Sunday, March 26, 2023

Can Changing Summer Change Lives?

This is the first in a series of weekly interviews by Greg Richmond, titled “Three Questions For,” with education visionaries to learn what inspires them, what they value, and how they hope to change the world.

3Q4: Three Questions for Josh Phillips of Change Summer


When we think of summer, we often think of favorite childhood memories. You might be doing that right now.

Yet not all childhood summers are created equally. Some young people have summers full of enrichment and adventure, some do not. Change Summer is a non-profit organization that provides students from low-income communities with a summer experience that increases independence, curiosity, confidence, and responsibility. It was started in 2019 by Josh Phillips, who had been a school leader and held several senior positions at Uncommon Schools.

Greg Richmond: Paint a picture for us of Change Summer camp. What is it like?

Josh Phillips: Summer camp is a niche thing. It’s a foreign concept to a lot of people. It’s what they have seen in the movies or on TV. Our philosophy around camp is not really related to the camp facilities. We don’t worry so much about what summer camp “should be” in the traditional sense. What we do is say that we want our students, who come from low income communities, to have two weeks where they can simply be themselves, take their masks off, not be stressed, take a deep breath, not deal with the day-to-day trauma that some of them have to deal with, have fun and be kids.

Kids from more privileged backgrounds, like my daughter, when she gets to do something over the summer, whether it is camp or travel or spending time with grandparents, she can just be herself. She can just wake up. There’s going to be food. She’s going to have a bed to sleep in. There’s going to be adults that care about her and she can just relax and have fun.

We put a lot of different programming and structures around that, but that’s it. When we are designing the program with our camp directors, that’s what we’re thinking about. How to make sure our kids are having that experience each and every day. Change Summer campers deserve that.

We keep it simple. We ask, “What would be fun and engaging for kids at camp?” We’re going to do some basic things. We’re going to do some athletics, like soccer, flag football, basketball and volleyball. We’re going to definitely do swimming. We do a ton of arts — music, theater, dance, arts & crafts, photography, broadcasting. We do outdoor adventure, nature, hiking, those kinds of things. Our program is solid because it is purposely simple, engaging, and emotionally safe.

Also, because of our mission, philosophy, and goals, we have a social-emotional program. It is based on a curriculum that we have built. Who am I in this world? How do I feel about that, where do I want to go, and how do we all relate together? The curriculum is grounded in Change Summer’s four core values: independence, curiosity, responsibility, and self-confidence. Those are the four social emotional skills or values that we focus on.

Richmond: What is the impact on the first-time campers?

Phillips: One of things we do as part of our outdoor activities is a little bit of mindfulness. Kids will do some breathing exercises, take off their shoes and socks and walk barefoot in the grass with their eyes closed. Being someone who has been in urban education for 20 years now, I should have known that that kind of experience would be meaningful, but it never dawned on me that many of our students would have never walked barefoot on grass. That was an unbelievably powerful experience for several campers. They felt special.

Then there are two of our values that parents comment on all the time when kids get back from camp: confidence and independence. They feel like their children have tried new things and successfully made it for two weeks away from the comforts of home. That’s super-powerful. They feel like they can do things on their own and are more prepared for high school, college, and life.

Richmond: What values of your own did you draw upon to start Change Summer?

Phillips: I was fortunate to start my teaching career at Roxbury Prep in Boston in 2000. I was lucky in that I was with the same people and organization for nearly 20 years. There’s a lot of pluses with that and I wouldn’t trade that for anything. But you get really comfortable. We all have these things professionally, when you think about your career and your life. I wanted to make sure that I did something that I felt like I was put here to do. At some level, we are all searching for that.

I can’t say that Change Summer is my absolute purpose, but it feels right. It feels like I am doing something that is my hedgehog. I’m not the best non-profit, startup leader in the country. That’s not what I am saying. I’m saying that I am uniquely qualified to do what I am currently doing and that feels really good.

Over time, I just got itchy and a little restless. The big challenge for me was a deep fear of failure. You’re at an organization for almost 20 years, it’s not that you don’t fail. I failed a thousand times at Uncommon Schools, but you’re buffered by amazing people and the organization. This is like, “Holy crap, if this thing fails, this is me failing.” You’ve got to overcome that. At some level, you just have to say, “What’s the worst-case scenario here? It just doesn’t work. The worst-case scenario is that over 2000 kids got great summer experiences. You’ve got to mentally get over the fear of failure in terms of what will people think.”

This interview first ran here on Medium.

Greg Richmond
Greg Richmond is the founder of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. @GregRichmond


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