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Neil Phillips: Redefining Success by Repurposing Failure

Bold Idea: To radically redefine the sense of what is possible for young black men, 2012 BMA Fellow Neil Phillips seeks to reframe notions of success and failure. He’s also found it a constant effort to keep those notions consistent in his own life.

“I really appreciate that question.”
“Thank you for saying that.”
“The nature of that question tells me a lot about how insightful you are.”
“You’re bright and clearly plugged into this.”

Neil Phillips, a 2012 Open Society Foundations Black Male Achievement Fellow, is clearly a person on a mission. This is obvious from just a passing glance at the goals of his organization Visible Men, a nonprofit whose growth and achievements are astonishing for one less than five years old. The task of changing the impact of social stereotypes is not an easy one, but through presentations, school programs, and mentoring partnerships, Visible Men is equipping young men with confidence and ability to overcome several generations of conflicting expectations.

A conversation with Neil, however, reveals something personal about his mission. It’s his persistence in noticing the best in someone, a finely tuned radar for success where it’s least looked for.

“For so many boys, particularly those from low-income family backgrounds, particularly boys of color, many of whom don’t have a father in the home, there are these incredibly damaging notions of what it means to be a man,” Neil explains. “Notions that are limited in number and in diversity. As human beings, we all find evidence to support our underlying thoughts, right? There are so many influences that perpetuate this limited notion. The neighborhood. The lunch table.” Without an example or an encouraging voice to validate their individuality, young men strive to fulfill these limited ideas of masculinity, regardless of whether it feels right.It’s easy to look at Neil’s track record—from high school football star, to Harvard University, to a career playing international pro basketball—and call it a charmed life. But Neil insists that his confidence isn’t the result of specific successes; rather, it’s built on his identity as one who overcomes failure. The challenge for most young black men, he says, starts with insecurity about their identity, an inner questioning not only of who they are, but who they are supposed to be—kicking off a recurring pattern of falling short.

Those influences show up in various ways—a boy’s inability to make eye contact or return a handshake, he says, reveals their doubt of the very space that they occupy. “It’s this question around, generally speaking, who am I? More specifically, am I good enough? Am I capable? Am I worthy?

“They have to find an immediate answer. That’s where our work has to begin.”

Visible Men is an education and enrichment program directed primarily toward boys of color from low-income backgrounds, working to change the definition of success among this demographic by telling success stories that are often overlooked. The organization provides a vast network of role models who expand the limited spectrum of success.

“These boys are overexposed to the basketball player and the hip-hop artist, but not at all exposed to the air force officer or the graphic designer. That’s the thing—showing them the full range of the male experience, so they can see men who are accomplished, fulfilled, successful by a number of different measures.”

Right now, Neil is developing plans for a charter school in Bradenton, Florida. It’s a daunting task, one that brings to light a personal challenge that he shares with the boys of Visible Men.

“I have felt a ton of insecurity about the prospect of failing,” he admits. “The anxiety around the prospect of failing might be more paralyzing and damaging than the failure itself.”

That, he says, is at the core of much of undesirable behavior from men. “The feeling that ‘I can’t show weakness, I have to show competence, I can’t ask for help.’ The male thing around winning and succeeding causes us to just buckle in the face of failure.”

In order to combat that attitude toward failing, he’s drafted a reconstruction into the list of cultural values for Visible Men Academy:

“We have a healthy relationship with mistakes, our own and those of others. We recognize mistakes as a vital part of the learning and growth process, and we value their worth as a teaching tool.”

Neil attributes this largely to his parents, who brought him up to treat failures as small and negligible, in comparison to his abilities. He recalls the high school football game when he fumbled a pass and cost his team the championship–”It was a huge failure,” he says, “but I never felt anything but nourishment around it.” The key, Neil says, is to keep closer count of your successes, no matter how small, than your mistakes. “It’s that collection of successes that can push you through,” he says. “It’s so important for us to help our boys find small successes in their day.”

This, Neil says, is the achievement on which all other successes are founded.

“The question is not what are you going to be when you grow up; it’s who are you going to be when you grow up? Do I want to be the kind of man that shies away from anxiety, or am I going to be the guy that pushes through?”

Drive Change: Are you a successful black man who is ready to give something back to your community by stepping up as a role model and leader to black boys? Your path to success is instructive, and sharing your experiences can have a huge, lasting impact on a young man’s life. If you are ready for your story to be a role model to black boys, support them by becoming a Visible Man.

The Visible Man Academy is also accepting applications for eligible Kindergarten, first, and second grade students; enrollment is open through June 30, 2013.

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