Philip Thompson’s (’11) life is driven by his faith, a thirst for knowledge, and a relentless desire to leave his community better than he found it.
Born and raised in Flint, Thompson graduated from Flint Northwestern High School in 1990. The first-generation college student considered several paths for his future, all of which were influenced by various family members whom he had respected when he was a young man.
“I thought, as a youngster, that I was going to be a preacher, a teacher, or a nurse,” said Thompson. “That’s both because I knew people in those professions, and I always had a desire to serve others.”
Thompson eventually decided the preacher route suited him and he enrolled at a bible college in Indianapolis, Indiana. After graduation, he took a post at a church in Charlotte, N.C., where he would live and work for the next 13 years. In 2005, when he received word that the pastor from his home church, Bethlehem Temple in Flint, was planning to retire, he applied for and received the job.
“I know it is cliché to say, but coming home was a dream come true for me,” Thompson said. “I had many opportunities in the growing economy of Charlotte, but I wanted to be in Flint and serve the people of my home church and the Flint region.”
Thompson returned to his hometown with a passion for his community and a goal to make Flint a better place. But his thirst for knowledge remained, and he began to think about furthering his education.
As he resettled in the Flint community, he quickly recognized that he could quench that thirst close to home with a bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan-Flint. He enrolled at UM-Flint in 2006 and began working towards a BA in Economics within the College of Arts and Sciences.
As a father and church leader, keeping up with his studies had its challenges. Fortunately, Thompson found the UM-Flint faculty helpful and he soon began to grow as a scholar. He credits his UM-Flint experience with broadening his perspective on life and his ability to help people and improve his community.
“UM-Flint has been the most important institution in my life outside of my church,” said Thompson. “When I went to bible college, I was learning to understand and defend my faith, which was something that I already believed in.”
“As a student at UM-Flint, the faculty challenged me to understand what others believed, or did not believe in,” said Thompson.
Thompson completed his Bachelor’s Degree in Economics in 2011, and later enrolled in the Masters in Liberal Studies program at UM-Flint. His thesis, which he hopes to finish this summer, focuses on colloquialism and the African American identity. It is a topic that Thompson has been fascinated by for a long time.
“From an early age, I was always intrigued by these odd little sayings that my parents and family had. They would string together words into these little phrases that rolled off the tongue and had a lesson woven within them. When I began to seek a thesis topic, I thought I would explore that aspect of my history," said Thompson.
What Thompson discovered through his research was his own relationship to the history of African American language. It was a history that began in the hulls of slave ships where people with different languages and cultures struggled together to adapt to their environment. His graduate studies helped him to understand the role language played for his ancestors as they used it to subversively communicate about their efforts to attain freedom.
This work also gave him a clearer picture of the challenges that we face today.
“The struggle we face today is about disentangling the issues regarding race and language,” Thompson said. “I see the current African American vernacular not as a fragmentation of the English language, but an informal variation on it like all slang used by various cultures. Understanding that is an important step in breaking down barriers for understanding one another.”
As Phillip nears the completion of his graduate work, he is also adjusting to a new career that allows him to give back to the Flint community in new ways. In October of 2016, Thompson took a position as Manager of Community Development at the Flint and Genesee Chamber of Commerce. It is a position that complements his broad education and desire to help the Flint community.
“At the Chamber of Commerce, I get to be the eyes and ears of the organization and keep my finger on the pulse of the community. This work provides me the opportunity to make the region a better place to live and do business,” he said. “I want to shift the narrative of the Flint region. I want to attract people to the area and give our young people a reason to stay.”
His work at the Chamber is also providing Phillip the opportunity to be an engaged alumnus and to continue to work with one of his favorite instructors. As part of his outreach efforts for the Chamber, Phillip has been working with his former professor, Paula Nas, on several economic development projects. Paula is a Lecturer in the Department of Economics and the Interim Director of University Outreach. The two have collaborated on a number of projects that bring people together from around Flint’s neighborhoods to identify economic development barriers in individual neighborhoods.
“It has been exciting for me to be able to work with Paula on these projects and to stay connected to UM-Flint. UM-Flint is a crown jewel of the region, and I am proud to be associated with it,” Thompson said.
“The university has been the catalyst to give me the confidence to do the things I want to do as a man, as a church leader, and as a community member. I look forward to being an involved alumnus for many years to come.”