Phyllis Nichols is the former Phyllis Young of Kingsport. This article upon her retirement is courtesy the Knoxville News-Sentinel:
Phyllis Nichols doesn’t like to think about legacy. But after nearly 30 years with the Knoxville Area Urban League ‒ 22 of them as its CEO ‒ she is stepping away.
“The Urban League is a historic institution. I was privileged to sit in the chair for a brief time,” she told Knox News. “My hope is that I made it one that the community will continue to embrace and support.”
Nichols has been committed to Knoxville Area Urban League's mission of promoting diversity, economic and social equity in Knoxville since she joined the 54-year-old institution in 1994. She will remain as its leader until a new CEO is named, which Nichols expects will be in mid-October.
Before she retires, Knox News spoke with Nichols about her Urban League tenure, the agency's future and how everyone can better support Knoxville’s underserved communities and students.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
You previously said serving as an Urban League CEO was a calling you were blessed to answer. What compelled you to answer the calling?
It is not a job that I thought about. It was an opportunity that came to me to engage with the Urban League on a contract basis in 1994. I learned very quickly that I love the organization itself, and the culture of the organization. But more so, I saw how it uniquely helped people, especially people of color and I had not, in my professional life, seen that or been a part of that in the way that the services were delivered.
The other part is I quickly learned about being part of a national organization in a national movement, which was very inspiring. And so, from helping individuals to being something bigger than what I saw in Knoxville, propelled me, inspired me, and motivated me.
It satisfied my inner calling for service for doing for others and I thought that I could bring the perspective to the work that I had not seen. On days when it was really, really tough, and times when we were struggling financially or (funding for some of) our programs dried up, a calling is what keeps you going.
What initiatives, accomplishments or partnerships are you most proud of during your time with the Urban League?
When people ask me about one thing, I think they expect that I'm going to respond about an event, and yes, we are very proud of events. But we're most proud of every day when somebody walks into the Urban League, we can help them find a job or get additional training. We can have a first-time home buyer buy a house. We're helping entrepreneurs everyday position themselves so that their small business is not only successful, its sustainable.
What the Urban League stands on and what we're most proud of are the individuals and families that we help every single day.
You’ve been dedicated to equity in schools. Knox County Schools has made some progress, but what can school board members do to fix the academic achievement gap?
I am an education equity advocate. I would say that there has been some progress made, but I feel like we've gone one step forward and two steps back. As co-chair of a disparity and education outcomes task force in 2016, we were determined that it was not going to be shelved. We worked over 18 months to make recommendations. Some of them were adopted and some of them were, I feel, accepted or tolerated, and we don't want anything tolerated ‒ we want things to be institutionalized. But there has to be ongoing change and Knox County struggles with accepting that there is not equity among our students.
We have to look at reasons or causes, or maybe we have to look at some root causes as to why we keep struggling with our historically underserved or why we’re not able to move the needle in some of our schools. I think that Knox County has to recognize why we're the third-largest public school district in the state of Tennessee, and we struggle with accepting that we need to have an equity policy. Knoxville has (the Department of School Culture) and I know the people who are working within that and the director are doing a great job, but when the school board does not approve a policy that they can implement, we're stifling what we need to do for our students in Knox County.
(And teacher retention and recruitment is a challenge across the country), and if you are struggling with recruiting teachers of color, and they see that the school board doesn't have an equity policy or that there is not open and honest discussion about it, and you look at how students of color are progressing or regressing, and then you look at policies, if you were one of the few – and there are fewer – teachers of color who are being trained and recruited by everybody, if you are recruited by a district that has an office of equity, they have streams of support, where would you choose to go?
We have a plan here in Knox County about what we want to do, we're going to grow our own. I don't know how you're gonna retain our own unless we have policy that support what we need to do right for our students of color.
What can community members advocate for in their daily lives to make our schools more equitable?
Over the last year or two, the most zealous community education advocates were members of the community who didn’t have kids in Knox County Schools. (They) live here and value what education does for the quality of life for our community. These people were advocating because they understand that a vibrant school district with excellence will help to create a better quality of life in an economic space for the community. You can't stop advocating for a public education once your kids graduate. So, I would say the average citizen needs to remain engaged in public education.
The other thing is citizens need to be informed. It's very easy to watch the school board meeting. They’re online, even better to attend. But you have to make sure that you understand the agenda. What's going on? What's the discussion? What's on task for the school board? What we've seen is that people attend when there's something controversial or there's a budget crisis. We should be there all the time, working in concert with our school board members and the district administration to support what is best for the students. The alliance should be throughout the school year, not just when it's budget time. I encourage our citizens to understand how important their participation is.
Along similar lines, Knoxville has a higher poverty rate among the Black community. When it’s such a complex issue like this, where do you start?
I've lived in Knoxville since 1978. So, I feel like I can speak about Knoxville. Knoxville has been the type of community where if an issue does not affect me and mine, meaning that if it does not affect my family, my neighborhood, my business, my church or religious affiliation, then I tend not to pay attention and then when it is brought to our attention, we tend to avert our eyes. For Knoxville to (have 40% of the Black people) who live in Knoxville in poverty, that should be alarming. But instead, what I heard is: "No, it’s not 40%, it’s 34%." That's called diversion. If it's 20%, that's too much. Ask the families who are living in poverty. If it’s 10%, it’s too much.
We tend to divert it by putting the blame or (saying) that's not my problem. If we want to make sure that Knoxville is the place where we want to live, and work, and raise our family, then it is our collective responsibility to make sure that our community is not divided up between people who are living in poverty and folks who are able to migrate through this community and be untouched by it. We all are affected in some way.
(Poverty is often) multigenerational. We have to look at it and approach it with multigenerational solutions. Education is certainly one, but we'll lose generations of people to poverty If we don't look at how our seniors who are living in poverty right now. What are we doing for our seniors who have food scarcity, and lack of health care, and lack of transportation, and living in subpar housing situation?
There are organizations and individuals that are concerned about the plight of our seniors that are in poor situations, (but there’s not enough). There’s not enough if we are sending kids home hungry and if there are seniors who are food insecure. Do we have enough affordable housing? Of course, we don't. Knoxville has to come together and not just assign (these issues) to a few small entities to solve the problem. We have to understand that it's complex and we need more than a few people addressing the issue every day.
How do you recommend others carry the torch in making progress on this issue?
Everyone can do something. It is not up to me to tell you what you can do best. I think most contributing, thoughtful and intentional adults know how they can contribute. They will remove the excuses of “I'm busy," "I don't have time.” Everybody's busy. Nobody has time. But busy people get things done. I know that because I try to work with busy people. But just being willing to step out and say I can do something.
What can other groups learn from the Urban League's legacy and current model of operating and uplifting the community.
You have to make sure that, as a nonprofit, that you are strong internally and that you have a great board that will help you to have the governance and the oversight that is needed. The Urban League has benefited from a great board. Our mission speaks for what we do, and I lead with mission. Make sure that you explain (and) people understand what your mission is and how you go about implementing your mission and people will support. They will support the mission and the people who implement the mission.
And follow through. Deliver on what you say that you're going to do. See, the promise is not just to donors, the promise is to the people that you serve. So, you want to make sure that there's integrity.
Closing on a personal note, what do you want your legacy to be?
I don't think about legacy. What I hope that I have accomplished during my tenure is that I have positioned the Urban League to go to the next level, to enhance our impact and our service to the community. I left it better than I found it; I made it stronger. (I hope) the next visionary leader can keep moving higher with the Urban League and make additional partnerships when needed and that people will continue to invest in the work of their Urban League because they can see the impact of what we do.