The full episode transcript is below.
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You are listening to the Be the Bridge podcast with Latasha Morrison.
Latasha Morrison 2:50
[intro] How are you guys doing today? This is exciting!
Be the Bridge podcast tackles subjects related to race and culture with the goal of bringing understanding.
Latasha Morrison 3:01
[intro] …but I’m going to do it in the spirit of love.
We believe understanding can move us toward racial healing, racial equity, and racial unity. Latasha Morrison is the founder of Be the Bridge, which is an organization responding to racial brokenness and systemic injustice in our world. This podcast is an extension of our vision to make sure people are no longer conditioned by a racialized society but grounded in truth. If you have not hit the subscribe button, please do so now. Without further ado, let’s begin today’s podcast. Oh, and stick around for some important information at the end.
Latasha Morrison 3:38
I am so excited my Be the Bridge community, as I would say my Be the Bridgers, to have a phenomenal leader. I want to introduce you, some of you may have heard of him, but if you haven’t, I want to introduce you to Pastor Michael Phillips. He is, like I said, a pastor. He’s a thought leader. And he’s also the Chief Engagement and Fulfillment Officer for the TD Jakes Foundation. Michael has an incredible story of escaping the school to prison pipeline and reinventing himself as a pastor, education reform advocate, which he shares in his up and coming book which is out now. It’s called Wrong Lanes Have Right Turns: A Pardoned Man’s Escape from the School-to-Prison Pipeline and What You Can Do to Dismantle It. And so this book came out on, I think it was January 25th of this year. So it’s a new book. If you haven’t purchased it, you want to get it. Just to give you a little bit of his background before we get started, after a series of devastating events – a teacher crushing his career dreams, his dad passing away, and getting in a life altering the car accident and losing his college scholarship – Michael abandoned his faith and turned to dealing drugs. But when he was arrested, a judge gave him a second chance at college rather than 30 years in prison if convicted. And that changed his whole life trajectory including his faith and his advocate advocacy for students like himself, who are pushed to the margins of society. I’m so grateful to have you here. And I want you to just give us a little bit backdrop, I read some of your bio, but um, you know, I know you have children, you’re married, you know. Tell us all about those things and what you’ve been up to, and then we’re gonna dig right in. But I am just grateful as I’m sitting here, you know, talking with you, I’m like, “Thank you for second chances.” Like, you know, so many of us are the products of second chances. And then so many people didn’t have the opportunity to get a second chance. And, you know, we do know that that is rare for Black men and for Black women. And so I’m grateful that you’re here and that your story can continue to be written in 2022. And so, tell us a little bit about yourself, some of the things that I didn’t mention in your bio.
Michael Phillips 6:27
Well, first of all, thank you so much for having me. It’s such a pleasure and honor to be here with you. I’ve been married for 25 years to Dr. Anita Phillips. We have two wonderful children, who are adults now pretty much. (laughter) Recent empty nesters and God is good. Let me tell you. (laughter) Yeah, our son is 24. Our daughters is 20. And he’s graduated college and off to career and our daughter is almost finished college. She’s in film school. And just amazing children and that’s my family. And my wife and I, we recently relocated to Dallas, Texas. I’m originally from Baltimore, Maryland, where I pastored for almost 19 years in West Baltimore. And we’re really proud of the work we did there. Amazing church that we raised up and developed. But we were, I accepted a different assignment now in Dallas, Texas, because my passion is to help people live better. And the way that I have done that is to affect the systems of education, entrepreneurship, and also criminal justice systems. And so that’s where I work. That’s my lane. And I’m excited about the future and the work that has already begun from Dallas to affect some of those systems.
Latasha Morrison 8:13
Yeah, yeah. I think there’s so much in this. You know, when we talk about the school to prison pipeline, I know there’s some people who are listening that probably, we say that, but they probably don’t understand what it is. And, you know, I want you to kind of explain to this community, of someone that has never heard of it or they don’t understand how it functions or how it works or is it just terminology we’re using? But if you can explain to our community, what is the school to prison pipeline?
Michael Phillips 8:54
So when we say the school to prison pipeline, basically what we’re saying is that because of disciplinary practices in many of our traditional public schools, some charter schools, some private schools, that have zero tolerance policies, so that means that a child will be expelled (not just suspended, but expelled mostly) and also simultaneously charged with a crime and or put in front of the criminal justice system through school resource officers (that means cops that are in schools). And because of their disciplinary practices, meaning that if…I’m gonna make it real simple. Tyrone cusses out Miss Smith, okay, who’s the teacher. And now Tyrone is suspended or expelled, depending upon the disciplinary practices of the school. And mostly, if it becomes real heated, the school resource officer is going to be called to the classroom. And that school resource officer is going to make a report that’s going to go on the record of that child, which is the beginning of their criminal record. That starts the pathway for them to prison. So in some cases it’s not even school to. You could just take to out, and say school prison pipeline. Because what we’re doing is basically pushing children through a system into a another system. And often, we are building our prison facilities and digging into the data of what children are behind in third grade, which then informs our criminal justice system of how many beds they need, how many more prisons they need. And so in some states, we’re building more prisons than we are building schools because of that pipeline. In other words, to have a prison, do you need a supply? Okay? It makes money. And, it makes money. And we’re paying for it. So to go deeper, in some cases, for let’s just say juvenile kids (13, 14, 15) who are juvenile detainees, some sort of crime, could be misdemeanor, could be grand theft auto, whatever it is, we’re spending anywhere on average, somewhere around $90,000 a year per juvenile detainee. My son went to Harvard University. Harvard University didn’t cost $90,000 a year. So it’s actually less expensive to educate our children than it is to incarcerate them.
Latasha Morrison 12:43
And I think that should really cause us to weep. When you when you think about America, when you think about some of the founding principles that we claim, but we don’t put into practice, you don’t see the fruit of that in that sense. You know, when you think about, like, not understanding restorative justice, and that’s really sad. You know? But one of the things that, one of the things that I’m thinking about that was key to what you said, when you said that, um, you know, we build our school systems based off of the trajectory of basically a student that’s in like third grade, based off the reading levels and all those things, but instead of investing in programs that will help accelerate those children, we will rather build a prison. That is a skewed, like, depraved view, in the way to look at human beings, image bears. Like, there’s no hope, we’re gonna throw you away.
