Philip Cooper on the JustUs Speaks Podcast

March 28, 2023

He grew up in poverty, got involved with using and selling drugs, and went to prison. But don’t get it twisted, he says prison saved his life. “Change Agent” Philip Cooper joins the #JustUs Speaks Podcast!



Read the full transcript:

Lester Young: Peace and blessings, everyone. Welcome to the new JustUs Speaks Podcast from Just Leadership. I’m your co-host, Lester Young.

Hakim Crampton: I’m your co-host, Hakim Crampton. JustUs Speaks is being produced to amplify the voices of directly impacted people, particularly the voices of formerly incarcerated people.

Lester Young: Just Leadership was founded on the principle that those who are closest to the problem are also closest to the solution, but too often further from the resources and power to affect positive change.

Hakim Crampton: So on this first season of The JustUs Speaks Podcast, we are interviewing leaders from the most recent 2022 cohort of Just Leadership USA’s Leading With Conviction leadership training program.

Lester Young: Today we got my big brother Phillip Cooper. We’re going to be talking to him today. Philip is the Western North Carolina native and an accomplished re-entry expert, Criminal Justice Reform Advocate, and a regional change agent. Let’s get it Phillip!

Hakim Crampton: He is the workforce Equity Advocate at the Land of Sky Regional Council, practitioner and residents at NC State University’s Institute for Emerging Issues, and he’s the ED, or Executive Director of Operation Gateway.

Lester Young: All right! Bring that energy up in here, brother. He is also the voice of The Appalachia, which is a state founded initiative that is addressing the mental health stigma in the Black community of Western North Carolina.

Hakim Crampton: So you know, Philip just won that MLK service award, Appalachian Leadership Fellow, and also Leading With Conviction Fellow with Just Leadership USA.

Lester Young: He serves as a juvenile criminal prevention council, and is a chair of the Just Economics WNC board of directors. Philip, my brother, welcome to the JustUs Speaks  Podcast, my brother.

Philip Cooper: Thanks for having me, and thanks for amplifying the voice of those directly impacted. I love the sound of that boy!

Lester Young: Bring that energy brother into this podcast today man, let’s go, let’s go! Tell us a little bit about you man before we jump into these questions. We got a ton of things we want to know about Philip, this change agent, this individual who’s just taking North Carolina, just running this whole city, so just tell us a little bit about you before we dive in my brother.

Philip Cooper: Well, right on bro, right on. Thanks for having me and you know, [I’m] very, very grateful for our relationship, especially Lester, with the coaching that you provided for me over the past, what? about a year and a half now. It has definitely been integral to me and my decision making as a leader, especially with lived experience with the carceral system you know what I’m saying? But, who I am? I’m a country boy, you feel me? Only child, you know we moved to the hood and when me and when my mom and daddy split up, and we moved to the hood, I was introduced to a whole ‘nother lifestyle. And being in poverty, you know what I was exposed to as people who had economic stability or what appeared to be economic stability was the dope boys. So I did what they did. Got in the streets at an early age, started messing around with substance misuse, getting in trouble at an early age, had a kid in high school, you know a lot of bad decision making and ended up in prison. I’m one of those folks to say prison saved my life though don’t get it twisted. Prison saved my life because I was selling dope, using dope, gang banging, deadbeat father, you know and it was really just because I needed more structure. I needed more consistent mentorship. And so like, when I was on the yard, that’s what I got cause y’all know how it is. When you get on the yard and you start doing that time, you start doing your time connecting with some of the OG’s on the yard that had been bidding for doing time for a while, I want to be using the hook, the…I mess around and use the yard vernacular sometime, but I had access to that consistent mentorship in there, and that’s why I found like my calling as well in prison. I found my calling in prison because the same way they mentored me, I ended up mentoring other young brothers that was coming on the yard, and so that’s how I felt my calling was in prison. I got a work ethic in prison. I started to have consistent communication with my family in prison. I got healthy in prison. It was a lot of good things that happened while I was in prison, so like I say, man I rededicated my life to Christ in prison, you know, and I gotta mention my Lord and savior because if it had not been for the Lord on my side, I would have lost my mind. Because like I told y’all, I was doing the dope, and selling the dope, and the Notorious B.I.G once said, “Never get high on your own supply,” y’all remember that?

