Hearing Untold Stories for Change with Neil Phillips
May 11, 2021
Hearing Untold Stories for Change with Neil Phillips

When was the last time you turned on the television and heard more stories about Black male success than you heard about the low expectations, racial bias, and economic stigma that affect Black boys and men in our country? 

With the prevalence of misinformation, racial inequity, and economic bias permeating our society, how will we ensure our boys are not lost to cultural stigma before they have a chance at success?

Today on the podcast, I’m speaking with Neil Phillips, co-founder and former CEO of Visible Men Academy. VMA provides boys from low-income families with outstanding academic, character, and social education in a nurturing school environment. Neil’s work confronts systemic bias and inequity with a deep belief in goodness, love, and the promise of youth as agents of change for our educational systems and our world.

Listen in!


About Neil Phillips:

Neil Phillips believes that love is the answer to just about everything. If that makes you uncomfortable, that’s okay. Discomfort signals an opportunity for growth. Neil has spent his entire career managing his own discomfort and diving deeply into the realm of breaking the bonds of systemic racism and having the uncomfortable yet productive conversations that can radically change organizations and individual lives. Neil also knows what it takes to truly transform and elevate the lives of young people and has discovered that it is love. 

On a practical level, it looks a lot like leadership, encouragement, boundaries, expectations, and accountability. But ask any one of the children he has had the privilege of knowing over his decades of work as an educator, coach, and youth advocate, and they will tell you that Neil Phillips loves them and was never afraid to say it or show it. Love has made all the difference.

Neil is a Harvard University graduate, and his life is dedicated to the elevation of Black male achievement, fulfillment, and societal contribution. Through an emphasis on what is working for Black boys and men in America, Neil shines a spotlight on what success looks like and shifts the narrative away from the misleading and harmful stereotypes that have plagued and repressed Black male achievement for far too long. He educates audiences around what is working for Black boys and men in America rather than what is failing. 

Neil is the co-founder, founding principal, and former CEO of Visible Men Academy, an “A” rated public charter school for K-5th grade located in Bradenton, Florida. It provides boys from low-income families with outstanding academic, character, and social education in a nurturing school environment. Neil is the founder and director of Visible Men Network, a dynamic digital platform that collects and shares stories from accomplished Black men, shapes these stories into success curriculum, and delivers this curriculum to boys across America through schools and community agencies.

Neil is an Aspen Institute Education Entrepreneurship Fellow, a member of the inaugural Echoing Green/Open Society Foundation Black Male Achievement Fellowship. He is a multiple-time winner of The Nantucket Project Audience Award for his provocative talk on race in America called “Race to Truth,” for his compelling on-stage conversation with famed television producer Norman Lear and, most recently, for his on-stage conversation with former President George W. Bush. Currently, Neil is the subject of a documentary film project titled Visible Man, highlighting his efforts to elevate Black boys and men in America. 

Learn more at Visible Men Network, or follow Neil on Facebook or Instagram.


Jump Through the Conversation

  • [2:12] Transcending the systemic racism and brokenness in schools
  • [5:07] Serving marginalized youth through the Visible Men Academy
  • [12:30] Examining the role of love in serving our youth and transforming our schools
  • [16:20] Getting past negative mental models to address systemic racism
  • [19:23] Struggles and roadblocks to elevating the system beyond bias
  • [26:52] Visible Men documentary elevating Black boys and men in America
  • [42:08] Neil’s Magic Wand: Create an unwavering belief in our students’ strength, capacity, and ability to give so that they would know the value of their contribution—to themselves, our families, and our world
  • [45:18] Maureen’s Take-Aways


Links and Resources:

Thanks for listening! Don’t forget to subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Android. If you like what you heard, please leave a review on iTunes and share what you liked about the show.



Maureen O’Shaughnessy  0:03  

Hello fellow parents and educators. Thank you for joining me at education evolution, where we are disrupting the status quo in today’s learning models. We talk about present day education, what’s broken, who’s fixing it and how. I’m Dr. Maureen O’Shaughnessy, your host and founder of education, evolution and the micro school coalition, where we are fiercely Committed to changing the narrative, to reimagining the education landscape, and creating learning that serves all children, and prepares them to thrive. If you are new, welcome to the podcast, please subscribe on our website to get it delivered to your inbox weekly. If you’ve been around a while, have you left a review?