Michael Phillips 14:02
Yeah, it’s a culture of punishment. It’s what I call it. Rather than a culture of possibility. And our idea of justice is really skewed towards retribution. “Tyrone, you cussed out Miss Smith. You are going to pay a penalty.” Right? But no one acknowledges Tyrone’s trauma. Okay, that maybe he just lost his father to gun violence. Maybe he is couch hopping because he’s a homeless teen, which we have a large population of in our education system. Homeless meaning that they don’t have a permanent dwelling place. And they’re going from auntie’s house to grandma’s house to a friend’s house every day. And so we often penalize people for what they do at the expense of who they are. And if it’s ever going to change, we have to take a different view of what justice means. And I’m not talking about for everyone listening, our mind goes directly towards the most heinous criminal acts that you can think of. When I made that example, that was real. Children are being incarcerated, and or having permanent blemishes on their records, because they’re dealing with life. Okay, they’re dealing with life. Now, we all understand there’s consequences for our actions. We get that. And I think that’s important. However, when it comes to how we’re treating what I call our future, the next generation, and the generation that follows them, we have to understand that we are hurting ourselves through all of these practices, because, in essence, we’re becoming generational thieves. We’re robbing the world, of its geniuses, of people who have innate God given abilities and talents that we never see because we throw them away.
Latasha Morrison 16:43
Yeah. And so when we think about, you know, I think what you’re saying, like, in your story, there was a series of things that happened to get you to this point, you know, where there’s traumas happening. And that’s the thing that we don’t factor. And, you know, I think about that in my own family with some of my own relatives. You know, where it was a father leaving, a mom maybe was on drugs, and then this one child spiraled. And you know, because kids are different maybe one child, it didn’t affect them that way, another child affected them in that manner. So tell us about, like, just that point, like what was going on in your life prior to you going down that path of selling drugs?
Michael Phillips 17:40
So my father died when I was 12. And he was a preacher. I’m a fourth generation preacher and pastor. My father was everything to me. He was my model of manhood, he was my hero. And to lose him was a catastrophic loss. It affected, I’m the youngest of four, it affected all of us in different ways. But we all struggled, from my brother and two sisters and myself. At the day of the burial for my father, my brother walked off and I never saw him again for almost five years. For me, that was the beginning of being angry with God. Because immature religion offered me no answer for why my father died. It became an oversimplification that the Lord gives and the Lord takes away without any explanation of the context of Job trying to wrestle with why he was suffering. And so the preacher picks up Job’s words without saying these are Job’s words, and puts job Job’s words in God’s mouth. And so at 12 years old, when I heard the Lord gives and the Lord takes away, I said, I don’t want to serve a God like that. And I turned towards the men in my community who were drug dealers because opportunity for them was very limited. So they developed their own economy. They were kings in my neighborhood. They were respected. They were revered because they showed kids like me what success looked like in my color. Because I never saw it, unless you were an athlete. So at 12 I, after my father died, I decided to take to those guys to become my mentors and my models. What helped me not to go all the way in at that early age was I was an athlete. So I thought that my identity could be tied to that, since I really lost my model of what I could become and who I thought I could be. All while at the same time the systems that I frequented in education and, you know, as a child, all that there was a deficiency, a deficient narrative that was constantly spoke over me. And my only saving grace was that I could run fast. I could jump high. Yeah, for all of my, you know, sports fans and athletic people out there – I ran for a 4.4 on the 40. And I had a 42 inch vertical. I was a nightmare on the basketball court. And all that good stuff. And I was also smart, but I didn’t know it. It wasn’t until my senior year that an adult in school told me that I was academically intelligent. And that I had a lot of promise.
Latasha Morrison 21:58
Because, I’m thinking we’re around, we’re in similar age groups. So this was in the 80s, right?
Michael Phillips 22:05
Yeah, so I got in high school in 1989. But prior to high school, all the way from first grade on, I was being told by the adults in school, I was going to end up in jail. All because of my personality. I’m curious. I’m going to ask questions. If it doesn’t make sense to me, I want to know why. But you just want me to sit here and receive the information you’re telling me without conversation? I don’t think so.
Latasha Morrison 22:53
So you were a little too confident, you were a little too confident. Because let’s think about, okay, let’s think about Baltimore in the 80s. Because you have to factor in what was happening culturally in your community too and what was happening through the systems of our government. Like this was like, still in the midst of the the war on drugs, the fake war on drugs, you know, some of that was happening. So explain what was happening in your community at this time, where you started out, as this semi, you know, a good student just didn’t know it. You were an athlete. You had all these traumas, you lost your dad, but not only did you lose your dad, but you also lost your older brother at the same time. That’s a lot of loss. That’s a lot of internalized. You were brought up in the church. And then a lot of times, you know, it’s not that you’re going to say, “Okay, he’s had a lot of trauma. Let’s take him to therapy.” It’s like we kind of pray it away or pray, you know, like, we got to give it to Jesus.
Michael Phillips 24:07
Exactly. There was no therapy. You couldn’t even say that word back then in a predominantly African American church and setting because church was therapy. It was the end all be all. And culturally speaking, I saw my community go from just you know, hard working class folk to open air drug market. It seemed as if it happened almost overnight. And my mother moved us from the city right after my father died, maybe six months to a year after he died, because she was so frightened that we would all be eaten alive in that atmosphere. And she could read the tea leaves to see that everything in the community was shifting and changing. And she was right. So now, I’m thrust into a completely different culture and a predominantly white suburb. That was also traumatizing. Because I had no reference for how white people lived and thought, because really the only time I saw them was when I was in school. Understand? Or we, my mom took us to some department store or something like that. It’s the only time that we interacted with people that didn’t look like us. And so to then be immersed in a suburb in the late 80s, where there’s not too many people that look like you was, oh, God.
Latasha Morrison 26:12
That’s another trauma. That’s another trauma where, you know, you’re going from a community that you know into a community that you don’t know, and then probably a community that’s very suspicious of you and that have, you know, more of a apathetic ideology towards you in the midst of all of this. So, that’s a lot.