Lester Young: [Laughs] Hakim, what you got to say about that, man?

Hakim Crampton: The brother’s an inspirational figure in so many ways you know. You’ve pioneered this change agent’s slogan, you branded this man. Tell us about that and tell us how that ties into your motto in life because you’re speaking it and living it and branding it at the same time.

Philip Cooper: It’s crazy man, and it’s crazy how my gift made a way for me. Cause like, God doesn’t call to qualify, He qualifies the call, and what I did, I committed to serving my fellow man no matter what your faith is. I committed to helping the underdog, fighting for the underdog, being a voice for a person that don’t feel they got a voice or haven’t found a voice yet. It started, I say when I was in prison helping guys, so I was a peer counselor in prison because they had this cognitive behavioral program called A New Direction, and I was a peer counselor in there. I would help guys with the assignments because you would be amazed at how many people struggle with like reading and writing and stuff like that, so I’d be helping them with that, sharing my story, my own testimony time after time, because you know there are black people who struggle with substance issues, but we got that stigma. See a lot of people be sneaking and geeking, and they don’t want to admit it, but when you have a blessing… but a lot of people in the hood, I’m telling you you know how it is, and they be thinking don’t nobody know. I was that dude, and so when I tell my story, that opens the door for somebody else to be like, you know what bro’ I identify with that, and one of the first things to get in the help you need in recovery is honesty. That’s the first one, and and once you found a place where you could be, watch this, rigorously honest, then at that point, you can get the help you need. So, it started out in the behavioral health space my bro, when I got out of prison I worked as a substance use counselor at the detox. I ain’t gonna lie I burn out though, because when I was in college, when I got out of prison I went back to school, got my degree, but yeah I remember when I was in school they were talking about self-care. They were talking about burnout and stuff like that, and so in that field working as a counselor your boy burnt out. I ain’t even gonna hold you. I burn out. You know what I’m saying? I ended up getting a different job. I started working at the community college, believe it or not, as an administrative assistant. And while in that role, and anybody who know business, the administrative assistant know everything. Your administrative assistant is one of the most valuable people on your team. You love your admin folks. This was the role I had, so I’m learning the ins and outs of the community college. Anytime somebody come to the school that’s got a background or in recovery they said, “Let’s say, go see Philip. Go see Philip.” I’m helping all these folks, but I started this out by saying like, God qualifies the call, because see I wasn’t doing it for clout. I wasn’t grant-chasing. I wasn’t looking for a name. All I was doing was helping people, and it felt good to have a purpose. You dig? Because in my life for so long, I was selling the dope, I was harmful, people didn’t want to be around me. Now people want to see me to get help, and I was able to tangibly see impact, help you with your FAFSA application, see you walk across the stage at graduation, see you get a certificate. I was seeing these tangible, it was tangible, and so over time I kept doing that, and people was watching me, and I ain’t even know it. and so when I came here, when I came in the game I started coming with this change agent lingo because in the Human Services Technologies program at the community college, in the Intro to Human Services class, they use that vernacular. They say change agent. So, I adopted it like change agent Cooper, like special agent, and just wrote it and rolled with it bro, and it is a thing now, and I do need to go ahead and brand it because like I haven’t [had it copyrighted] or anything.

Lester Young: Yeah, that’s what I was going to tell you is that it’s not about branding. You want to go ahead and copyright. You want to go ahead and trademark that. The question I have–you know we love your energy brother–and throughout our entire Leading With Conviction cohort everybody was saying, man, you dig? you dig? you dig? Philip always come in there with the energy, and even when we had the one-on-one coaching, and even in our group coaching with a group of individuals who were your cohort members, they love your energy. So my question is, how did Just Leadership, our Leading With Conviction [program] really just impact you even more? You came in with the energy, you came in ready to work, but what did Just Leadership’s Leading With Conviction do for you?