Maureen O’Shaughnessy  1:09  

Neil, it is so good to have you on education evolution today.


Neil Phillips  1:14  

It is a pleasure and an honor to join you. Thank you.


Maureen O’Shaughnessy  1:18  

And listeners. Today I’m chatting with Neil Phillips, Neil is dedicated his life to the elevation of Black male achievement, fulfillment and societal contribution. His long list of achievements include co founding and being the inaugural CEO and principal of the visible men Academy elementary for low income boys and founder and director of visible men network, please check out our show notes for the full bio, including his onstage conversations with famous leaders.


Neil Phillips  1:54  

Your kind, thank you.


Maureen O’Shaughnessy  1:58  

And let’s hear from you, Neil, on how you make this vision happen.


Neil Phillips  2:04  

I look forward. I love talking about it. And I’m grateful for your interest.


Maureen O’Shaughnessy  2:08  

Yes, yes. And I really feel like so many folks get stuck stuck on what is broken, both in terms of systemic racism and our schools and stuck kind of as this negative spiral, it doesn’t do much. So tell us the lens you use to address these huge problems? 


Neil Phillips  2:30  

Yeah, so I appreciate that question. Let me first say that I can understand how people get stuck. I really can. And there are times where I feel that that same kind of paralysis. And those times tend to be when, when the reality of the complexity of, of our circumstances, overwhelm me, right? When I think about Wow, to create a better world to create the right kind of educational environments for these kids. And to have that happen at a scale and a level at which, you know, millions of kids are positively affected. So families and communities are positively affected. Like when you think about all that has to go into that it can be overwhelming. And when we’re overwhelmed, one of the options is paralysis. And so I can understand that. For me, what I then need to do is do just the opposite. I’ve got to simplify. And I have to consider a small number of kind of emotional and psychological drivers. And one of those, for me is always my great belief in the power of humanity, individual and collective, I just believe, I believe the good in people, and I know that, that we have bad in us, but I firmly believe that and I’ve been witness to that the good in US can always defeat and and usually overwhelm the bad in us if we mobilize and if we mobilize with our hearts and when I kind of consider that as the backdrop and then I consider these gems with which we’ve all been gifted, which are children. And I think about their miraculousness and their capacity and their potential. I put those two things together and that’s the simplicity I need to not stay still to mobilize because that’s immensely inspiring to me.


Maureen O’Shaughnessy  4:59  

Absolutely. Absolutely. Yes, thank goodness for our kids and for wanting more for them. And I think you and I both have had a vision for learning that better serves marginalized youth. And then you and I have both taken the steep climb to create and lead a school to do something to address our concerns.


Maureen O’Shaughnessy  5:22  

So tell us about the Visible Men Academy.


Neil Phillips  5:25  

Yeah, so Visible Men Academy VMA. Gosh, since the ninth school year? Wow. Yeah, we started in 2013. And it’s an all-boys kindergarten through a fifth-grade charter school, in Bradenton, Florida. And, you know, we’ve got around 100 kids, sometimes we’ve been lower than that. And sometimes we’ve been more than that. But we were around 100 kids. And, you know, I really want to emphasize a couple of things. Our boys are just amazing. Our boys represent this segment, of our communities that are the lowest-performing academically in terms of test scores, their most prominent in disciplinary transgressions, and in disciplinary responses. You know, every positive and favorable educational statistic, you know, our boys come in last, and they come in first and the negative ones. And it’s, when I say our boys, I mean in the larger context, and so VMA exists, to tell a very different story about the prospects for these boys. And we just, we don’t accept that. The fate of boys for low-income family backgrounds, mostly boys of color, but not exclusively, mostly Black boys. But again, VMA serves boys of Hispanic background, and we have white boys as well and Asian boys, the commonality is poverty. And when we look and see, we look around us in society. And we see so many men who have grown up in difficult circumstances, families in poverty. Maybe both parents aren’t in the home, maybe they’ve got to deal with incarceration and their family. Just a lot of challenges. And we see how many men have gone that path and found success and accomplishment and contribution in our country, and in their communities. We know that that path can be traveled, and we want to set young boys on that path. And that’s what the visible men concept is about is shining the light on the men who have traveled this path and who can and are so influential on the boys who are yet to walk that path.


