African-American leader plans inner-city project in Israel

Strickland: I have many connections with the Jewish community in Pittsburgh, and this is one way I can express my gratitude to them.

strickland 224.88 (photo credit: Avi Hirschfield)
strickland 224.88
(photo credit: Avi Hirschfield)
A successful North American social welfare and vocational training initiative may soon be transplanted to Israeli soil if a joint venture by the United Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh and African-American leader, social activist and author William Strickland comes to fruition. In Israel this week to explore the possibility of expanding his non-profit Manchester Bidwell Corporation to Pittsburgh's sister region of Misgav in Northern Israel, Strickland told The Jerusalem Post that he was "impressed with the resilience, tenacity and commitment of the local population - both Arabs and Jews - to support Israel." "Israel is physically a beautiful country," declared Strickland, who had earlier met with local philanthropists such as millionaire industrialist Stef Wertheimer and Nochi Danker, chairman of the board and CEO of Israel Discount Bank Holding Corp. Ltd., as well as the mayors of the Misgav region's main urban centers - Sakhnin, Karmiel and Misgav Am - to discuss the establishment of a center aimed at providing employment development, educational enrichment and cultural activities to the local population. "The people of Israel mirror my own experience growing up in the inner-city of Pittsburgh," continued Strickland, who is considered by many in the US as an African-American role model for social entrepreneurship. "I see here the same spirit that we had back then." Strickland, who has become a local legend in his native Pennsylvania, grew up in a poor, rough neighborhood of Pittsburgh and started his work with underprivileged communities back in the late 1960s. As an undergraduate student at the University of Pittsburgh, Strickland set up the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild, a program aimed at introducing local teens to creativity and the arts. Not long afterwards, he was asked to take over another local social-welfare initiative, the Bidwell Training Center, which provided vocational training to young adults in his community. Today, Bidwell training and culture centers exist in San Francisco, Cincinatti and Grand Rapids, Michigan, with Strickland on the constant look out for other possible locations both in the US and worldwide. In previous media interviews, Strickland has said that the key to establishing a successful model of vocational training and social action is to combine community, corporate and philanthropic sponsors, exactly the mix of sources that he tapped into during his visit here this week. Jeffrey Kohan, director of Community and Public Affairs for UJF-Pittsburgh, said that Strickland's meetings with Wertheimer and Danker had been extremely fruitful. He also met with Jewish Agency for Israel director Ze'ev Bielski. "[Strickland's] non-Jewish, African-American background is a very appealing aspect of this project for Jews and Arabs in this area," said Kohan, adding that any center built by Manchester Bidwell would provide services to both Arab and Jewish communities living in the Galilee. "It will build bridges between the two populations in this region." While neither Kohan nor Strickland would say where exactly such a center would be located, Kohan did comment that it would not be an "inexpensive project." "We hope to raise significant philanthropic support both here and in the US for this project," he said. As for the question of why an African-American leader would commit to social welfare projects in the Jewish state, Kohan explained that the Jewish community of Pittsburgh and Strickland have always held a close working relationship, with Manchester Bidwell receiving significant funding from local Jewish philanthropists during its early days. "I have many connections with the Jewish community in Pittsburgh," said Strickland. "This is one way I can express my gratitude to them." He continued: "I believe in giving everyone the opportunity to prosper and don't see any reason why this should be different. I am not interested in fighting political battles, I prefer to leave that to the politicians, and focus on building a social welfare center for poor kids in Israel."