Creating Space Designed to Help

July 17, 2018
Madeline Rutowski

My time with the High Road Fellowship has been a transcendent experience. I have been placed at the Buffalo Center for Arts and Technology (BCAT), an organization that specializes in the provision of arts education for high school aged students and professional workforce development training for adults. BCAT is a young nonprofit that has built itself upon the Bill Strickland philosophy of environment shaping mindset.


Strickland is the founder of the Manchester Bidwell Corporation (MBC) in the heart of Pittsburgh. Strickland created MBC after he decided that he wanted children in Pittsburgh public schools to be permitted to express themselves artistically without the restraints of the public school system. Strickland is a lover of the arts, specifically pottery. He understood the valuable role this outlet can play in the lives of children who attend inner city public schools. And so, with this concept in mind, Strickland created his company. In one of his many powerful Ted Talks, Strickland spoke of his desire to have a fountain outside the MBC building. So often fountains symbolize wealth and elitism; Strickland felt that the people who are not able to attend such fancy, fountain-laden establishments ought to have one anyway to look at every day as they entered the facility. And so that is exactly what Strickland did; he had a fountain installed, he purchased beautiful works of art to hang on the walls, he chose lavish furniture to adorn the building’s teaching areas, and he purchased the beautiful, yet transient, orchids as the flower of choice for the MBC complex. But why all of this focus on the interior decoration of the facility?


Strickland believes that the people who come to his organization are people who have not yet realized their full value. They are people who may be stuck with a certain image of themselves in their head because they have never had an example to follow or a reason to believe otherwise. Strickland argues that form influences function, so to speak. If you create a space that is beautiful and inviting, the people coming into that building will begin to understand that they are deserving of a place like this. As Strickland so eloquently puts it in his Ted Talk, if you give people “flowers, sunlight, food, and expectation, you can cure spiritual cancer.” In other words, if an organization stops treating their attendees like charity cases and instead treat them like they would anyone else, the attendees will begin to realize their true value. Strickland argues that providing people with a beautiful space and expensive furnishings makes them understand that they deserve everything they see. This lights a spark within attendees and catalyzes an initiative; it results in the creation of fantastic works of art and dedication in the classroom.


BCAT employs this philosophy to the best of their ability. BCAT is one of the many organizations in the United States that has modeled itself off of Strickland’s MBC. BCAT, because it is still in the early stages of development, is nowhere near as large and well-known as MBC. Still, it has made a name for itself within the Buffalo community. When you walk into BCAT you are greeted by glass doors engraved with inspiring words. As you enter the building, you see white walls covered in artwork. It looks like a professional art gallery except all the artwork is created by the children in the Youth Arts Program. While the space is small, BCAT does the best with what it has. The space has three large classrooms for the Adult Workforce Program, an art room, a digital media lab, a recording studio, a baby-grand piano, a library, and a shared space for dance class and orchestra.


My role at BCAT is to assist those in charge of the Youth Arts Program to collect interviews from all staff members and compile them into a database which will assist in the organization’s grant writing process. My time in the ILR School has aided me in the completion of this project thanks to courses like Human Resource Management (HRM) and Organizational Behavior (OB), both of which have taught me how to deal with people at an organizational level. Because I have to record statements regarding BCAT from everyone involved with the organization, I must tailor my question-asking approach to each person with whom I am speaking. For example, the questions I created for the teaching artists are different from those I ask administrators. The approaches I take between the two of them are different as well. For all interviews I must establish myself as a rapt listener who cares about BCAT and wants to help. Because I am a new face to the organization, I noticed that early on some people were reticent to pour their souls out to me via one-on-one interview, which is understandable. Therefore, I used skills from HRM and OB to figure out the best way to get the most information from my interviewees. For example, when speaking to the teaching artists for the Youth Arts Program I want to get an evaluation of BCAT rich with pathos and personal stories. Thus, I use a casual tone, make the setting as natural as possible, use colloquial diction, and speak to the talent of their students that I witnessed at the trimester showcase. For administrators, I want to get a more formal evaluation of BCAT that looks at the organization’s functionality through a critical lens. Thus I use a more formal tone and diction and establish myself as an individual interested and ready to learn about the organization. Following this structure for these different kinds of interviews has helped me get the best and most fruitful results.


In addition to my immediate role at BCAT, my time here has taught me so much. I have learned that nonprofit work can be incredibly frustrating given that there is no guarantee of grant money despite putting hours of collaborative effort to write a proposal for one. In addition to this, there are other hardships young nonprofits face, such as a high rate of turnover and reorganization that also make accomplishing big-picture tasks relatively difficult. Though I have thoroughly enjoyed my time at BCAT, I do not feel as though my career will find its way into the nonprofit sector. If nothing else was learned from my time at BCAT, I have certainly internalized the importance of caring for your fellow human from all those who make up the staff at BCAT.


There was not a single individual on the BCAT staff that was unhelpful or unwelcoming during my first few weeks at the office. After interviewing most everyone and getting to know staff members on a personal level, I can safely conclude that the people of BCAT are some of the most interesting and most selfless people in Buffalo. Workers at BCAT often go above and beyond the call of duty where their students are concerned. Gina Burkhardt, BCAT’s CEO, and Deborah Porter, the head of the Adult Workforce Development Program are two women who do anything they can to support their students and make sure they possess the resources necessary to live satisfactorily and continue their education at BCAT. A lot of these instances occur with BCAT’s adult students, in the Workforce Development Program.


For example, one workforce development teacher told me in his interview that there had been many instances in which students do not have enough money to pay for transportation, food, or rent. In these cases, Gina does her best to find a way for the organization to assist that student in satisfying their needs.


In my interview with Deborah Porter, I learned that it is a regular occurrence for her to make house calls to her students when there is a noticeable shift in their behavior or attendance record. There was one instance in particular that Deborah mentioned which I found particularly compelling. A young woman had been attending the medical coding classes regularly and always showed up on-time and ready to learn. When she began missing classes, Deborah called the woman’s home but got no answer. Then, Deborah took it upon herself to go to the woman’s home and get to the bottom of the issue. It turns out the woman was in a depressive state after having a miscarriage. Deborah spoke with the woman for hours until she understood that attending the classes at BCAT will not only help herself but they will help her family as well. Deborah helped this woman understand the value of an education and gave her resources to find help with her depression.


My time at BCAT has helped me understand my privilege as a Cornell student. Many of the adults who come into BCAT for workforce development do so because they did not finish high school or attend college and have found how difficult it is to find a job without these achievements. The ambition I see within these students to get their life on track and find a job to support their family is truly inspiring. They are doing this for themselves, taking charge of their lives, and placing value on their education. Witnessing this has made me incredibly grateful for my ability to attend such a prestigious university as Cornell. I hope to never take advantage of my time at Cornell or the opportunities I am granted because of it.


BCAT is an organization designed to help. I am excited to see the extent to which it is able to grow and evolve within the Buffalo community. As Tom Dreitlein, my supervisor, said in his interview, the students of BCAT are dispersed throughout the city and, oftentimes, would not meet each other if it were not for BCAT. As a result, BCAT serves as a representation, perhaps even a symbol, of the Buffalo community on a micro scale. The children and the adults are creating a community within BCAT that results in a very strong bond amongst themselves and between them and BCAT staff. I am happy to be a part of this BCAT community, even if only for eight weeks.