My Super-Condensed Thrive Story
by Michael Phillips, Thrive Board Member
My Super-Condensed Thrive Story
by Michael Phillips, Thrive Board Member
When Jamie Berger first approached me about helping with The Thrive Project he told me about how so many young people he knew in Western Mass needed a break in life. His break, he said, was that he was born into a family of educators.
As he was talking I immediately understood where he was going. People make it in this world because they get breaks. True, you've got to work hard at whatever it is you want to do - whatever makes you happy. But without a break here and there it's easy to get stuck and to stop exploring your options. Without one particular break in my own life, I know for certain that I wouldn’t be here right now. Here's my story:
I grew up in western Pennsylvania, in a rusty, run-down, former steel town. We were poor. Everyone was. But we were the poorest of the poor. I remember walking with my mom down the tracks to the next town to pick up Christmas dinner from the Salvation Army. I don't remember much of what we carried back in the big boxes, but I do remember the gigantic blocks of government cheese. My sister and I had old clothes, and kids made fun of us all through school. (Those old 70's outfits would be worth a fortune right now).
I withdrew into my imagination and any music I could get my ears on, and later into drugs and constant drinking. I was drunk at least once a day from the time I was 15 through my 21st birthday.
In 10th grade, I remember thinking in math class one day that between my lifestyle and the almost certain (it seemed at the time) nuclear war around the corner, I wasn’t likely to live past 21. That was the kind of thing I thought about in math class.
So I lived like my days were numbered. I had no hope for my own future. But by then I had found lots of friends who also had no hope, and we had a lot of fun raising all kinds of hell. We were excessive in everything we did, and over the years, they started dying off or going to jail. Drug overdoses, car accidents, suicide, bar fights; one by one my friends were disappearing.
I quit high school over Christmas break my senior year because it was interfering with my drug use, and I was making good money selling.Then I soaked myself in drugs and the culture and got into more trouble than I want to talk about here.
When I turned 21, I stopped drinking because I wanted to see if I was an alcoholic. During my trial sober period, a friend who I had nearly abandoned for my druggie crowd years earlier came back into my life. He was now a student at the University of Pittsburgh, and he convinced me to visit the campus one day. He took me on a tour,and I sat in on a few classes with him.
This was my first break. I was fascinated. And with relentless encouragement from him, I got motivated to give school a try again six months later. It was a leap, but I was smart enough to know my life of partying and dealing was going nowhere fast and that my relative luck with the law wasn't going to last.
My friend helped me get my GED and walked me through the intimidating process of getting student loans and grants lined up. And I figured out a scam to get by the university’s admissions requirements. They would let anyone take night classes in the adult ed programs. So I signed up for 2 night classes. Then I went early, sat in on day classes and worked really hard to do well there (for no credit). I got letters from 2 of the day-class professors stating that they wanted me in their higher level courses the following semester. They gave me letters because I showed up every day, worked hard, and asked for the letters – not because I did well. That was Break #2. With those letters I conned the admissions folks into thinking I was a "regular" student because I was taking regular classes. Then I was allowed to enroll in any course I wanted.
This following semester I signed up for a creative writing class that changed my life forever. Well, actually it was the instructor who changed my life. Break 3: Rita instantly recognized that I was not, in fact, a “regular” student at all. I couldn't spell. I had never written a paper in my life. She took me under her wing and tutored me after class. Our writing that semester was about our lives, and it became clear really fast that my stories were scaring the crap out of some people in the room. It was like I was from a different planet. And it was a real challenge to write honestly. But she walked me through it and gave me more encouragement than anyone had ever bothered to before. Rita gave me hope.
After 3 semesters I transferred to the University of Maryland (mostly because I met a girl who went there) and focused on Criminology and Legal Studies. My goal was to work with kids who had been labeled juvenile delinquents but who were really just like everyone else - only lacking the skills to deal with the anger and hopelessness inside them. I wanted to help direct young people into creative ways of expressing themselves and challenging the status quo.
Then in my fourth year of college a professor and friend helped me to realize that I was far too idealistic to work within the legal system. The law, he taught me, was the last thing in society to change. So I quit college and went to live in Lafayette Park, across from the White House with a band of scraggly activists who were protesting nuclear arms and living under wooden signs. I was drawn there by news reports of growing protests and so I went.