Maureen O’Shaughnessy  8:16  

I love that. And we know how important the story is. And we know how great of a source of misinformation can be when a tiny story is magnified. And big stories don’t get the spotlight shined on them. So what you’re doing by countering some tiny pieces of misinformation with true wonderful success stories. It’s so important because if we don’t have stories if we don’t know what’s possible, it’s so much harder to take that path. And so this ties into a visible men network as well. Right? know,


Neil Phillips  8:57  

That’s That’s right. So, the plan all along has been to maximize impact, right, we want to have a positive impact on as many boys as we can. And as many cities and towns across our country as possible, impacting boys and families and communities that will never meet. But who is inspired by this philosophy, this notion of telling the untold story of Black male success? And you know, the network exists to do that right to say we’ve had experiences in the classroom on a school campus that we’ve seen our boys growing their character, expanding their academic performance, elevating their confidence in who they can be just skyrocketing and their hunger for environments that expect more of them than our typical institutions do, I think that’s one of the biggest problems is this issue of low expectations. And we’re seeing our boys thrive, and demand environments have high expectations. And so we’ve seen how that works in a school environment, and the network exists to try to broadcast and amplify those discoveries tell this story far beyond the school campus far beyond, you know, walls and rooms with a certain number of teachers and a certain number of boys, we want to get to as many boys as possible. And we think that, you know, using a digital platform to continue to share these stories, can impact lives in a different way than then enduring, you know, experiencing an on-campus school situation. So that’s, that’s what the network is designed to do. And we’re in the early stages of putting this together and building a platform and figuring out how we collect stories and how we share those stories and one day how we shape insights from these visible men into an actual curriculum that can be shared with boys and teachers, educators, and after school program coordinators so that they can engage in the content beyond just reading these wonderful stories.


Maureen O’Shaughnessy  11:17  

Wow, what a huge and important undertaking, Neil, I’m so impressed. 


Neil Phillips  11:23  

Thank you. Thank you very much. And I, you’re great to say that, and I, you know that this is a calling for me. And the thing I have to say is, it’s not just me, I mean, you know that this woman would be nothing, if not for my wife, Shannon, who has, you know, part of the founding belief and concept of this philosophy and who works so tired tirelessly to help make it a reality. And, you know, other founding members and community of donors and advocates and volunteers, and incredible staff, of teachers and school staff members and administrators, I mean, this is that that’s the reality of this is people have come to embrace our approach, and support it in ways and invest themselves in ways. So you know, there’s no visible men without the broad community of supporters.


Maureen O’Shaughnessy  12:23  

What a wonderful village.


Neil Phillips  12:25  

Oh, yeah, definitely.


Maureen O’Shaughnessy  12:28  

I want to talk a little bit about vulnerability because it is so hard. My micro-school is based on love and belonging. But that L Word seems to make so many folks really uncomfortable. And myself sometimes when I’m saying I’m doing this student because I love you. And I know you’re capable. I kind of go up a little when I say that, but I say it because I mean it. So talk to me about the role of love in serving our youth and transforming our schools.


Neil Phillips  12:58  

Yeah, gosh, I mean, I love that question. And I love the way you framed it. And, frankly, love is the most important element of this period. It’s that simple. Love is care. Love is devotion. And love is a tireless effort to help to elevate. And that’s what this is all about is it’s all centered in love. And those who you love, you’ll do everything in your power to not let them be anything less than you know they can be. That’s part and parcel with love. And so I think love is the driving concept of all of this. And, you know, I do think it is a truth that for some odd reason, we have to be cautious about our expression of love as a motivator in this we have to sometimes be apologetic, we get that feeling like you’re describing of Oh, can I save this? Can I use that? When we don’t have to ask ourselves those same questions about the many negative sorts of sentiments or expressions that we share every day. I just don’t understand why it is. But that’s part of what reform looks like. That’s part of what transformation looks like is embracing love as the driver and being unapologetic about it.


