Spotlight

Neil Phillips '85

Student and Head of Upper School are only two of the many titles Neil held at Landon. He remained loyal to his alma mater even after graduating from Harvard and pursuing a professional basketball career in Australia. “I stayed involved with the school as much as I could,” Neil said of his time as Assistant Basketball Coach, which eventually helped earn him the position of Athletic Director (AD) in 2003.

Neil and his wife Shannon moved onto campus after accepting the AD position, and “our sons Reece (now 17) and Blair (now 14) got to grow up on Landon’s campus. I felt like we were part of a village of people that helped us raise our kids. I spent countless hours on the Landon playgrounds and cherished every moment of this unique experience.” However, it was not all fun and games as there was important work to be done. Landon began to prioritize the expansion of its outreach to more diverse racial and socio-economic communities. Neil was spearheading the effort.

“Everyone talked about how the Landon experience would be good for these minority students, but no one was speaking about how our community of students, parents, and faculty would benefit from this diversity. As educators, we are charged with preparing students for the diverse world they are going to inherit, and we have the responsibility to educate them with this perspective,” Neil urged.

Over his five years as an administrator, Neil worked hard to expand relationships beyond the typical Landon feeder schools to bring more racial and socio-economic diversity to the school.  However, as enrollment increased, he noticed an alarming trend amongst these racially diverse students. “The boys were attending the school as students but weren’t immersing themselves in the full Landon experience. There would be a group of boys playing pick-up basketball in the gym, and when I asked them if they were going to try out for the basketball team, they said no. Or I would have a conversation with a Form V student who told me he was interested in studying politics in college but would not run for student council. They felt like the opportunities outside the classroom the school provided weren’t meant for them.”

Neil recognized there needed to be a fundamental change in the way the school operated. “Schools have these wonderful traditions that develop over many years and create these deep grooves. But we must be intentional about these grooves and how they might end up defining us. For example, Landon boys typically lived close to the school and had an easy trip home after attending after school activities. But the students who were not from Bethesda, Chevy Chase, and the surrounding areas, might have had to take the bus, to the metro, and then hop on another bus to get home. It was more than us just encouraging them to join; we had to see who and what created impediments for them and remove the obstacles, or at the least, acknowledge them.”

Building on what he had learned at Landon, Neil moved his family to Florida to establish the Visible Men Academy (VMA), an all-boys charter school where the commonality amongst the 120 students was poverty. His two-fold concept was simple; make sure they know they are loved, and that they have control over the outcomes in their lives. Neil knew in his heart that it all started with love, but he had also done his research and knew that studies had proven that achieving success is related to being in control. “Even though many of them felt like they had a lack of control over what happened to them in life, we let them know that they really could control a lot. Things like effort, attitude, choosing whether to open a door for someone, whether to share your lunch, or whether to give or accept an apology. They had power they didn’t know they had.”

VMA’s success came very quickly. As a state-chartered school, students were required to take standardized tests. As Neil expected, they received a failing grade the first year. However, in their second year they saw improvement, as the school received an overall grade of C. By their third year, the school had received an A! Neil attributes their success to setting high academic and ethical expectations, encouraging them to be virtuous and to living a life of high character.

Neil has started a new chapter in his career and has stepped away from the education sector, accepting a job as the first Chief Diversity Officer at the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA). The position was created after the association was exposed for its lack of African American representation within the ranks of its 80 journalists. “Some healthy pressure was put on them and has caused the organization to do a lot of introspection. It is my job to make sure this is not just about adding numbers, but rather, about creating institutional change. I am applying what I learned at Landon, about those deep grooves that we get stuck in, to institutions everywhere to help them evolve. The HFPA has welcomed me and given me the opportunity to work not only with them, but the broader Hollywood and media industries that have struggled to discuss these issues of race openly and candidly without fear. I have always believed love is the answer to just about everything and if that makes people uncomfortable, that’s okay because discomfort signals an opportunity for growth and discussion. I’ve spent my entire career managing my 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.” As expected, Neil has already started to create change at HFPA. He was recently instrumental in the appointing of 7 new diverse members to the association.

Neil is eager to update the Landon community on his family. “I am always excited to talk about Shannon and her great work. She runs a wonderful agency, Voice and Visibility Women’s Summit, that celebrates women’s empowerment through the lens of diversity. She recently realized a childhood dream of spending a day working with Gloria Steinem on an exciting project. Reece has had a fruitful soccer career playing on his varsity soccer team his freshman year. He’s a highly accomplished fisherman, and he has patiently assumed the role of teaching me how the stock market works. Blair is soaring as a student-athlete. He’s just transitioned from high-level travel soccer to focusing his attention on basketball – he’s finishing this season with the Varsity team as an 8th grader. Most importantly, they are kind, caring, loving young men – we are immensely proud of both of them.”

When asked what advice he would give to Landon students, Neil said, “value the relationships. Life is going to present challenges and we all need support. My Landon friends are always there for me. They rally around you when you need them. Invest in these relationships and recognize that they are unusual, and that the Landon community is special, and different from other places. I am proud of these friends, and I still lean on these men because they remind me of the importance of being a good husband and father. They have not lost sight of how to prioritize their personal relationships and being an upstanding member of their community over work and achievement. They remind me that the most important thing is to be a good man.”