Philip Cooper: Well first and foremost, you got to realize where I’m at bro. I’m in Western North Carolina. We got Black folks up here, now don’t get it twisted, but it’s hard up here. Racism is a trip, and then you got me, this formerly incarcerated Black man that’s making waves, you know? Some people can’t stand that light that’s on me, you know what I’m saying? I don’t really have the best experience even with being a service provider that’s helping a lot of people. It’s some people’s whose demons are not getting along with my guardian angels, you dig what I’m saying? It can be hard for these people to accept a brother like me making waves and helping people that got backgrounds because a lot of people don’t think people can change anyway. They talk like they do, but if some people really don’t, and so when I got in with Leading With Conviction, I was connected with all these people who had lived experience that were now service providers and lawyers and elected officials and professional speakers. You were still coaching me on the podcast just now bro bro, and you don’t know how to stop coaching me, and that’s what I was needing the whole time. I’m out here putting in the work, getting it in, showing up in meetings, speaking truth to power. I’m pouring, I’m pouring, I’m pouring, but watch this. I wasn’t always being able to fill my cup back up bro. When I got into Just Leadership USA, I started having access to you. I had access to my boy Daniel. I had access to Akita, and that’s a strong sister right there, you know? I was having these conversation, with some people that was in there with me, you dig what I’m saying? They were giving me the game and and keeping me motivated, so it created a community. My public health folks call these social determinants of health. For us leaders, as we fight to address social determinants of health of clients, we also got to be looking at those social drivers that impact our health. Just Leadership USA provided a community for me. That community was a new community of people with lived experience providing services that kept me motivated, helped me accountable, and also gave me strategies for being in this game for the long haul.

Hakim Crampton: That’s powerful. The thing about that power that you got when you first flip the switch on energy, it travels, it doesn’t just pop on, and as it is traveling to get in to sustain itself. You built a foundation for yourself, and it looks solid to us, and we love it. Building that foundation then begins to branch out fruit. We see the fruit that you’re producing, and so my question is, what is the vision of how big that tree is going to get in the next five to ten years? What type of tree are you building? What is it looking like for the future? What is that vision for the next five to ten years? That glorious tree that you’re establishing in your community?

Philip Cooper: I like how you said that and this is what I like about you, too Hakim. In being a professional speaker, I always watch other speakers, and so one thing I noticed about you man, your wordplay is inspiring. Just how you word it because that glorious tree, that almost got me ready to get a hoodie made with a tree on it. That glorious tree, you dig? I want to go back to my LPI, bro. That was where we looked at where we was coming up short. When I had to really take a look at that and have had Lester break down the importance of like, “Okay, it’s good everybody bragging about you, but let’s talk about what you coming up short.” Whenever I start paying attention to those areas where I was coming up short, and I was starting to work on like, “Okay, maybe I do need to make sure I’m being leader full and sharing the space because I’m so lit, and make sure there’s other people whose light is also shining.” Because these people, like she getting it in, but you know, we don’t know if we’re as valued. I started empowering people so this glorious tree in this community health worker sector that I’m in, this is my jam. I found it. I found my lane. The community health worker, that’s where I’m at, being on the National Association, talking about re-entry and the re-entry workforce, that’s my lane bro, I ain’t going nowhere. One of the things me and Lester are working on right now is putting together a conference and then we’re gonna do it in the Appalachian. And, I guess to let you know this on here because I ain’t getting to follow up with you yet, so from that conversation I reached out to the Appalachian Leadership folks and so there’s some funding that’s going to go towards putting this conference on. So, we’re going to be putting on a conference. I’m talking about the re-entry workforce of the Appalachian, which includes 13 states, at least. You feel me people from the Appalachian Mountains that are doing the work. When I think about this glorious tree, I’m thinking about best practices for the returning citizen that’s going back into the workforce because, see, economic stability is a socially determinant of health. We can’t allow returning citizens to just be a DPS issue. We can’t afford that. It can’t just be a Division of Public Safety issue. It has to be a Department of Commerce issue, a Department of Justice issue, a Department of Health and Human Services issue. It needs to encompass all things that pertain to the returning citizen and in the public health space, they look at the whole person with these social determinants of health. So when I look at years down I look at a replicable model that stepped and approved on a national level when we start talk about the returning citizen, being a certified community health worker who has lived experience, lived expertise with the carceral system, and this person holding their hand through the process, getting them connected with what the American job centers and WIOA and Vocational Rehabilitation, then this model, this certified community health worker, holding their hand through the process. From obtaining their vital records, to connecting with employers, and employers and HR professionals knowing this group of community health workers and know they [are] solid and sending solid people because they did the vetting. I see that glorious tree being a replicable model across the United States of America, because you know America incarcerates more people than any other country, anyway. We over represented, so this is a racial equity issue, and an economic issue, so this is where we say, excuse me, please take your knee off my neck, and I have ways for you to do it safely.