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Michael Phillips 28:12
When we moved in, we moved into this house in the suburbs called Columbia, Maryland. And Columbia, Maryland is very diverse today. It was not as diverse back then. But it was built to be diverse. And so a lot of Black families started moving out there because it’s between Baltimore and D.C., the middle point. But when we first moved in in the late 80s, we were in a cul de sac. And as the movers moved in, all of the neighbors came outside and just stared at us. Not “Hi,” not “How are y’all doing?” not “Do you need help?” Just like we were aliens or zombies or something and they were confused as to why we were there. And I said to my mother, I said, “Why in the world are they doing that?” And my mother being the woman that she was walked up to each and every person with a big smile and introduced herself and had me, made me, go with her and say hello. I didn’t want to do that. But I did it. And I better, I better do it absolutely. And I remember coming home one day frustrated about being the other. And when I say the other I mean you’re the other, you’re not white. Okay? And I wasn’t even Black white. I was blackity Black, Black, Black, Black, Black. There’s a difference. There’s a difference. (laughter) Okay? So yeah. So I was just like, listen I’m not, I dress a certain way. I like a certain thing. This is who I am. This is my culture. And I’m not breaking that for nobody. (laughter) And so anywho, I complained about being the other. And she showed me the strength and power of being different, and being the other, to be able to inform people that guess what, we’re human, just like you. Yeah, just like you. And so that was culture shock to me. But that was how I kind of made it through my teenage years.
But every chance I got, I went right back into the city, because that’s where I felt most comfortable. But I hung around the drug dealers, but I wasn’t as immersed in dealing, because they wanted me to win. They wanted me to get the scholarship, they wanted me to not be out there with them. Yeah, and so I get the scholarship. And I make it despite all of the trauma and everything else. And I had some wonderful people to help me, of all different races along the way to speak into my life. All the people of peace, all the people of goodwill, who would wrap their arms around me and really encourage me and really support me from coaches to…one of the greatest was my athletic director at my high school. He was the first white man that I actually trusted. He came to every game, I played football, basketball, and track, and he came to every event, and just cheer like he was my daddy. It was, because his words matched his actions. And one day I needed, I stayed late for practice, and I cleaned the the athletic room. And I needed a ride home and I was gonna walk home. And he says, “No, man, you ain’t gotta walk, I got you.” And he took me home, we had a really great conversation. And he asked me in the car, “Why don’t you trust me?” And I said, “Well, I’ve never had a relationship outside of being in trouble or dealing with the cops with a white man.” And he thought that was so brutally honest. He cried in the car. And he cried because he was so concerned about society that he, I guess, was vulnerable in that moment. And he told me that I had so much promise, and there’s so many people in my corner. And then I got out the car. But by senior year, he pulled me into his office and showed me all of the college letters that I had. And told me for the first time, you don’t have to go to college to be an athlete. You can go to college because you’re intelligent enough to do it. And I cried because that was the first an adult in school said those words to me.
Latasha Morrison 34:00
Wow. Speaking life over you. And I mean, I think that’s so important. Where he saw something that you didn’t see in yourself. And when you fast forward this, like you know, so you were in college when this started happening? Like your kind of like transformation of the street life, in that sense, selling drugs, were you in college when that happened?
Michael Phillips 34:30
So yeah, so I go to college and not even starting the semester, I went early to work out with the team. I decided to play basketball instead of football.
Latasha Morrison 34:46
Oh, you had choices. You had choices. (laughter) He had to throw that in there. He had choices. Okay.
Michael Phillips 34:53
I got scholarships for track, basketball, and football, and academic. Which was amazing to me. I just couldn’t believe. Because I never paid my grades no mind. I didn’t care. But I was intelligent. Because I didn’t show that I was smart. I never studied. I just, just knew…
Latasha Morrison 35:16
You is smart. (laughter)
Michael Phillips 35:18
Right. I is smart. (laughter) So I decided to go home for a weekend right before the semester started. Because I was home sick. And you know, listen. I went to college not knowing, I was so ill prepared for that. When I got to my dorm room, I said, “Where are the sheets?” (laughter)
Latasha Morrison 35:42
Oh my goodness! (laughter) Poor thing. Nobody told you.
Michael Phillips 35:47
No, no. And one of the assistant coaches had to take me to Walmart, which was the first time I had ever been to a Walmart in my life.
Latasha Morrison 35:56
And you probably didn’t have no money to buy the sheets. (laughter)
Michael Phillips 35:58
I didn’t have no money! He bought my sheets and stuff and got me all situated. I had to call my mother and be like, “I need money for, I need a blanket or comforter.” I was like, “I thought y’all provided those things.” (laughter)
Latasha Morrison 36:17
You see, you gotta help people out. Everybody don’t know this stuff. Everybody does not know this. You know, we see people decorating dorm rooms now. But everybody don’t know you got to do that.
