An arts education and job training program that has been turning around the lives of thousands of Pittsburgh’s underserved for decades is set to be replicated in Akko, Israel, and if organizers’ dreams take hold, it could ultimately help pave the path for reconciliation in the Middle East.
Before chalking up such a claim to hyperbole, consider the architect of the project: Bill Strickland, the founder and CEO of the Manchester Bidwell Corporation, the local nonprofit that has proven that at-risk populations will thrive both creatively and educationally when allowed to learn in an environment of respect and beauty.
For the last four decades, MBC has reversed the negative trajectory of scores of Pittsburghers through such avenues as photography, horticulture, ceramics and the culinary arts, boosting self-esteem and providing people with skills they can use to find jobs.
The MBC model has been successfully replicated in eight locations across the United States, and now Strickland — with the help and guidance of longtime associate Mark Frank — has his sights set on Akko.
They traveled to Israel last month, along with a cohort of supporters from the United States, to promote the project and to meet with the stakeholders there. The Akko project — called the Northern Israel Center for Arts and Technology (NICAT) — will be Strickland’s first overseas replication effort.
While in Akko, Strickland met with the town’s mayor, Shimon Lankri, and shared his message of hope with the community. What Strickland found in Akko was “unbridled enthusiasm” for the project, he said, as well as a tract of land the city had donated to make it happen.
For Strickland, Akko is the perfect site for his first overseas project. The town of 45,000 is home to a diverse population: About 28 percent of its residents are Arab, and about 70 percent Jewish. In some neighborhoods, Jews and Arabs work together, although their children attend different schools.
Everyone is all in for the project, he said.
“The fact that we have Jewish kids, Arab kids, the mayor and the general population all joining forces to build the center is really over the top,” Strickland said.
The new center initially will provide training in 3-D printing and other Maker Movement technology to high school students but eventually also will offer additional vocational training to adults.
The enthusiasm generated on the trip was contagious, prompting philanthropists Jessica and Steve Sarowitz to increase their commitment to NICAT from $300,000 to $1 million, Strickland said, which gives the project the means to really get going.
“Now we can start planning the center,” he added.
Lankri and Deputy Mayor Ohad Segev have shown an unusual level of enthusiasm for the project, according to Strickland.
“It’s very unusual for a project this early to get that kind of support,” Strickland said. “It’s pretty extraordinary.”
Beyond providing training and fostering self-esteem, Strickland sees the integrated program as paving the way to Arab/Jewish reconciliation, he said.
“And that could be a model that could be replicated in other locations,” he said. “My goal is to build these centers all over Israel, then all over the Middle East. I think it could build momentum in and of itself.”
The Akko project has garnered the attention of some big names in philanthropy, including Jeffrey Skoll, the former president of eBay, and Angelica Berrie, president of the Russell Berrie Foundation.
“This is a big deal,” Strickland said.
While the new NICAT center is being planned and constructed, Akko will provide office and operating space in a newly remodeled building in an area that is “neutral to Arabs and Jews,” according to Frank.
He was impressed with the temporary space that likely will be the first home for NICAT.
Like MBC in Pittsburgh, the NICAT space will be well appointed and visually appealing.
“We decided everything we do will be extraordinary,” Frank said. “We want people to say, ‘Wow. People built this for me?’ It has to make that statement to the first student who walks in. It has to have that ‘wow factor.’”
The first program to be offered by NICAT will be an after-school training curriculum in Maker Movement technology, including 3-D printing and laser cutting.
“We will use the tools to allow Arab and Jewish high school students artistic expression,” Frank said.
“What I like about it is its 21st-century technology made accessible to people who don’t have access to 21st-century technology. They’ll have a leg up on using those tools or making those tools as a career.”
NICAT has been in the works since 2006, Frank said, with the team having explored various cities in Israel in which to launch the project.
Once they settled on Akko, the process accelerated, and, with the funding now almost completely in place, Frank projects that at least one NICAT program will be up and running by late spring 2015.
Maarten Hemsley, a board member of NICAT and the board chair of NECAT — a replication of the MBC model in Boston — also traveled to Israel with Strickland and Frank last month.
Hemsley first met Strickland when they were both delivering eulogies at the memorial service for Frank’s father in 2008. After learning about the plan to build a center in Israel, Hemsley was eager to become involved, he said.
But when he came to Pittsburgh in 2009 to take a tour of MBC, he decided to take on the challenge of opening a space in Boston as well.
NECAT opened in Boston a year ago with culinary instruction for adults.
That center has already graduated two classes, and all 23 graduates are now employed in the field. NECAT is planning on launching its youth arts program next year.
The Akko project, Hemsley said, “is really taking Bill’s concepts to a new level.”
“Bill’s been working with challenged populations for 45 years,” Hemsley noted, adding that those populations are often comprised of several different minorities.
“It’s obviously another level of challenge to bring Arabs and Jews together,” he said.
Akko has a history of Jewish-Arab cooperation “that probably goes back for centuries,” Strickland said.
It is precisely because Akko is a mixed city that makes it the right place to launch NICAT, according to Sue Linzer, senior manager of overseas operations at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, who also traveled with Strickland to Israel on his recent trip.
NICAT is a grantee of the Federation but is not a project of the agency.
“It was really inspiring for me to be on the trip with Bill and hear him articulate his vision and his hope,” Linzer said.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.