Character is Everything

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Character is Everything

The guiding principle of Wintley Phipps’ work as musician, minister, and youth advocate.

In Wintley Phipps’ remarkable career as a vocal artist, heWintley Phipps has sung in front of six U.S. presidents, Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, and Oprah. As a minister, he’s delivered messages of equality and hope in almost every continent on the globe.

And to help young people most at-risk of incarceration, he believes they must first be freed from the bonds of self-doubt. Through his work with the U.S. Dream Academy, Phipps encourages children and youth to realize their unique potential by helping them build skills, character, relationships, and hope. In the 20 years since its founding, the U.S. Dream Academy has impacted more than 10,000 young people around the country.

America’s Promise is honoring Phipps with a Promise Hero award on April 18, so we teamed up with our communications interns Beah Jacobson and Natalia Tramontana to ask Phipps about the intersection of music and advocacy, what inspired him to get involved with young people, and what he’s learned along the way. Check out his answers to our questions below:

1. Do you see music, ministry, and youth advocacy as separate and distinct pieces, or are they interconnected parts of your work? If so, how do they influence one another?

I guess you could say that my career portfolio is multi-dimensional. However, I see my God-given gifts and talents as being connected by a singular purpose: serving God and others. I cannot separate the gift of music from the calling to teach and uplift lives. 

For me, music is an entering wedge that gives me the opportunity to touch hearts and speak to the deeply felt needs of humanity. I am then able to inspire and motivate those who are more fortunate to see the needs of youth who are at-risk of incarceration.

2. In past interviews, you’ve spoken about two things that led to your decision to start the U.S. Dream Academy—discovering you had an incarcerated relative, and meeting then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. But those were the catalysts; when did you feel the calling?

One day, on a train from Baltimore to Philadelphia, I had the opportunity to meet a man who profoundly impacted my life. His name was Charles (Chuck) Colson who went to prison for the Watergate scandal.  He came out and dedicated the rest of his life to helping prisoners and their families.  Chuck inspired, encouraged, and mentored me. In short, he changed my life.

He invited me to serve on the board of directors for Prison Fellowship Ministries and there I saw the need of these children more profoundly than ever before. I also learned how you build and run ministry with integrity. I will be forever grateful to him. I too would like to spend the rest of my life being a champion for children whose parents are incarcerated and children falling behind in school. 

3. The U.S. Dream Academy works to empower young people most at-risk of becoming incarcerated “to believe in themselves and to succeed.” Would you say that having faith in one’s self is necessary for young people’s success? What else is crucial for young people today to reach their potential? 

In any endeavor in life, the ability to believe is a key to success. Believing in a bright future and a successful outcome provides power and inspiration that is incalculable. General Norman Schwarzkopf, Jr., once said two things are necessary for success: strategy and character.  He also said if you would be without one of the two, be without strategy. What he was saying is what I firmly believe. 

Not only does character count, I believe character is everything.  I believe character and competency are crucial for young people to reach their potential.

4. What are the most important lessons you’ve learned from the U.S. Dream Academy and the young people you meet and work with?

The most important lesson I have learned from my work with the U.S. Dream Academy is perseverance.  When you believe in what you are doing, you don’t give up. When you believe in a brighter future for yourself and for others, you don’t give up. There is in the heart of every young person an infinite capacity for self-improvement.

Dream 2007

No matter how daunting their life circumstance, their difficulties do not have to determine their destiny. Young people can rise from wherever they are and become whatever they dream of becoming.

5. What do you believe is the most effective way to break the bonds of generational poverty and give youth a real chance to reach their potential?

My theory of change can be found in the three pillars upon which the U.S. Dream Academy is built:  dream building, academic skill building, and character building. We have seen this three-pronged approach break the cycle of intergenerational poverty and incarceration in the lives of thousands of children. 

Dream building, academic skill building, and character building are the booster rockets that put these children into orbit, and it is extremely fulfilling to seem them reaching for the stars. These children are America’s Promise. There is no greater joy than making America greater, one child at a time.

For more information on Promise of America awardees, check out our conversation with Northside Achievement Zone CEO Sondra Samuels, A Two-Generation Approach and CityBridge founders David and Katherine Bradley, An Appetite for Service.