Michael Phillips 36:29
Yeah, I didn’t know. I didn’t know. And so I go home. I was homesick. And I decided to just go home and see everybody for the weekend. And we went out. My friends took me out. And we had a great time. It wasn’t, I want to put this into context. Because as an athlete, I didn’t drink. I didn’t smoke. I never did because in my environment, I needed to have my head on a swivel. Because you don’t know who’s coming at you. And so I was always sober. The guy that was driving was sober. It was just that we stayed out all night and decided to go to an amusement park the next day. So this is five o’clock in the morning. And we’re going to drive three hours to an amusement park to be there when it opens. And he falls asleep behind the wheel on our way there. And then I woke up in the hospital. The car wreck was so catastrophic that we hit several cars, we hit a set of rocks that were on an embankment of the highway that spun us across the highway, we hit several cars and then we were going to go off this cliff but the guardrail stopped us. In the car was a little two seater sports car, and the hood of the car got caught underneath the guardrail. When that happened, we hit that guardrail so hard that I was laid all the way back and so if you can imagine like my seat was all the way back as I was stretched out because I was asleep. And I had my seatbelt on across. But when we hit the guardrail, the entire compartment of the seat belt is held in ripped out of the wall of the car door and ripped across my body. And I was thrust forward, but my lower half of my body got caught underneath the dash of the car and the upper half of my body went through the windshield of the car. So half my body is in the car, half my body is out of the car. And my right leg was completely crushed. And I woke up in the hospital. And when I woke up in the hospital, they were rushing me into surgery, so they were about to put me back out but I couldn’t feel anything. I didn’t know what was going on out. I was of course all cut up and messed up. And once surgery was over, and I came to, they told me I would never walk again. And that I would certainly never ever play sports again. And that just devastated me completely. I wanted to, that was my lifeline. I tied my identity to being an athlete. It wasn’t something that I did, it was who I was, because I was conditioned by all those deficit narratives. That this is all I was. And I believed it. Despite all of the opposing voices to that narrative that spoke life into me, I had been beat so much by people’s words that I just came to believe it. And I was so depressed, that for the first time in my life, I started drinking. And I drank every day. I drank a lot of vodka every day. And I lost my scholarship because I never went to class. Even after I recovered, got out of surgery and all that stuff, I was able to go back to school. You know, with one leg I couldn’t play. I couldn’t play. They were going to put me into rehab once my leg healed. I had rods in my leg and all that stuff. And I just couldn’t cope with the pain. It wasn’t the injury that was hard, it was to recovery. And the reason that recovery was difficult was because my identity was attached to my physical ability. And so who was going to be now? And when the coach came in and told me that I would no longer be on scholarship, that they had to fill the spot. But they wanted to take care of me and all that good stuff, I just kind of drifted away and became academically ineligible. They put me on academic probation, all that stuff. And I got sent home. And when I got home, it didn’t get any better. Just spending most of my days drinking, until a friend of mine decided to come and cheer me up, and took me out. And it was there, that I made my decision. Since I can’t be athlete, I’m gonna go be what I’ve always seen. I’m gonna be a drug dealer.
Latasha Morrison 42:45
I tell you. Just all of that, you know. And nobody knows all this is happening, like, you know, all these things that are like, this brokenness is happening.
Michael Phillips 42:58
We see what people do without understanding why. And we judge the what without any, any information of why. So when we see the what we go, “What’s wrong with you?” Instead of asking a trauma informed question, “What happened to you?” And so, my friend that took me out, I asked him what he was doing for money. He had a similar story, went had a football scholarship, lost it over some pettiness of some issue with some girl or whatever it was, and he lost his scholarship. And I asked them, “What are you doing then for money? Like, are you going back to school?” And he had a child, he had a little baby. And he said, “Man, I’m doing whatever I have to do to take care of my child.” And I knew what that meant. That was was language for I’m hustling. And so I said, “Listen, I have saved up like $5,000.” And I said, “Let’s go into partnership. I can help you.” And that’s how it started. And we bought our first key of cocaine. And it went somewhere that I never imagined. I was really trying to deal with my pain. I didn’t know that pain could be so powerful to catapult you into things that you never imagined you would do. That becomes quote unquote, and I’m giving the quote fingers here, quote unquote successful. This is a year, about 18 months of my life that I’m talking about.
Latasha Morrison 45:20
Wow, just a short time period. But wait a minute, I gotta go back to the fact that you had saved $5000. Let’s go back to that. (laughter) So you knew how to save. That’s what a lot of young kids, like, I know at that age I didn’t know how to save. (laughter) So you had this entrepreneur type spirit about you?
Michael Phillips 45:44
Yes. Because my grandmothers and all the women in my family, and my father, deep entrepreneurial spirits. My grandmother, she had four other sisters. So these five matriarchs, they were all nurses, and they were all preachers, and they all had their own businesses. And so because I was the youngest of all of cousins and everybody else, that was the only place I could sit. Because everybody was like, “Go away” because I was the smallest. But I would sit with my grandmother in the kitchen, and they would talk about their businesses and saving money and ownership and all which was very, very hard for them. But they did it. And I learned those principles from them. And innately I’ve always been an entrepreneur.
[Latasha Morrison sharing an ad for The Snack Show with Jami and Fallon podcast] What happens when two friends who love snacks and have mostly differing opinions enter the chat? Welcome to the weekly journey with Jami and Fallon who love laughing as much as they love food. Follow along as they live their motto “Live, Laugh and Snack.” Okay, now this sounds like a party I want to go to. So Jami Crockett is a displaced West Coast girl living in Nashville, Tennessee. She enjoys random pop culture trivia, all things snacks and beverages, and a good sleuthing mystery to solve. Fallon Klug is a Midwest girl making her way to the south by way of New York City. The way to her heart is back scratches and leftovers. Sounds like a girl after my own heart. And of course, snacks. This is a 30 minute episode that will be released every Friday. They’ve done “If You Give a Girl a Cookie,” “When You Chip, I Chip, We Chip.” So this sounds like a fun show. If you want to just have a lighthearted discussion, tune in to The Snack Show with Jami and Fallon.
Latasha Morrison 48:00
So you, 18 months in this. Eighteen months. You know, you had these five tragedies that that really, you overcome so much you know from people telling you you won’t gonna be nothing to someone speaking life into you at a critical moment. You make it the college, then you have this major accident that you know cripples you to the point where you can’t play sport sports anymore. So your only option you see is going to what you know and that is like to make some quick money, the drugs. So this was only 18 months of your life in this fast paced, drug selling world. What happened? How did you get caught?
Michael Phillips 48:56
So we wind up growing way too fast. We had about 60 guys working for us. We had taken an entire community basically. It was like one way in one way out street that had several row homes on it. And across the street was a corner store and then an abandoned school building, very small like kind of a preschool looking type of building. And we took that over. We went up so fast that we just didn’t realize how big we were. And of course, there’s no 401k plan for drug dealers. At some point, it’s going to end. And so I decided in my entrepreneurial spirit to scale our business and expand it. (laughter) And expand it because I was looking for ways to exit into legitimate business to take that capital from illegitimate business and wash it in legitimate business. So I started messing around in real estate in trying to buy all the property around there. But the problem was some of that money was coming from another fraudulent business that I developed. And it was in that space that the federal offices started to surveillance us because, oh yeah, because of the nature of what we were doing it involved government entities. On top of that, one of the largest traffickers of heroin was our partner. And he was already under heavy surveillance. So they connected all of us and basically brought the whole house down. And the day that…so to answer your question, we got caught by chance. Because we really were not on the radar like that. A young kid running from local narcotics police ran into one of our stash houses. And one of the guys that worked for us thought he was robbing us. And unfortunately, he decided to take matters into his own hands. But they were cops chasing him. And so, when this incident happened, my friend got shot. And officer was wounded. Nobody died. But when this happened, the feds decided that they had to bring the whole house down at this point, because we were going to shut everything down. And so.
