Philip Cooper’s role as a Career Navigator for A-B Technical Community College is a dream job that he says has enabled him to become a “change agent” with people he knows he can help transition to better lives—because he’s been in their shoes.
There have been several significant turning points in Cooper’s 34 years, but one stands out to him as the moment his current mission was crystallized. On October 27, 2015, Cooper’s longtime friend Uhon Johnson was shot and killed by Pierre Lamont Griffin, who has since pleaded guilty to three murders, including Johnson’s.
Johnson was studying accounting at A-B Tech and trying to make some life changes, with Cooper as a mentor. At the time, Cooper was an administrative assistant in A-B Tech’s Student Services Division, but he also helped mentor individual students and the college’s Minority Student Leadership Academy.
“I was sitting in an open area and was the only black male, so a lot of students gravitated to me,” Cooper said. “I was able to help them with a lot of things, like finding resources and getting jobs. I also had contacts from my previous work with the Neil Dobbins Rehab Center, my participation in a “Ban the Box” panel at Stand Against Racism event with the YWCA and Mission Health, and other things, so I began to see the connections I could help people make.”
When Johnson was killed, “that’s when I really got engaged. I was getting burned out, needed to make more money, but wasn’t sure what I wanted to do next until Uhon was murdered. That was my turning point when I knew my passion was helping former offenders who are serious about re-entry,” Cooper said.
During the same time frame, Cooper also reunited with Brent Bailey, who handled Cooper’s project re-entry during his time in prison. Cooper conducted specialized tours for former offenders in the VERA Pathways program, which was run by Bailey. “There are no coincidences. It was another sign of what I should be doing,” Cooper said.
The perfect opportunity arose when A-B Tech’s Michael Carter called to say the college had a new position that might be perfect for Cooper. It was created through the UpSkill WNC program and funded by an Innovation Grant from the N.C. Department of Commerce to the Mountain Area Workforce Development Board. The award was used to create more direct engagement with members of the community who encounter barriers to accessing higher education and sustainable-wage jobs, including the justice involved.
“The UpSkill WNC grant has given us the opportunity to expand tailored workforce support to the justice involved,” said Dr. Shelley White, A-B Tech’s vice president of Continuing Education and Workforce Development. “Philip is uniquely prepared to support students and community members seeking a positive step forward. He is an expert motivator and his approach is holistic, weaving resources together, connecting individuals to employers and resource partners.”
Cooper spends each day working with clients, employers, and other organizations throughout Buncombe County. He has a caseload of about 30 clients, all justice-involved, whom he helps with résumés, job coaching, and connections to jobs and resources. But, more important, he helps them stay on track and succeed.
“The piece that was missing before was peer support,” Cooper said. “Considering I am a former offender myself, I like being able to be the bridge and to eliminate barriers for my clients. I want to change stereotypes and be the conduit to resources.”
As someone who has lived the experience, Cooper said he is better positioned to help his justice-involved clients succeed. “When I got out of prison, I had the emotional support and structure from my dad, counseling, and a probation officer, so I understand the support system and wraparound services they need.”
In his youth, Cooper grew up in Hickory and moved to Asheville in seventh grade. He said he began using marijuana at age 12 and began selling drugs as a teen. He was first charged with a felony in his teenage years and later got a trafficking conviction that landed him in prison from 2008 to 2011.
“Going to prison was the best thing that ever happened to me because I couldn’t have stopped using drugs without it,” Cooper said. “I was trafficking and using my own supply. In prison, I learned to experience pain without drugs—my ex-wife left me then—and I learned how to pray and know God.”
Upon release, he enrolled at A-B Tech, lived with his father, and worked as a substance abuse case manager at Neil Dobbins Center.
“People were telling me to slow down, but I wanted to change the world. I finally said to myself that MLK, JFK, Malcolm X, and Nelson Mandela weren’t worried about burning out when they were changing the world,” he said.
After graduating from A-B Tech in 2013 with a degree in Human Services Technology, Cooper was hired by the college. Although he recently lost his beloved mother, Cooper’s future is bright. Earlier this year, he married Renee Cooper, whom he met at The Rock Church. His three biological daughters and a step-daughter are all thriving. Currently a member of the 37th Leadership Asheville class, Cooper ultimately plans to pursue a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration so that he can run a non-profit dedicated to helping the adult justice-involved population.
“We have 700 people coming back to Buncombe County from prison each year,” Cooper said. “This is going to be big. It can mean someone with a misdemeanor all the way to a major felony.”
With his current caseloads getting larger, there also is a need to manage them with limited resources. In addition to the Justice Resource Center and NC Works, Cooper works with Goodwill, the SPARC Foundation, and Green Opportunities and other organizations, who have partnered with A-B Tech so that the organizations can leverage resources and support each other.
“Philip and I have been working together to serve the justice-involved,” said Jonathon Knight, Project Re-Entry Manager for Goodwill Industries. “We are looking at resources and seeing what is working and what is not working. Some of us were getting large caseloads and individuals were not getting served properly.”
Knight said it was more feasible to switch to community caseloads instead of an individual trying to do everything. “As Philip refers people to us, they will get an additional level of support, more job coaching and referrals. They will have Philip, myself, and other Goodwill staff. It creates natural community support,” he said.
White said A-B Tech is actively seeking additional partnerships and funding to sustain and expand the program and resources for the justice-involved population.
Cooper said his client Michelle Hurst is one of his all-star clients, who initially sought his help because he could provide peer support and advocacy.
“She was released from prison and worked at Burger King, where she did a good job, but wanted more,” he said. “She tried to be a CNA (certified nurse assistant), but ran into resistance because of her background. She came to me for counsel because I had also helped her fiancé, who was another connection from Brent.”
Hurst, whose primary goal was to help people and give back, received a certified peer support specialist certificate from Vaya Health and now works for Mountain View Treatment Center. Cooper provided coaching, job counseling, and helped secure funding for her education from the Skills, Training and Employment program (STEP).
“I’ve been able to help Michelle and many other former offenders who are now working,” Cooper said. “I am blessed to have been a part of Michelle’s journey and many other former offenders who are now employed and making a living wage. Passionate people are going to do whatever it takes.”