Maureen O’Shaughnessy  14:37  

I agree and I think it’s almost this secret ingredient that the powers that be don’t want people to tap into because it’s so gigantic and unstoppable. So they want us to buy into other stories. So it’s like oh, no, don’t let that L Word come in. Because then I have no power and…


Neil Phillips  14:57  

Yeah, yeah, I think you’re right about that. I, I just I know how children respond, I know how we all do, but certainly, you can see it in children when the safety of knowing that you are loved. What that enables, and it, it puts you in a position to challenge kids to be at their best to hold them to high standards. Because when you have established that pipeline that is rooted in love and a child understanding that you as a caring adult, feel that for them, it provides you right the territory, it enables you to reach that territory where you can impact. And you know, so many of the kids that we work with coming to a DMA, for instance, they come to us, so far behind grade level in reading and math, and so you’ve got to play some serious catch-up. And in order to do that a pipeline has to be present in that pipeline is the most effective is love.


Maureen O’Shaughnessy  16:11  

Yes, gotta have those relationships before any of the rest is gonna take place. I agree. Um, there’s so much discomfort in questioning our institutions, especially looking at systemic racism. Neil, what have you found that helps keep it real and gets yourself and others past negative mental models like denial, fear, blame? How do you get past that discomfort?


Neil Phillips  16:38  

Yeah. Another great question, why did it it’s not easy, because those aspects of our society, and in some cases, those negative dimensions of, of how we manifest ourselves as human beings, they, they’re powerful, because of the pain that they cause of the debilitating kind of marginalization and dehumanization like that. That’s a weight, and it’s a weight that can really, really restrain you. And so how I get past it, and how I try to encourage those key members and mission partners is that I have seen the power of individual conviction, dedication, commitment. And so even amidst those challenging and often debilitating sentiments, that climate, we have the power to overcome, to endure and overcome through an individual agency, with support from those around us with a developing an enhanced ability to recognize opportunities. I just believe in the power of agency. And I believe that when we commit to enduring and overcoming that, that we can do that. And that doesn’t say, it’s not to say we’re not going to have setbacks. It’s not to say that the path to breaking through is a linear one that’s always climbing. It’s absolutely not right, there are those setbacks and they’re those, you know, peaks and valleys. But I do believe because I’ve just seen it all around me. That individual agency can overcome and endure a whole lot. And through that process of enduring and overcoming you build confidence and resolve, which then leads to the best of who we are. And I see that in our boys. I see that in our kids everywhere.


Maureen O’Shaughnessy  19:09  

I’m curious, as you’re talking about this overcoming I think some people see the school you created, see the success and they’re like, yeah, yeah, but what are some of the obstacles and roadblocks that you’ve encountered? Because I think it’s easy to put people that have success on a pedestal. And chances are you’ve encountered some things that others are really going to resonate with.


Neil Phillips  19:34  

Oh my gosh, and continue to encounter. Continue to encounter as I sit here and talk with you. It’s this is really hard work. You know, adopting and embracing an idea that we can be better as a nation in terms of how we educate all of our children. Then acting on it is really hard work. And it takes to resolve. It takes commitment and dedication and devotion. And it takes a recognition that you’re going to stumble. And when you do, you’ve got to rely on that resolve. And while learning from your mistakes and figuring out how to improve, you know, our first two testing years at visible men Academy on the Florida state assessment, we received f grades, didn’t have enough of our boys receiving passing grades in reading and math, to earn a passing, quote, unquote, school grade, don’t get me started on that term. But I hear a phrase. But and so that was really difficult. You know, it wasn’t entirely surprising, given what we knew we were receiving when our boys started with us. But it was really difficult. And what we hung on to was, we knew our boys were making progress, we knew that we just had a feeling of it, we also had tangible measures of their growth academically and proficiency levels. And we saw how their character development was causing them to build confidence that they were going to need to improve their academic performance. So it’s all related. And you know, it was at that time where, you know, the challenge could have been out there. And it was in some cases, gosh, you guys focus so much on character development, character development, should you be focusing more on academics. And it’s all here. 


Neil Phillips  21:49  

Second, we believe that enhanced character development is focusing on academics, right? It’s resilience, it’s toughness, it’s work ethic, it’s all of these things. And so, we stayed our course. And you know, then we’re in the C grade. And it’s really hard to jump to letter grades. And, you know, we received recognition from, you know, the then governor of Florida, for just how significant our improvement was, and, and then the following year, we received an A grade. And you know, that to climb that ladder, in that short period of time, was a testament to so many things. I mean, first of all, our boys’ abilities are incredible teachers and their dedication and their skill, our community of supporters who believed in us and said, yeah, we know you’re struggling now in this way, but we see where this is going. And they stayed with us. And, you know, so we had a bunch of boys that basically 100%, Title One, an all-boys school, earn a grade on state testing. And it was absolutely fabulous. And the grade itself, of course, was a wonderful tangible marker. But it was the process and the faith in the process, and our boys and our families sticking with us and sticking with each other and seeing what they were capable of, and seeing that manifest and come to fruition. That to me is what it takes to, you know, to encounter the challenges and then to move beyond them.