Latasha Morrison 52:57
Whew. That’s some scary stuff right there. Michael. Oh. I tell you one thing, I definitely don’t have the, the conscious, because I’m scared. That’s like scary for me. Like just listening to it. I’m like, oh, my goodness. Like, that’s a lot. But that’s the life of so many people. Like that’s normal for, you know, the only thing that people know, like, you know. I meet students that have never, that live in Atlanta, but have never been off the south side. You know? That don’t know anyone that has ever graduated high school, in the midst of Atlanta. You know what I’m saying? So, I understand that. I get it. I know that mentality, especially, you know, in Baltimore. And then you were kind of destined for greatness. It sounds like you have praying mother, praying grandmother, praying great grandmother. Like, you know, you have this entrepreneurial spirit about you. You had this work ethic about you as it relates to sports. But just taking that wrong path, that road decision, where you just needed a little more guidance, you needed some more care, you needed some therapy. You know, just some of the things that are not sometimes readily available in our communities.
Michael Phillips 54:23
Yes, it’s hard to become what you never see. But it’s very easy to become what you’re always exposed to. And because I never saw anything different, it was easy for me to go and do those things. And I was exposed to that more than I was exposed to more positive things. And because I didn’t know what to do with my pain, I transmitted it rather than transforming it.
Latasha Morrison 55:00
So what do you think, like, so you get this second chance, you get caught. I guess if they looked, you probably didn’t have a record. So you didn’t have a record or anything.
Michael Phillips 55:14
So here’s the calculus here. When they raided everything, they raided my mother’s house. That to this day, I still tear up when I talk about that because I know I broke her heart. And I fled. I had a strategy to escape. And my plan was to flee to Cuba. The problem was that this was federal. So there was no way I was going to be able to fly. So I decided to drive to Miami. And I was going to get a boat to Cuba. On my way to Miami I got as far as Richmond, Virginia. So this is the same day of the raid, same day everything shut down, same day my friend got shot. The same day. And me and my partner decided, I called him and I said, “What’s going on?” He told me what was happening. And he said, let’s get out of dodge and we’ll regroup later. I said, “That’s fine.” I went to my job, I always had a job, that’s cover. Then I went to my job and got my stash cash from there and got in my car and started heading south. My mother calls me on the Nextel two way that I gave her. So this is how far we’re going back.
Latasha Morrison 56:55
Yeah, I know Nextel. (laughter)
Michael Phillips 56:58
Right. (laughter) So this like 1993. So my mother hits me on this Nextel two way and just said, “Baby, whatever you’re facing, we can face together, come on back home.” And I said, “When I get off this two way, I’ll talk to you later.” And that was it. I get back in my car to continue to head south. And I pull over on the side of the road. And I said to myself, “You can’t run from this. You need to go and face it because you don’t have a record. There’s nothing violent that’s been done. What’s the worst that can happen? Couple years? You can recover from that.” That was my calculus. I happened to be, this was a very, very busy intersection on 95 south. And I happened to be in the complete wrong lane. But I needed to make a right turn. And so that was the day I discovered wrong lanes have right turns. So I turned around in my car and I go back and I turned myself in. I called my attorney and he said, “Turn yourself in over the weekend.” He told me where to go. I went to Howard County Detention Center, which is like a cream puff low prison. And I thought I was being cute. I thought I was going to work this system and make it work. And when I turned myself in, the feds came the next day and transferred me to a federal penitentiary that was not cream puff. (laughter) I was 18. I was 18. And they put me in a 23/7 cell, which means you can only come out yourself an hour a day. Just you in there. One little window that was you know very high up, so a little bit of light coming into the room. And you’ll never forget the sound of the jail door closing. And it’s eerie and it echoes, but in the echo I could hear all of the voices of my aunts and my grandmothers and all of the people who sacrificed. And I felt like such a betrayer to them. And, so I didn’t feel sorry for myself, I just felt like a betrayer. And I didn’t pray to God to get me out. I didn’t do none of that. I accepted whatever was going to be. And when they told me that this was a RICO charge, racketeering influence, corruption. This is a charge they give to mob bosses and major drug cartels. Minimum 30 years. And that was the charge. And I wound up doing six months. I didn’t kill nobody. I didn’t kill nobody. I didn’t rob nobody. I didn’t steal from anyone. I just set up an illegal enterprise. And I thought in a weird and sedistic way, I thought I was helping people. Because the reason why our block was so, so impactful, so hot to that area was because nothing ever went down over there. It was just an open air drug market. And everybody was slaying. And to me, it was helping people with their pain.
Latasha Morrison 1:01:31
Wow. That’s such a skewed view. But like, that’s the, I mean, if you look at some of the mentality today, people feel like this is the only way I can help my people or my community or myself. You know? That’s definitely an ideology that people have, you know. And so I mean, when I hear that charge, I didn’t know what it stood for. But it sound real bad, you know? And how in the world like… now this is when I know the grace of God comes in where all the praying from your ancestors that stepped in and intervened on your behalf to get a judge.
Michael Phillips 1:02:27
Let me tell you. On a Sunday, this is one of those moments where God just winks at you. Nothing happens in the criminal justice system on a Sunday. They come and get me out of my cell on a Sunday. And really I’m terrified because I think I’m about to catch a beating from one of these guards. Because they’re not telling me nothing. And mostly everybody left me alone; I was in isolation. And I was in there for six months of what’s called pretrial detention. So that means I wasn’t officially charged yet.
Latasha Morrison 1:03:16
But you were in jail for six months but you weren’t officially charged?
Michael Phillips 1:03:19
Six months. That’s right. That’s right.