Lester Young & Hakim Crampton: Yes sir, yes, amen.

Philip Cooper: Y’all got me lit, cause I’m looking at y’all. You got to understand bro, you asked me about Just Leadership USA, and when I’m around y’all, I feel powerful, bro. You feel me? When I’m in these places consistently, hey and I’m not really seeing y’all, but I know y’all got my back, so when I’m able to to speak truth to power, and then I’m around y’all, man I’m trying to keep it cool on this Zoom, bro, I’m trying to keep it cool.

Hakim Crampton: We’re refueling each other, we’re refueling each other.

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Lester Young: I have so many accolades I can give you Phillip, but the most powerful one is, I love your energy. No matter what, it’s like you always come in at 100%. On fire every time, I love that. When it comes down to everything that you do, even from your posters on LinkedIn to your speaking, everything that you do man, it’s such a powerful thing. So, I agree with you. You definitely have that profound calling on your life. Something you said earlier about how the OGs, those individuals who had been inside of the carceral system maybe 10 years ahead of you when you walked in there, and you saying that you learned from them. I’m just curious too, what were some of the other things that you did? We understand that the OGs, those who were there, have now come to a better understanding of the choices that they made, and they want to be able to share that with the younger group of individuals coming in. What were some of those books, what was that book that really inspires you? And if you can give me like two or three titles of the book, and shout out one of those leaders that really just put you up on game while you were there.

Philip Young: I gotta go to the Purpose-Driven Life, bro, by Rick Warren. You know I’m a 12- step recovery guy. I’m an active leader in the Celebrate Recovery Ministry which came from Saddleback Church. You know Rick Warren, all in there, you feel me? That book itself, The Purpose Driven Life, because like I told y’all, I felt my purpose when I was in prison. That mentorship, that iron sharpens iron. I felt that in the joint, and so that book, but also the Proverbs. I ain’t gonna take ya’ll to church, but I’m gonna take you to church. There was a guy on the yard that had an impact on me, his name was Robert Lavelle Robbs, and he’s a man of God. He’s out now preaching he did about 16 years, solid man of God. He taught me about reading the Proverbs and the Psalms, you know what I’m saying? And the more I read those, that wisdom…because it don’t matter what you believe in, if a person is not even a Christian [and] reads the Proverbs, it makes sense. Because even when I was in prison, I ain’t gonna lie, I was checking out different religions while I was in there. I had my dreads, so I didn’t know if I wanted to be a Rasta. I wanted to check that out because they seemed cool as hell on the yard and serious and structured and militant, you know what I’m saying? I told you a lot of guys, they’re craving that structure, that sense of belonging to something that holds weight, that structure. I was checking them out, and even my Muslim brothers on the yard, that was cool, they were so militant the way they would be praying at certain times a day, facing a certain direction. When Ramadan hit, I’m getting all the trays because you know they ain’t eating. I’m watching these guys, but I read through the Proverbs and the Psalms, and in Proverbs 27:17, it’s something I live by, my motto, iron sharpens iron. That comes from Proverbs. But, Robert Lavell Robbs was one of those mentors, and another one that’s about to get out. I got a brother named GA, he about to get out in January, and watch this man I’ve been rocking with bro on his way home. We gonna provide re-entry services for him when he come home. This was the brother that I was walking in the yard with, talk junk about how my visit went because my baby mama wasn’t acting right. This was the brother that I could vent to when I want to knock somebody’s head off in the dorm because they don’t know who they playing with. This is the brother who helped keep me out of trouble. You know, we go do some pull-ups and dips just to get off some steam, just make it through Christmas with cooking swole…I don’t know about…[respect the state of the listener] or what y’all caught it when y’all was in prison, but when you put some people call them the brick, or the swole, or the goulash, but when you put the oodles and noodles…and all this, that’s a long story, it’s a culture thing. But me and him cooking on holidays, that was one of the best friends I ever had in my life, bro. And some of the best friends I had was in the penitentiary. The code we live by in there, some people got way better manners when they in prison than when they’re doing the outside world. It’s crazy, it’s crazy, and community, having a sense of community when I was in prison. You asked me about a book, and I went all the way in, but that Purpose Driven Life is definitely one and then Proverbs and Psalms, and also the recovery literature. I can’t mention the respective fellowship by name, because they’re in the traditions, they ask to keep it anonymous, you know how that goes, and so out of respect for the fellowship, I ain’t gonna mention those books, but those books were definitely integral to my understanding of how I can live as a person in recovery for the rest of my life, and not being ashamed to call myself a recovering addict. It’s okay because I know that I can’t successfully use. Those are the types of books that I got into and had the greatest impact on me.