While living in the park I met Concepcion Picciotto, a school teacher who had quit her job, left her family and moved to the U.S. when Reagan was elected. That was Break 4. Connie is still living in the park today - 30 years later - protesting nukes day and night, 365 days a year. I learned what the White House police did at night while activists slept under their signs and no tourists were around. She helped me understand the power of non-violence in any movement to create permanent change. And she convinced me that people could change the world, one person at a time.
After a month living in the park and getting beat up by Young Americans for Freedom in the middle of the night, I walked to the headquarters of Greenpeace a few blocks away. I went in the front door and said, "Hi, I want to work with you. You don't have to pay me - I just want to make a difference." So I started as a volunteer. I was giving myself breaks now.
Six weeks later I was running grassroots campaigns in DC. Six months later I opened and was running the local grassroots office in Amherst, MA. Three years later I was managing the six Greenpeace offices in New England and traveling all over the U.S., opening more offices. In a couple years I was overseeing all Greenpeace local offices on the East Coast. For 4 years after that I worked on local and global issues, worked on ships, campaigned in Japan against illegal whaling, ran campaigns to stop incinerators from being build, was arrested and beaten, blockaded roads and raised all kinds of hell, just like old times. Only now I was getting paid and having the time of my life working with the best people imaginable and making a difference. In my 10 years with Greenpeace I lived in DC 3 times, Philly, Amherst, Boston, Raleigh NC, NYC, L.A., San Francisco, Jacksonville & Miami, and went through every major city on campaign tours.
Everything I've ever done in my life that's worth anything happened because I had one break in my life. I had a friend who saw past my bullshit and reached out to me. That one break led to another and another and another. I'm a lucky guy. I'm lucky in a lot of ways, but I'm mostly lucky to have taken advantage of that first break. If I hadn't I’m sure I would be dead or in prison right now. At best I would have mellowed out and taken one of the few jobs in my hometown, started a family and repeated the life I knew growing up.
Everyone deserves a break. Everyone deserves to be appreciated for who they are and what they have to offer this world. Everyone deserves some hope. That's why I'm excited to work with The Thrive Project. People have a right to pursue happiness and that means people have a responsibility to help them out a little.
One thing I kind of skipped over earlier is that taking my friend up on his offer was not easy. It was easy enough to get in a car and go to Pittsburgh. But it was very difficult to walk away from my former life, from those friends who were spiraling into nowhere with me, from my apartment, from the thrill of taunting death.
It turns out I wasn't an alcoholic. I had just never been sober as an adult. I had no reason to be. I had no reason to think I could do anything with my life. I honestly did not, could not, see that there was any opportunity for me to be anything else. I had never associated with young people who did anything but drink and do drugs. I had one friend who made it to college. And he reached out to me. That was my break.
I left Greenpeace in 1995 and started a web development company with a good friend and techo-mentor I had meet at Greenpeace. I sold my share of the company to him after a few years and I got a job managing a graduate information retrieval lab at UMass, where I learned all I could from the grad students I managed. A few years later, I got a job with a UMass technology spin-off working to commercialize the software we had been developing at my UMass job. And for the past 10 years I have been working as the Internet Strategist with the Yankee Candle Company. I've started a few non-profits and I'm still an activist as much as I can be with 3 kids and our crazy schedules.
I'm only writing this now to demonstrate that every one of these things grew from a single break I got 27 years ago. One break can be the beginning of a sea of change because that one break may move you into a position to be available for the next and the next.
I'm not sure who is reading this right now, but if you are someone who could use a hand, I hope you take advantage of the opportunities Thrive can offer. If you are someone with a hand to give, I hope you consider volunteering with Thrive. If you are someone with the financial means to make a difference with a project like this, I hope you consider making a tax-deductible contribution to this project.
For me, Thrive is about launching young people into life, toward their passions, or in the direction of change. I'm excited about working with such a great group of people, really good people, who want to help just because it's the right thing to do.
I hope you’ll be a part of Thrive, too.
Contact The Thrive Project at: firstname.lastname@example.org