Latasha Morrison 1:03:21
In a federal prison.
Tandria Potts 1:03:25
Wow, incredible insights. Don’t go anywhere. We’re gonna pause for a quick moment, and we’ll be right back.
[Latasha Morrison sharing an ad for BetterHelp] This podcast is sponsored by BetterHelp online therapy. A lot of us will drop anything to go help someone we care about. We’ll go out of our way to treat other people well, but how often do we give ourselves the same treatment? Are we looking out for our personal selves? Do we invest in ourselves? And there’s ways that you can invest in yourself through therapy, coaching, self care, listening to your own body, working out. These are ways that we take care of ourselves. So this month, BetterHelp online therapy wants to remind you that you matter just as much as everyone else does. And therapy is a great way to make sure that you show up for yourself. Just like we do checkups, sometimes we need to do check ins with our therapist. And I find this very helpful and I find this is an outlet for myself personally. BetterHelp is an online therapy that offers video, phone, and even live chat sessions with your therapist. So you don’t have to see anyone on camera if you don’t want to. They make it easy for us; they take out the awkward. It’s much more affordable than in person therapy. And you can be matched with a therapist in under 48 hours. Talk about even saving gas by doing it online. Give it a try and see why over 2 million people have used BetterHelp online therapy. This podcast is sponsored by BetterHelp. And Be the Bridge listeners get 10% off their first month at BetterHelp.com/BeTheBridge. That’s B E T T E R H E L P.com/BeTheBridge. So make sure you remember to take care of yourself. In the midst of all your busyness take time out for you.
Tandria Potts 1:05:31
Thanks for staying with us. Let’s get back to our conversation.
Michael Phillips 1:05:35
So if you’re denied bail, or if you cannot post bail, which was in my case, because they set the bail so high. I wind up having to spend that time in prison until the beginning of my trial. So six months I’m sitting in there. And on a Sunday, they come and get me out and put me in a van. I’m asking 80 million questions because I’m like, “Where are we going? What’s going on?” And they’re not saying nothing. We drive down to Baltimore, to the federal building there. And they take me to the judge’s chambers. And sit me down and it’s my attorney, it’s the prosecutor, it’s another gentleman that I didn’t know at the time. And then finally, the judge walks in. What’s interesting about the judge is that he had no nameplate on his desk. No, it didn’t say the honorable, you know, so, so, such and such, and so forth. I found that peculiar. And also another God wink. And when he sat down, it wasn’t a long conversation. He said, “Son, would you like to go to jail? Or would you like to go to school?” And I said, “I would love to go to school.” And he said, “These gentlemen and myself have decided to put you in a program called Give Me a Chance. This gentleman, the gentleman that I didn’t know at the time, his name is Bill Owens, had a program and a partnership with Oral Roberts University. And they court ordered me to go to Oral Roberts University in this program to go on. And the judge didn’t berate me, he didn’t belittle me. He simply said that this was an opportunity of a lifetime. And whatever I’ve done in my past, needs to remain in my past. Because really, my future is in my hands. And that was it. And I was released.
Latasha Morrison 1:08:18
I would have ran out of there so fast. Oh my goodness. (laughter) Wow. Wow. So like, but one of the key things I hear, you know, you had a lawyer, and so many people are unable to find, to pay for a lawyer. They have a court appointed lawyer, which the backlog of cases and how they can give attention to those cases, so many people fall through the cracks. I mean, you look at Kalief Baldwin, up in, Browder, I think it’s Browder, up in New York. This 16 year old kid that was allegedly accused of taking a backpack, which he didn’t have the backpack on him, you know. Who said he took the backpack? But he was arrested and sent to like, state prison, I think. And was in there for like over a year before anyone would, because he couldn’t make bail. You know? And I mean, not even, he wasn’t even guilty. No guilty sentence and spending time. And I mean, there’s so many broken parts of the system and until you are engaged with the system to understand how broken it is, I think we sit back and we think there’s liberty and justice for all. But you know, it’s kind of like that thing where money gives you opportunity and access and when you are below that poverty line and when your skin isn’t the right color, that access and those opportunities come far and few between. I know, right, the case that you’re talking about, just for that to happen, that is like a miracle. You experienced a miracle.
Michael Phillips 1:10:18
Latasha Morrison 1:10:19
Looking at 30 years, looking at 30 years, no priors. You know, the type of charges, building a whole like empire, basically, in 18 months. And for the judge, for that all that to be going on behind the scenes, oh my goodness.
Michael Phillips 1:10:40
It’s an incredible thing. And I’m gonna tell you some funny about that in a second. But, you know, 2.3 million people are incarcerated in the US. Okay? And 74% of them that are held in jail, are not convicted of a crime yet. See, I wasn’t convicted of a crime yet. But I remained detained due to the desperate nature of our criminal justice system, and the bail system. So the jail term that we’re experiencing in our country is catastrophic. Because of that backlog that you talked about, and the young man in New York who, you know, didn’t have the proper representation, you know, due process is a loose thing. Because if you check the boxes, okay, then they can say that you’ve been processed properly. But to not have proper representation, that young boy should have never, ever been in jail that long.
Latasha Morrison 1:11:58
The bail system, and I think that’s something that those of you who are listening, that’s something you really need to really investigate and do some, just some studying about our bail system. Because a lot of us, we’re isolated and insulated from the judicial system. If you’ve never had to deal with it with a child or a family member or personally, you don’t really understand how it works, you just think is working. But anyone that has had to deal with this through themselves or a family member, you can see the layers of injustices and systemic racism, that’s baked into the system. You know?
Michael Phillips 1:12:43
Baked into the cake.