Hakim Crampton: That’s what’s up bro, that’s what’s up.

Lester Young: I remember one of my mentors told me that too–read one Psalm every day and five Proverbs. I did that religiously [over the] course of my incarceration just for the spirituality that the book of Psalms brings, and then the five Proverbs for the wisdom, and the insight, so I appreciate you saying that. Hakim, you want to say something?

Hakim Crampton: Yeah, I want to carry on with that too because that’s such a great piece of the fruit of this tree we’ve been talking about. I want to dig a little deeper into your leadership too. Why don’t we talk about, either share with us one of the powerful lessons that you’ve learned that perhaps led to a success in your life, or a powerful lesson that you overcame from a failure that gave you success.

Philip Cooper: I would say people pleasing. I had to get over people pleasing, because you can’t please everybody. I can’t make everybody happy, and there’s some people, no matter how much I try to please them, they set out to be against me anyway, you dig what I’m saying? So once I understood that everybody ain’t team Phillip, and I started using them scissors and cutting some people off, that freed up more time for the things that I needed to focus on and the people that I needed to focus on. What ends up happening is, I start having more people in my network that supporting the vision because they see I’m authentic, as opposed to them being on my team and they quietly competing. And they hating, you feel me? I heard a wise man say one of your biggest fans is a stranger, and one of your biggest enemies is your friend. I had to make room, and that people pleasing had to go, because like like I said [about] my upbringing, when we moved to the hood, I caught myself always trying to fit in. I don’t never fit in y’all. That’s why I’m so lit. I finally embraced my weirdness, and then it came. Stop trying to fit in, stop trying to be liked by everybody. One failure, I call it a growing moment, but one thing I had to learn even with my passion, I got to know what rooms I need to be in and I got to know what rooms Lester need to be in. I got to know what rooms Hakim need to be in. Because some rooms ain’t ready for me, and it’s okay. We are trying to get to the same end goal. I had to understand that. It ain’t about clout chasing, it’s about sustainable change, and so I got to understand what rooms I need to be in order for me to understand what rooms I need to be in, and what rooms my bros need to be in ,I got to be in solidarity and I got to be in proximity with my bros, so that we know each other and so we trust each other. When I’m in the room with Lester, we can say, bruh, now we good or Hakim, and I can say yeah we good bro in there. I know it’s okay and that’s one of the things I see a lot of leaders struggle with today. It’s probably trauma. It’s just unresolved trauma to where they’ve been done dirty. They’ve been hurt. They’ve had ideas stolen and things like that, so that’s the root cause of why they’re like that, but I learned that I had to use them scissors and then more people ended up being a part of my circle that was really down for the cause.

