Merlene Davis: University of Kentucky grad pushing hard for empowerment program

Josh Nadzam, left, and Bill Strickland
Josh Nadzam, left, and Bill Strickland

The idea of replicating a Pittsburgh empowerment program in Lexington has been bandied about for more than three years.

School, corporate and community leaders have been energized by Manchester Bidwell Corp.'s accomplishments, but work toward bringing something similar to Lexington has not been publicly noticeable.

Enter Josh Nadzam, who recently earned a master's degree in social work from the University of Kentucky and who isn't really good at watching molasses flow.

"I've been working on this for about a year," Nadzam said. "There have been a lot of meetings and running around and talking with different community leaders, artists, and anyone who would hear me."

It seems to be working.

Originally, Nadzam had scheduled a time for MBC's founder, president and CEO, Bill Strickland to speak privately with a few movers and shakers in Lexington on Tuesday.

"However, the requests for seating grew exponentially and quickly exceeded the capacity of the DeWeese Street Community Room in the Lyric Theatre," Nadzam said via email. "I felt very uncomfortable turning people away and excluding others."

As a result, Strickland now will speak to all comers in the auditorium of the Lyric Theatre & Cultural Arts Center, starting at 10 a.m.

So what has Nadzam and other folks in Lexington so eager to hear about Strickland's vision? It is the success his program has had with students and adults whom others have given up on.

Strickland says that if we change the environment people live in, we change them and our assumptions.

"Environment drives behavior," Strickland has said. "You build prisons, you get prisoners. The biggest preventative measure of crime is to stop training kids to be criminals. We need to change the conversation — embracing life, not death."

Strickland's environment changed when he walked by a ceramics class in high school and saw the instructor at a pottery wheel, shaping clay into a vessel.

It was something the inner-city Pittsburgh youth had never seen before. That ceramics class soon led him to focus more on his academics and to go to college.

He later started an after-school program that offers various art genres as a way to re-engage students in the learning process. Eventually, a vocational training aspect was added for unemployed or underemployed adults.

So far, five cities — Cincinnati; Cleveland; Grand Rapids, Mich.; San Francisco; and New Haven, Conn. — have started National Center for Arts and Technology programs, which are subsidiaries of the nonprofit MBC and are geared to the needs in each locale.

In Cincinnati, the Cincinnati Arts and Technology Center, which is 10 years old, focuses on high school students who are the least likely to graduate. The center has a graduation rate of 90 percent, with 85 percent of those graduates also applying to institutions of higher learning.

Nadzam learned about the program after reading Make the Impossible Possible, a book by Strickland.

"It wasn't one of those cheesy 'how to live a great life in 10 easy steps' books," he said. "I really liked it and I wanted to see the center."

Nadzam was born in Monaca, Pa., population 6,000, and he grew up in similar conditions of poverty as Strickland. He managed to keep his circumstances private, taking his frustrations out on opponents in sports and getting kicked out of games until a basketball coach asked him if something was wrong.

"I just lost it," he said. "Finally someone had asked."

There were family problems and financial problems that the only child thought he could handle.

His mother raised him as a single parent because his father was not around much. She battled mental illness and was hospitalized occasionally, but she insisted that he read, and she taught him selflessness, he said.

Nadzam came to Lexington as a walk-on for the UK track team and eventually won a full scholarship.

After reading about Strickland, Nadzam and his mother visited the center in Pittsburgh and met Strickland.

"We exchanged information and I told him I wanted to make this happen in Lexington," he said. "It was a raw dream. I didn't have anything behind me, didn't have any money. I was a student."

Nadzam envisions a two-part center, for students and adults.

"It is not a franchise," he said. "The centers don't have to be exactly alike. The one in Cleveland is focused on phlebotomy and medical coding. It is whatever the partnerships are ready to set up."

In Lexington, he said, the curriculum would be based on what businesses need. The training is free to students and adults.

That is the vision. Right now, Nadzam is working on the feasibility stage, which could take more than a year, with the replication liaison from MBC. Working relationships have to be established with business leaders in Lexington, too.

Tuesday's meeting is our chance to get in on the ground floor of what has been a successful program in other places.


What: "Bill Strickland Presents: Manchester Bidwell & NCAT," a presentation about a non-profit empowerment program for students and adults.

When: 10 a.m. May 21.

Cost: Free.

Where: Lyric Theatre & Cultural Arts Center, 300 E. Third St.

Information: Email