Latasha Morrison 1:12:45
Yeah, but there is a way forward. And, Michael, you know, just like with you, you know, like, there was a program that you were allowed to enter into to go to college. I think that is some of the things that we need to think about. I know, a friend of mine, she was doing some work here in Atlanta. And she was working with a school, it was the school, the community, and churches. So it’s like these, all these separate organizations, organisms that were working together for the betterment of the community through the school. And so, and it wasn’t just about, you know, giving supplies and needs to the school, a lot of people do that. Give supplies and needs to the school. But when you start looking at, okay, what are the issues like, you know, that is happening at the school? What is happening to the students? And so they realized that, you know, there’s a lot of single parent family homes, they’re in a transitional community. And, you know, and so their parents are like, moving in and out of these apartment complexes. And then some of the students, English was not their first language. And so one of the ways to solve it was that they came up with a program, an after school program that was going to be free, that would help the kids with their homework, make sure the kids got their work. So this person that was over it was going to be paid to run this program, and to have an assistant to help these kids with their work, to tutor them, and then to also help them pass the standardized testing. And that’s a whole nother podcast in and of itself, just the systemic issues that’s baked into standardized testing. And just even with that, how that improved the school’s scores, how that improved the children’s confidence, provided them this safe place where they were going get a snack or a meal. Programs like that they do work. And so what do you think some of the solutions are to some of the problems that we’re having, especially with our issues of mass incarceration, where we’re just throwing kids away at the age of 13, 12, 14. You know, you mess up and you will be punished for life for something that you did when you were 12 or 13 years old.
Michael Phillips 1:15:32
Yeah, so the real issue of systemic plight is the detrimental culture of punishment. Right? That is what we continue to pass down. The solution then, is individuals of goodwill, who want to see a better system, a more equitable system in education and in justice. It can not only happen on the programmatic level, it must also happen on the political level, because it requires policy often to have some of these programs that are working. So the first solution is for individuals of goodwill to become critically conscious and aware. That’s the first place, let’s be aware. Let’s be aware that we’re not just complaining about being treated. That this is inherent in the DNA of our society. It was built by the systems that…and I’ll talk about it this way, the systems that we’re talking about that we call broken are not necessarily broken. They were actually just built by broken people. Let’s take education, for example. Okay, the architect of the education system in America was Horace Mann. He’s one of the architects. His fear was that the Catholic Church was going to dominate the system of education because America in 1800 had no education system itself. Public education was not a thing. It was something for elite families. Okay? So Horace Mann, who was a politician decided, if we don’t do something about a system of education, then the Catholic Church is going to run the country. So this was an issue between a Protestant and the Catholic system. Irish Catholics were coming over in droves at that time. So out of fear, he developed a system of education that he got from a German model that was producing citizens that could do repetitive tasks to serve the elite. And so it was built from a compulsory model and created from a caste system that funnel in tight people through it, that learn how to memorize repetitive things, so that they can get industrial jobs. That’s what it was built to do. So it’s one size fits all. It’s not personalized, you’re going to come out and have these disciplines. So instead of giving you education, we’re going to give you knowledge. Okay? So that’s how it was built. The inequity racially, that was built into it, is that Horace Mann wasn’t thinking about Black and Brown people.
Latasha Morrison 1:19:55
Right, we got to go back to the beginning. That’s what we tell our community all the time. You got to go back to the beginning.
Michael Phillips 1:20:02
You gotta go to the root of it. So this is the root of our system that still exists today. Which is why we had to fight for education, we had to get Brown versus Board of Education. We, you know, we, I could go on and on about it, but you have to become aware of why things are the way that they are because of flawed person designed. Now, if that’s the case, then we can reimagine it.
Latasha Morrison 1:20:36
And let’s, I I know we have to go. But I want to, you know, one of the things with bridge builders is our first step in our process of Be the Bridge is that of awareness and acknowledgement. And so like, what you’re saying, just we have to be aware. And then, you know, but I think the other thing when we practice that work of reconciliation – how do we reimagine? How do we reconstruct? How do we reorder things? How do we bring about restitution, restoration in that? And so I think, when you talk about reimagine, how do we reimagine? Because I don’t think we dream. Like sometimes we say we want it to change, but what do we want it to change into? So what is something that you feel like, maybe two or three things that we can do to reimagine this system?
Michael Phillips 1:21:36
The first thing we need to do is understand that we are not powerless. That individual action has always developed systems. Okay? And if that’s the case, then we can collectively take action as individuals, come together to say, “We want to see an education system that’s personalized and that’s plural.” So what I mean by that is personalized meaning education that works for every child. Therefore, it has to be plural, meaning that we have to get away from these labels of if we’re just talking about education, these labels of what schools are and what they are not. So for example, what the pandemic uncovered was the prepandemic inequities that always existed. It’s just that now more white parents were able to see that education ain’t working for their kids either. Okay? So when they had to do remote learning, and found out that they didn’t have all the resources and tools that they needed, they got a little bit of insight into what it’s like normally for a lot of families. Families who were affluent were able to hire tutors, and build micro schools, and pool their resources together to bring the kids and their neighborhood into a house and hire a teacher and give the children what they needed, so that they didn’t suffer severe learning loss. But if you didn’t have those resources and tools, you couldn’t do that. So that being said, if I can take it to a scriptural context, Jeremiah asked the question, he said, “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then is there no healing for the wound of my people?” And he said, because of their unbelief, he couldn’t do any miracles there. We have to believe that it is possible to have a system of education and a system of justice that is designed around restoration and not retribution, that is equitable for all, that serves all because it is possible. And we, to answer Jeremiah’s question, are that balm and we know the Physician. So those of us who claim Christ, know the healer, and we have to then participate in the solutions whether we advocate, whether we become that voice for a young child that we see in our community that doesn’t have the proper support. It doesn’t take a whole lot. It just takes us to realize we are that solution.
Latasha Morrison 1:25:20
So good. And I think, you know, I love…a part of our trainings we do, we have people to reimagine systems. How would this system look like if it is restored? Where we’re leading with restoration rather than retribution? Like what could that look like and I mean, let me tell you the things that people come up with, I mean, we have the answers. You know? It’s easy to come up with the solution. But you know, like you said, it takes policy to change these things. And if people can get out of their own ways, and if we’re not driven by, you know, by greed the world can be much better.
Michael Phillips 1:26:14
And I know we’ve probably been on too long. But can I say that for somebody to win doesn’t mean you have to lose.
Latasha Morrison 1:26:22
Exactly. For someone to, to create a space doesn’t mean that a space is being denied for you.