Maureen O’Shaughnessy  23:30  

Yes, yes, I love that you really put the character first I hear business leaders saying are what I’m asking. I’m trying to gather as much information about people’s perspectives on our education system, and they’re like, it’s not working, I’m not gonna let go state tests, but business leaders saying you’re not sending me kids ready for the workforce. So we’ve taught them how to be school-ready. And even these kids that are getting A’s and passing the state tests, they don’t have the character that you’ve talked about, they don’t have the sense of love and belonging and relationship, and somebody sees me and values me, they’ve learned how to memorize and pass tests. But the business world is saying these guys aren’t ready. So for you to acknowledge the whole human being and to teach from that perspective and get the success, you’re actually getting greater success. And a lot of the kids that are getting two A’s from day one, but don’t have the character, the grit, the ability to learn through failure, all of those other really important components.


Neil Phillips  24:30  

Well, and you said it so well, Maureen in it, there’s a lot of wonderful research and you know, great bodies of work around this idea of grit and the importance of it and I always say this a million times to anyone who will listen, you know, if I were to ask you or anyone else who has found success by any measure, you know, to list the top five or six reasons for their success. They would all talk about character development they were talking about aspects of the character that they worked really hard or that when they got knocked down and you had to get back up, or they knew how to accept and to ask for and accept help, and these are all elements of our character, Pythagorean Theorem, or reciting the dates, you know, from how long the war of 1812 last wouldn’t even be on the list yet. we allocate so much time and energy and resource toward the ladder and so little toward the former. When we know the answers, this is not perplexing. And the other thing that I think is really maddening for me, is this isn’t an either-or proposition. I actually believe in testing. Right, I believe in testing. What I don’t believe in is the weight that is placed on testing. I believe that students should learn how to take a test and demonstrate what they know, I think that’s a helpful skill. And I think we should allocate much more time, energy, and resource to the nurturing of character. And those two things work together, right now,


Maureen O’Shaughnessy  26:06  

we are totally imbalanced in one way. And that’s what you’re hearing from those folks who say, I need people who have this innate sense of this, that or the other that has been honed over years. And they’re not seeing that and applying the, you know, whatever grade they got on diagnostic testing, when they were in junior in high school, isn’t getting it done for so many people. No, no, I completely agree. And I will not go down a rant on formative versus summative assessment. But that’s a piece of the puzzle to how do we modify along the way instead of just a post mortem, as some people call it, just saying, but I do want to ask you, you’ve done so much in service to Black men and boys and sharing stories that make their positive contributions visible and helping move us past harmful stereotypes. So I really want you to tell us about the documentary project of features you


Neil Phillips  27:03  

Oh, gosh, Maureen, I didn’t know you were going to so my hope, first of all, is that it doesn’t feature me. I have been adamant about this all along that I am just a team member on, this mission journey. And, you know, it ought not to focus on me. Really, it should be focusing on the men who are out there, again, doing wonderful things with their families, in their professions, and in their communities. Who has led these wonderful lives of success and accomplishment and achievement, through adversity? Right. And through a setback. That’s what the thrust of this project is about is, you know, these are men who are too often invisible. And, you know, back in the day was 1954. You know, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, that that tragic work, beautiful work. But really difficult work in terms of what invisibility can look and feel like that it’s the inspiration for visible men. And we want the opposite. We want the world to know about these men who, through their challenges and weaknesses and setbacks. They endure, and they are great fathers and husbands and community members and professionals and we want the world to know about them. And we want the world to know about them. One just for the story aspect, but more importantly is so that our boys can see that these men exist. And they know they exist on the athletic fields or on the entertainment stage. We need them to know they exist in every facet, every professional realm that there are graphic artists, street science, corporate world legal medicine, you name it. That’s what the documentary will focus on. And I won’t focus on myself if I have anything.


Maureen O’Shaughnessy  29:14  

Wow, impressive, Neil, you’re already doing so much. And the network, the documentary, but I’m curious, is there anything else on your horizon, anything else you’re working on that you might be able to tell us about?