Lester Young: You know something, when you say that I think about just getting out of prison, and I saw someone pulled my coattail on and it, and was like, Lester, you got to understand that when you’re working in purpose you can’t just be in hustle mode. Meaning, when you get out of prison just straight into hustle and the grind, and you’re approaching everything as a hustle, and the purpose is two different things. You can have the fundamentals of what it takes to be to be a hustler, but don’t approach your work as a hustler. Approach it as you’re working in purpose and sometimes it takes time for you continue to grow to that glorious tree that as you and Hakim have been talking about. That’s one of the biggest things, that when I heard from you, talking about cutting, you learn now that I don’t need to continue to clout-chase because as long as I walk in my purpose, I’m going to be able to do the things I need to do. I think the Book of Proverbs says that your gift will make room for you right and that’s what’s happening. Your gift is now making room for you.

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Lester Young: I think my last question before we conclude this man is that we all noted from when we hit the start button, to we hit the end button on this on this podcast, you came with a lot of energy. You came in with so much energy, you’re still on 10. But my question in closing is, what does Philip do outside of when you come down, when that energy comes down to one and two, what are you doing to take care of yourself? What are you doing for self-care for Philip?

Philip Cooper: First and foremost, having a coach and having a mentor. What I’ve learned is when I’m walking in my purpose, and I’m excited, and I love what I do, it’s hard to turn that off. I’m go go go go go go go go go. I gotta have somebody. Self-care for me looks like having somebody on my team that holds me accountable, to say hey, bruh, it’s time to chill. Shout out to uh my spiritual father Vince Brown. Solid man of God, so he’s one of those people in my life that I talked to on the regular. Self-care for me looks like massages. I prefer Swedish over deep tissue. Them deep tissue hurt. I just want to go in there and go to sleep when I go. I definitely got to go to my recovery meetings. I make those regularly because I got to stay in tune and in proximity with other people who are surviving the disease of addiction. I don’t play around with the disease of addiction because I speak at funerals for folks who played around with the disease of addiction and got complacent. I love them still, you know. Family first.  When I think about self-care, self-care is is like, what do I do so that I can be a better family man? I can’t say that my family is necessarily self-care. Self-care is important for me to be better for my family. I think about the gym, I do work out. Like I told you, I’m trying to get my biceps looking good in that hoodie. I love going to the gym, and I found that in the penitentiary. When I was in prison I found out that lifting weights is great for anger management and mental health. This is great! Why didn’t I do this before? I really found peace and purpose in prison. The same stuff I’m doing now, is the same stuff I remember they used to say, “jailhouse religion.” It’s still working, it’s still working. I’ll still read my daily bread. I I still read my word. I still work out. I still pray in the morning, I just don’t put my knees on shower shoes anymore. Yeah, bro, all of those things are important for my self-care, and having that network of people on my team that holds me accountable.

Lester Young: [Laughs]…you don’t put your knees on the shower shoes no more?

Philip Cooper: Yeah, you know how it is, praying on your knees. Man, you got to put them shower shoes down there, but that jumping, especially if did some squats and lunges and you go down on your knees, that be hurting.

Lester Young: Yeah, that’s what’s up. Hakim, what are you going to say to close us out?

Hakim Crampton: We’ve definitely enjoyed this opportunity to learn from you, to hear from you, be inspired by you. We think our listeners will as well.

Lester Young: It was definitely a pleasure. I’m talking with you on this podcast today, I know the audiences they gonna be like, you can listen to this podcast in the gym. It’s going to be like I need to go to the gym, let me get on that…and work out right quick. Again my brother thank you for your energy, thank you for sharing with our audience and continue to do what you need to do and as Hakim started off this glorious tree, continue to water that glorious tree. Continue to make an impact in your community, not just locally but nationally and internationally as well. I always tell people that we got to think globally as well because the same thing that we’re struggling with in America, there are other people struggling with [it] in other parts of the world, outside of the United States, so let’s think globally in this mission as well. Thank you my brother, and we look forward to chatting with you soon. Be blessed, peace.

Philip Cooper: Peace.

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