A man with a simple mission: to change the world

There was lots of talk at the ALFA Conference & Expo this week in Dallas about embracing change—at the personal, organizational and societal level. Senior living providers know all about change. No big news there. Whether they’re especially thrilled to embrace it is another matter.

Bill Strickland wiped any hesitation or apathy from many attendees’ minds within about two minutes of his keynote address Wednesday. I’ve heard countless motivational, life-affirming and uplifting addresses in my 20-plus years covering conferences, but Strickland’s simple and direct words were the first to challenge me to think differently about everything and vow to make some changes in my own life—all in the space of about an hour.

Strickland has devoted his life to serving the poor as the founder of Pittsburgh’s Manchester Craftsmen's Guild and Bidwell Training Center, which offers an eclectic mix of arts education and practical training programs for diverse jobs such as pharmacy technicians and medical assistants, culinary arts and horticulture—in a beautiful setting located in the city’s most crime-infested neighborhood.

Strickland’s personal story is one of rising above his own impoverished circumstances through a combination of intellectual gifts, street smarts, opportunities and serendipity to create a movement that has lifted the lives of others. It offers lessons for our own lives and our larger communities—and especially our senior communities.  

Here are a few of his words that particularly resonated with me and can apply to our frail and vulnerable seniors:

  • “Environment drives behavior. Prisons create prisoners. Beautiful spaces create hope. Poor people don’t have hope. Get people out of the dark and into the light.”
  • “Cancer of the spirit is cured with beauty and sunlight and hope. The only thing wrong with poor people is they don’t have money! Welfare is a state of mind. We can’t continue to live like this as a society. I want to change this in our lifetime.”
  • “I didn’t need no task force or study group to bring fresh flowers for the kids. It was an incidental cost but had significant impact.”
  • “Still have hope when you’re old. Until you close the casket you’re still living.”

Strickland’s message has been the talk of attendees for days. I heard one provider speak of transforming old schools or other underused buildings into havens for our poor, isolated and hopeless elders. Why can’t we afford our impoverished seniors the same respect, dignity and opportunities that Bill Strickland has provided for and nurtured in the thousands of students he’s served?

Today, Strickland is a three-time presidential appointee, recipient of the 1996 MacAuthur Genius Award and has inspired business and political leaders around the world. His mission has expanded to include arts centers in cities across the country and internationally. Read more about Strickland and his work here.

Topics: Leadership