Neil Phillips  29:31  

While I’m working on being a better husband, working on being a better father, a better son. I’m always working on those things. And, you know, hopefully, some days I’m progressing and hopefully, the days that I’m digressing are fewer and fewer. So I’m working on those things and those are a real priority. You know, I’ve stepped away from VMA I no longer have a day-to-day role with the organization. But for me, I’m as committed to seeing the school thrive and, and our boys and families in our team, get all that they need to do the great work that they do. And so, you know, having stepped away, this is a time of reflection for me. Haven’t had that. can remember. And so while I’m considering what’s ahead, and certainly, you know, the network and impacting lives through visible man in whatever form that eventually takes, that’s a priority. And I’m also watching, you know, I have this focus on Black men and boys, but in my heart and soul, my interest in elevating humanity, and celebrating human value goes far beyond Black men and boys, I’m a big believer in celebrating human value, and equity. And I know we have so much work to do as a nation to really sort of realizing the promise. And, you know, become who we say we are, about how we treat one another. And so I want to contribute to that work as well in whatever ways I can. And some of that happens through visible men. But again, you know, I do have an interest beyond the well-being of Black men and boys, that I want to figure out how to impact the world on as well.


Maureen O’Shaughnessy  31:27  

Absolutely, yes. And I’m excited that you’re going to be a part of the active summit, and we’re going to get to hear more from you in June. So that’s a bonus. Well,


Neil Phillips  31:37  

I’m really, really grateful that you thought to include me, and I really look forward to that is a topic that means a lot to me. So I’m grateful for any opportunity.


Maureen O’Shaughnessy  31:47  

Yes. And before we wrap up with my magic wand moment, I love to have the listeners really just kind of get to see behind the scenes. And I just have some turbo time questions for you just some rapid-fire. 


Neil Phillips  32:01  

This sounds fun.


Maureen O’Shaughnessy  32:04  

So what’s the last book you read? 


Neil Phillips  32:07  

Hmm, okay, the last book I read was actually a reread called the Shibumi Strategy. And Shibumi is a Japanese word that I have really, really become attached to. And while it doesn’t have a great direct translation, it has its origin in a sort of Zen Buddhist background. And it refers to like elegant simplicity, right? You know, kind of understated excellence, you know, sort of the beautiful imperfections in our lives that make it so special. And so I’m fascinated by this concept of Shibumi. And so I read that book for the second time, recently. And also last week was the one-year anniversary of my father’s passing, I lost him in April of last year. And so I have started in recent weeks, sort of recalling his bookshelf, the bookshelf that was in our library at home. And so I started reading a couple of books. He was a big spy thriller, mystery reader. And so I’ve gone back I’ve read can fall at the eye of the needle, and oh my gosh, yes. Good classics. Oh, classics. Exactly. So I’ve been enjoying that is that helps me feel close to close to my dad.


Maureen O’Shaughnessy  33:40  

Well, that is sweet. What a neat way to honor your connection with your dad, who are two inspirational folks that you’d love to meet real-world of in history or out of a novel.


Neil Phillips  33:53  

Yeah, so I’ll go off the board here. So the first is Betty Friedan, I think I’m pronouncing her last name correctly. She is the art, author of The Feminine Mystique. And as I consider some of the challenges, you know, stereotypes, pigeonholing, the external limitations that Black men and boys placed on themselves, or are placed on them by society, and the internal limitations that we place on ourselves. I just feel like there are a lot of parallels to the women’s experience in the history of our country. And she wrote a book that really broke through a lot of that and helps to raise people’s awareness and sort of blow the doors open on what and who women could become. And so I’m fascinated by the parallels to the work that I’m doing with her. So Betty Friedan is one After so many and I read so much that I come up with these characters that I’d like to encounter these characters that I’d love to meet. Um, I’ll stick with Betty Friedan for now.


Maureen O’Shaughnessy  35:13  

Awesome. Yes. What’s a favorite place you’ve either traveled or you’d like to travel to?


Neil Phillips  35:21  

Well, I’m Jamaican. And my wife and I were married in Jamaica. And we have so many of my relatives are there. So Jamaica is a favorite place. You know, more locally, I live in Florida and my wife and two boys, we love to go down to the keys, the Florida Keys. And just the simplicity there and the natural beauty. We’re drawn to that kind of environment. So that’s, that’s, those are two responses. 


