The screen lit up with an image of a brilliantly colored “story cloth” woven by members of Pittsburgh’s Hmong community. For centuries, the Hmong, from Southeast Asia, had no written language, so they created visual narratives of their history and legends on their exquisitely crafted works of cloth. “Hmong artists made these cloths especially for us,” I explained, “and now these wonderful pieces, reflecting an image of beauty crafted in a culture thousands of miles away, are part of their everyday lives.”

The next slide showed a massive bench, crafted in a rustic Japanese style from a single slab of thick, hand-hewn red oak resting on two sturdy posts. “I had a young Japanese guy working for me as a carpenter. I found out he was also a furniture maker who had studied under the great George Nakashima. So I had him build me this bench. He’s a successful furniture maker now and his pieces cost a small fortune. But before he left he built some sixty pieces just for us—all one-of-a-kind works of art, for all the public spaces. Now, when welfare mothers come into our place, tired from the couple of bus rides it took to get here, they find themselves resting on pieces of art. I want our students to get comfortable with art. I want them to be confronted by something beautiful every time they turn around. So all our hallways and public spaces are graced with the works of fine artists from all over the world: woven tapestries, African-inspired sculpture, fine-art photographs.”

Next, I brought up an image of the beautiful quilts that hang like tapestries on the tall walls of our main lobby. “These quilts cost a bundle,” I said. “They were hand-made by a craft cooperative made up of mostly elderly ladies who live in a very rural part of Pennsylvania. They make these quilts in their homes, as a cottage industry, using the styles and principles of the Amish quilt makers who are their inspiration. Amish-style quilts might not be the first decorative element you think of when you’re furnishing an educational center in the inner city, and I’m sure that none of the ladies in the cooperative had spent much time in a place like Manchester, but all I cared about was that the quilts these ladies produced were exceptional, and that they would add another layer of softness and beauty to my school. Still, I told them that I wouldn’t give them the commission until they visited us in Pittsburgh and convinced me that they understood the spirit of the center.

So one day they arrived in cars and pickups and walked inside, a group of very gentle-looking, very white little old ladies. I showed them around. At first they just gazed at the place, silent and wide-eyed. Our students were a little wide-eyed, too. These gentle country ladies couldn’t have seemed more out of place if they had dropped into Manchester directly from the moon. But as soon as we started to talk about the quilts—about materials, patterns, themes, and colors—all the strangeness went away and we became just a bunch of people talking about art and the enterprise of making a beautiful thing. Our students couldn’t help but see the passion those women had for their work, and all the things they needed to do that work well—the skills and vision to create a quilt that captures life and meaning and some measure of truth. They were the same things our students were struggling to master in their classes.

With a flash of insight, they saw beyond the superficial differences that made our visitors so foreign to them. Instead, they saw fellow artists with whom they had a common bent.