sunlight, give them gourmet food and world-class art, and Herbie Hancock's music, and you can cure cancer of the spirit.

Fred de Sam Lazaro: It's a model that's easily replicated in any city, he insists. And so far, the Pittsburgh team has consulted in the creation of 13 similar centers, including one in Israel.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Fred de Sam Lazaro in Pittsburgh.

Judy Woodruff: What a wonderful story.

And Fred's reporting is in partnership with the Under-Told Stories Project at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota.

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