Maureen O’Shaughnessy  35:53  

Ah, yes. Magical. What’s one TED talk that inspires you?


Neil Phillips  36:05  

Yeah, some of Brene Brown’s work is very inspiring. I think the TED talk that inspires me the most is my wife Shannon. She did a TEDx presentation here in Sarasota. And, you know, she was guarded in terms of not really sharing much with me and, or my son’s before she delivered the presentation and watching her deliver what was a really candid and open and heartfelt presentation on overcoming challenges and some elements of her discovery and professionally, but also personally and through us, her family. That’s my favorite TED Talk ever.


Maureen O’Shaughnessy  36:56  

Oh, my goodness, I’m so going to go listen to that. listener, you put the link in the show notes. So you go. What’s the biggest thing you wish folks knew about the importance of the story? Wow.


Neil Phillips  37:12  

So I wish people knew, I guess I’m trying to think of how I would refer to this, like it’s like, an approximate, as an approximate experiential experience of stories that, that when we ourselves experience something, it gets really deep, you know, wedged into our head, heart and soul is a memory that we draw on. And hopefully, they can inspire us and elevate us. And give us story can be a proxy for that. Right? You can hear someone else’s story. And though it’s not your experience, your connection to them as a storyteller, or something really compelling about their experience. It can transport you there, almost as if you have experienced it. And I think those kinds of impressions are lasting. And with the most powerful of stories, they’re really, really impressionable and inspiring, and they can cause action.


Maureen O’Shaughnessy  38:18  

Absolutely. What’s a pet peeve of yours?


Neil Phillips  38:26  

Yeah, exactly. So I have to share one pet peeve of mine. So I drive on the highway a lot. I have kids who play you sports and we’re traveling all over the state of Florida to go to games. I really like when the left lane is preserved as a passing lane. Amen. So if I find myself in need of a passing situation, and I get into the left lane, and someone is not treating it as a passing lane, that’s a pet peeve. That’s a pet peeve. Another pet peeve as it relates to our conversation is the misuse and dilution of the word unacceptable. So often, I hear people use the word unacceptable for things that they are accepting. And it applies to education reform. I just hear all the time that some of these results for some of our kids who are underserved. They’re unacceptable. They’re unacceptable. And yet, year after year, decade after decade, we seem to be accepting them. So it’s more than a pet peeve of mine that unacceptable is not reserved for things that are truly unacceptable.


Maureen O’Shaughnessy  39:49  

Why, wow, that one I’m gonna have to think on me there’s so much truth to that and I haven’t heard that frame that way. But Wow. Okay, Neil. You’ve got my wheels, turning Good, good. Last turbo time question. What’s one thing most people don’t know about you?


Neil Phillips  40:13  

Most people don’t know that at my heart. And at my core that I am an introvert. Yeah, I love people. And, gosh, I gained so much from my interactions with people in my relationships and all those I cherish. I am a big fan of solitude and quiet. And yeah, I sometimes I find myself in situations where I’ve got to be social, or I’ve got to be on stage or I’ve got it when it’s running against what my head, heart, and soul really crave is to step back behind and at all that’s one of the things that’s so wonderful. what’s so wonderful about VMA is the school. Our boys and our teachers and staff, I mean, were the ones who were doing all the wonderful work, and they were, they were the magic of the institution. And so any opportunity I could find, to move out of the, you know, being on the stage and trying to get raise money or do you know, garner support, and just let their work and their, their majesty speak for itself? Yeah, that’s much more, comes much more naturally to me.


Maureen O’Shaughnessy  41:49  

What a wonderful, I mean, your self-knowledge and that you’re playing to your strengths and preferences and, and then empowering others. That’s, that’s, that’s so important. Good for you.


Neil Phillips  42:03  

Thank you, Maureen. Thank you.


Maureen O’Shaughnessy  42:06  

So now we have our magic wand moment because I truly believe in stuff that’s not yet manifest. So, Neil, if you could wave a magic wand that shapes our children’s minds? What mindsets and beliefs would you want to bestow upon our young?


Neil Phillips  42:34  

What a great question.


Maureen O’Shaughnessy  42:35  

You didn’t think I was gonna let you off lightly. 


