When Mike Phillips was a senior in a Baltimore, Maryland high school, he was a popular basketball star being offered a 4-year scholarship by various universities, including the Christian college Oral Roberts University in Oklahoma. However, Phillips, who was 17 years old, chose to attend a secular school on the East Coast.
“My hope was to actually play in the National Basketball Association,” Phillips said. “That was what I really wanted to do, and also, I wanted to be a business attorney.”
Instead, a tragic car accident cut his career aspirations short and left Phillips unable to play college basketball and subsequently without a scholarship to attend school. So, he dropped out.
“I went into a total depression because of all of that and couldn’t play basketball anymore, which I thought would be my passport to the world,” he said. “Because of that, and of course other traumatic events throughout my life, I accepted for myself that the narrative society suggested to me as a black male that I was born to lose was true.”
In deciding to do whatever was necessary to survive, Phillips made some bad choices, including selling drugs. After the police raided his house, Phillips turned himself in, thinking he would get a lesser sentence because he had no prior convictions.
“I spent six months in pretrial detention awaiting a trial that never came, so I was never actually officially charged,” he said.
Although Phillips was facing a 30-year prison sentence if found guilty, the judge gave him the option to return to college instead.
“Certainly, the hand of Providence was there,” he said. “I cannot explain to anyone why this particular judge would decide to do this along with the prosecutor, along with everyone else who had evidence of my wrongdoing but decided to put me on this path. It really did change my life forever.”
Without skipping a beat, Phillips unhesitatingly chose to attend college, which ultimately landed him at Oral Roberts University (ORU).
“I don’t have a felony record because of this judge,” Phillips said in an interview. “I share that story against the backdrop of some of the needs for a systemic change in our country, particularly in dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline.”
The Christian university he had rejected as a high school basketball hotshot was just the haven Philips needed to turn his life around for good.
“I had a very transformative experience there that not only changed my life personally but changed the trajectory of my life as well,” he said. “When I got to ORU, I still was battling all the traumatic events of my life. I became the bad boy on campus; however, they have these revivals in their chapel services, and it was at a Spring revival that I had an encounter that changed my life forever.”
Phillips graduated from ORU in 1994 with a business administration degree.
“Looking back on that experience, I think that human lives are redeemable no matter how bad or how much individuals think they are not redeemable,” he said. “Whenever you’ve gotten to the place of seeing the worst of yourself, it makes you really want to see the best of yourself, and I’m excited to be on that journey.”
These days, life has come full circle for Phillips in seeing his children avoid the school-to-prison pipeline and succeed. His son, Michael, 22, graduated from Harvard University in 2020 and works at Yelp, while his daughter Olivia is a sophomore at DePaul University.
He advises parents who want a similar outcome to ensure their children have access to the highest quality education they can afford.
“Harvard wasn’t a goal for my son; it was an outcome,” Phillips said. “My wife and I built an environment in which our children could maximize their potential. It’s hard for anyone to worry about an education if you don’t have the fundamentals you need to live, and a loving environment is a requirement for children.”
Phillips’ desire to do away with the school-to-prison pipeline for others led him to write a book called Wrong Lanes Have Right Turns and to relocate to Dallas four months ago to work with the T.D. Jakes Foundation as chief engagement and fulfillment officer.
“I saw an opportunity at the T.D. Jakes Foundation to help build sustainable communities not only in education with their STEAM program but also in working at the opposite end of the spectrum with their TORI program reducing recidivism and re-entry back to prison,” he said. “It was the perfect place to do that. My role is to ensure that we are making good on what we promise to deliver to communities, to funding partners, and to families that we want to help.”
While the Texas Offenders Reentry Initiative (TORI) program has helped more than 30,000 formerly incarcerated individuals prepare for the workforce, according to Phillips, the Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Math (STEAM) program refers to the curriculum that students learn in school.
“The T.D. Jakes Foundation has launched PATHWAY, which helps individuals navigate the maze and bureaucracy of becoming gainfully employed,” he said. “We also help to ensure that children and families have access to science, technology, engineering, arts, and math through our STEAM program. That’s important because some of the fastest-growing, highest-paid jobs in the country are connected to STEAM. We want to make sure that individuals have access to those jobs, have the skillsets for those jobs, and we’re providing that.”
As previously reported by WFAA, the T.D. Jakes Foundation launched a partnership with the Dallas Independent School District to enable 3,500 students from 25 schools to watch the hit Broadway theatre production, Hamilton: An American Musical while it is touring in Dallas.
The musical is about the life of Alexander Hamilton, who is a founding father of America, told through rap, hip hop, R&B, and soul music. It features actors who are non-white in starring historical roles.
“It’s an arts program, and [the] STEAM curriculum has been built around it,” Philips said. “What arts integration does is open your mind to creativity. It helps you to look at the world in different ways. It helps you to solve problems differently. So, art is a huge component to unlocking the creative side of the mind that’s necessary for innovation and entrepreneurship and all of the jobs and opportunities that are in the students’ futures.”