Michael Phillips 1:26:30
Latasha Morrison 1:26:32
Yeah, but people don’t really understand what restoration and reconciliation is. And if anyone should understand it’s the people of God, it’s the people of faith. And we act like we have amnesia, like it doesn’t apply in these scenarios. You know? And so those are the things that we have to get people to understand. But two questions that I was ask my guests is, what are you lamenting right now? What is something like…because we want our community to understand how lament leads us to justice, it leads us towards restoration. When we cry out to God, when we’re pleading to God, when we’re asking God to move and move on our behalf. What are some things that you know, related to this that you’re lamenting about?
Michael Phillips 1:27:27
So I wrote this piece, called The Spirit of Justice. And I wrote it to the church. I think it was in Church Growth Magazine or something like that, or Charisma, or one of those. I’m lamenting that the concept of justice has not become attractive to the universal Church of Jesus Christ. It grieves me that we have such a divide over a statement, Black Lives Matter. When it’s Heart Awareness Month, cancer awareness people don’t say, “Forget about the heart.” We’re saying that the lungs matter and the heart matters and people who are battling cancer certainly matter. And to say that our lives matter should not grieve you as a Christian. And if it does, you really have to question have you embraced the spirit of justice. And I call it the spirit of justice, because I’m referencing the Holy Spirit. So I lament the fact that the church has become so divided, because I think the word become shouldn’t even be there. It’s just that we have always been divided over trivial issues because we tie our Christianity sometimes to our politics. And that is not scripture. And so, those tears that I shared for the Church, because I love the Church of Jesus Christ. I love God’s people of all colors, races, backgrounds, and genders. And if we could wake up, then perhaps the world that we see in chaos, would that not be in chaos.
Latasha Morrison 1:30:10
So much spiritual blindness and darkness where it feels like people can’t even hear and they can’t even see. It’s like, we’re not even seeing each other. Just the things that we think is the Spirit of God. It’s like, people are confused about that. You know how you read in Scripture, and you’re like, even the elite will be confused. You know? And to the point where you read that, and you’re like, oh, people, you know that you don’t realize the truth. But when you’re looking at scripture, and you’re seeing, like, even the people that should have known and recognized Jesus, didn’t know and recognize Jesus to the point of persecution and death. And so, that is scary. You know? So what are some things now that are bringing you hope?
Michael Phillips 1:31:09
The things that are bringing me hope is there’s a generation that is crying out, and that seeks the change. And the power in them is that they’re not seekers of God. They let God be seekers of them. I think it’s very important to understand that. Because the generation that’s coming up now, don’t hide from nothing. When they say they keep it 100, they keep it 100 (laughter). And I’m like, “Why you have all your business like that on social media?” But that’s a gift, because they are allowing God to meet them in some dark places right where they are. And they’re not afraid as we were. And they’re not as divisive as we were. And I think there’s hope in that generational movement that’s coming, that’s here. They’re not next, they’re now. And I’ve seen the emergence of this new thing that’s being birthed in the Church. The shaking that that we’re all experiencing right now, it’s not a negative thing. It’s actually God causing us to have divine leaps into new reformations of change in power, because that’s what’s going to be needed in the world that exists today. And so that gives me a lot of hope.
Latasha Morrison 1:33:03
Yeah, that’s good. That’s, you know, that’s what I tell people we can lament, and even in the midst of our lament, there is hope. We lament because there is hope. You know? And I think that’s, you know, people understanding those tensions, where we can talk about the ugliness of things, but still believe God to create beauty from ashes. And I think so many people don’t understand that. So I like to ask those questions where, you know, we are lamenting some heavy things. There is a lot that’s fractured, there’s a lot that is messed up. But ultimately, you know, and I can hear you saying this, like, my hope isn’t in people, but my hope is in the God that we serve. And so clinging to those things, I think that is the strength of this. So I’m so grateful for your words, I’m grateful for your book, I’m grateful that you’re telling your story that’s gonna help other people. And prayerfully those people who are in power, lawyers that would read your book, judges that would read your book, would think about that the next time some young person that has made some wrong decisions, but there’s so much potential there that they will see the potential in them. Because you went on to college, you graduated, you’re pastoring, you’re leading. You have two beautiful children, a son that went to Harvard. Just think things that could have, 30 years in jail, you would still be in jail first of all.
Michael Phillips 1:34:53
I’d just be getting out.
Latasha Morrison 1:34:52
Just be getting out. And your son wouldn’t even exist. He wouldn’t even be here. You know? So, I mean, just think about that. Just sometimes the opportunities. And I think, you know, we have people of peace in those those spaces. So I pray, people would would look at others as image bearers and through their heart and not through their biases, unconsciously and consciously. So, I’m so grateful for your voice, I’m so grateful, you know, for you sharing your story with our Be the Bridge community. And, you know, I hope this really takes root because we need solutions. And there are people like yourself that are writing books, that are bringing about awareness, that are causing us to reimagine. There are answers out there. People have answers. Sometimes we, it’s kind of like the institution of slavery where they didn’t even see any way out of it. There is a way out of this mess that we’ve created. There is a way forward in this mess that we’ve created. And books like this, you know, begin that pathway. So the book is Wrong Lanes Have Right Turns: A Pardoned Man’s Escape from the School-to-Prison Pipeline and What We Can Do to Dismantle It. Get that. Make yourself aware. Pass it on to others. Thank you so much for joining us.
Michael Phillips 1:36:29
It’s been an absolute pleasure.
Latasha Morrison 1:36:29
And thank you so much for listening to the Be the Bridge podcast.
Tandria Potts 1:36:36
Go to the donors table if you’d like to hear the unedited version of this podcast.
Thanks for listening to the Be the Bridge podcast. To find out more about the Be the Bridge organization and or to become a bridge builder in your community, go to BeTheBridge.com. Again, that’s BeTheBridge.com. If you enjoyed this podcast, remember to rate and review it on this platform and share it with as many people as you possibly can. You can also connect with us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Today’s show was edited, recorded, and produced by Travon Potts at Integrated Entertainment Studios in Metro Atlanta, Georgia. The host and executive producer is Latasha Morrison. Lauren C. Brown is the senior producer. And transcribed by Sarah Connatser. Please join us next time. This has been at Be the Bridge production
Transcribed by https://otter.ai