Neil Phillips  42:41  

I would want to bestow an unwavering belief in their own strength, capacity, and ability to give so that they would know all that they had to contribute to themselves, their families into our world.


Maureen O’Shaughnessy  43:22  

Wow. Bonus dose of magic. What would you want our teachers to be able to do to help foster this unwavering belief in our young?


Neil Phillips  43:37  

Wow, that’s an easier question for me to answer. The heart and soul of someone who says I’m going to dedicate my time and in some cases, my life, to elevating others. that’s at the heart of great teaching, and great teachers. And I want for all of our teachers to feel that their instincts on how to connect and how to elevate their students, that their instincts took precedent over policy and procedure. That policy and procedure are important. But it’s not as important as the human connection. And I would want our teachers to feel empowered to be who they were, first and foremost, most to trust that instinct of what drew them to be teachers in the first place.


Maureen O’Shaughnessy  44:46  

Wow, what a beautiful note to end our interview on. Neil, thank you for being a guest today. 


Neil Phillips  44:54  

Maureen. It has been a pleasure and I’m grateful for the opportunity and really, really appreciative for you and your insightful questions and just the work that you’re doing. It’s so important, and so I’m just happy to be a part of it. Thank you. Thank you.


Maureen O’Shaughnessy  45:18  

What a pleasure to talk with such a thoughtful agent for change. Neil’s whole way of looking at challenges reminds us of the importance of focusing on the good, trusting in the good in others and our common humanity, his hope field, and the positive change we seek needs hope, and love. Neil’s belief is that love is the most important element in our schools, culture, and creating change. And I agree. And that’s why I work hard to get over our culture’s discomfort with The L Word. I use it with my students every week. Love is not a dirty word. Again, focusing on the positive Neil suggests that if we realize the promise in our youth, and in each other, we can change our systems to see, hear and value each person. And it can be small, simple steps forward, small acts of kindness, rather than getting upset. If we’re overwhelmed, we can simplify, we can look for the Shibumi simple elegance. And I’ve already ordered that book. I can’t wait to learn more. When we help our kids with a big assignment, we break it down into smaller pieces. Such a great idea for us to break things down so that we can move mountains. And one way that we can remember the good and others is to listen to stories. Get new images, get more images in our minds, stories of people we don’t usually listen to. Whether it’s listening to the moth, podcast, or TEDx talks, there are lots of stories that reconnect us to our humanity. Neil is nudging us to do something? 


Maureen O’Shaughnessy  47:16  

If we believe something if we believe the level of equality and access and education is unacceptable? What are we doing about it? But I think about it if a meal is unacceptable, we don’t eat it. Unacceptable means we refuse to accept it. So if we refuse to accept what is going on, what are we going to do instead? I love the accountability called for here, not just empty words. So glad Neil is one of the educational leaders in our EDD active summit. We’re coming together to pool our energies and provide a free summit for change. This June event is listed in the show notes where you can sign up today to get more information. All leave us with the positive energy of Neil’s magic wand wishes. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to bestow in our youth an unwavering belief in themselves in their strengths and capabilities and in their ability to contribute? Letting them know all of their amazing potentials? And wouldn’t it be powerful if teachers were honoring their instincts to connect with students trusting that these connections are far more important than policy and procedure? Please add your voice to the active summit. And let’s make these wishes come true. Thank you for being a part of the education evolution.


Maureen O’Shaughnessy  48:50  

I know how challenging it is to make changes inside your own school or community. I’ve spent years working with schools around the world on creating learner-centered programs. And it always struck me how much schools were able to get done with the right tools and guidance. If you’re ready to make changes like this in your own school, let’s talk and put together an action plan. Visit educationevolution.org/consult for a free 15-minute call. And let’s see if we’re a good fit for more work together.


Maureen O’Shaughnessy  49:26  

Education Evolution listeners, you were the ones to ensure we create classrooms where each student is seen heard, valued, and thriving. We need you. Let’s go out and reach every student today.


Maureen O’Shaughnessy  49:47  

I’d be so grateful if you’d head over to your podcast app to give a great rating and review if you found this episode valuable. Don’t wait. Please do it right now before you forget. I really appreciate it.


Maureen O’Shaughnessy  50:07  

Thank you for listening, signing off. I am Maureen O’Shaughnessy, your partner in boldly reimagining education.


Transcribed by https://otter.ai


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