partner stories

Change Agent Cooper

Change Agent Cooper


With a heart for community and an infectious energy, Change Agent Phillip Cooper has taken his tumultuous past and channeled it to create positive change for those facing some of the same life experiences that he has faced.

Formerly incarcerated, Cooper has first-hand experience of what it means to be in prison and have to start a new life upon release. With the help of family members, he was able to launch a successful re-entry into society, but he says that many people don’t have a similar network to assist them. And that’s where he focuses his efforts, on the physical, mental and behavioral aspects needed for people, especially in the Black community, re-entering society. He provides those needing help with immediate assistance and connection to a network of available resources.

Currently in process of creating a 501 (c)(3) called “Operation Gateway,” which will primarily assist the formerly incarcerated with mental illness and Substance Use Disorder (SUD), Cooper has been busy networking, connecting the Black community to funding agents and creating a path for change. By partnering with the group Just Economics and Dogwood’s Racial Equity Grant, he was able to offer greatly-needed financial resources to prisoners re-entering society. The program provided cell phones for job searches, sober transportation to recovery meetings and appointments, access to culturally aligned counseling, rental assistance for sober living and funds towards obtaining vital records, including driver’s license restoration.

Cooper also worked with the Tzedek Fellowship to create a program called Clinicians of Color Movement (CCM) for people in the Black community working in or preparing to work in the mental health field. He had worked as a peer counselor for a recovery program while he was in prison. When he got out, he became a certified peer support specialist. It was during this work that he noticed the lack of diversity in providers of mental health services. His work with Clinicians of Color drew the attention of leadership at NC DHHS who wanted to know more about what Cooper was doing and how to destigmatize mental health services for the Black community in Western North Carolina and the state at large.

From there, Cooper created an event called “Voices of Affrilachia,” featuring listening sessions and site visits between NC DHHS officials and BIPOC community leaders in WNC to create culturally sensitive mental health and SUD services in WNC. Cooper has partnered with the United Way of Rutherford County and Dogwood on this “Voices of Affrilachia” project. As a direct result of the “Voices of Affrilachia” project, United Way of Rutherford County and Cooper partnered on a larger, short-term project funded by NC DHHS in collaboration with Partners Behavioral Health. The program, named “Project Urgent Need,” served people with severe mental illness or co-occurring disorders. During August and September, Cooper led a team of peer support specialists. In that short time frame, they provided housing assistance and follow-up peer support to 170 people in Western North Carolina, Catawba and Cleveland Counties. Other team members distributed Narcan across a seven-county footprint. To date, project leaders have been notified of six lives saved from overdoses thanks to this program.

In addition, Cooper has also recently taken on leadership of the WNC Recovery to Career program at Land of Sky Regional Council. This program is part of the Appalachian Regional Commission’s INvestments Supporting Partnerships In Recovery Ecosystems (INSPIRE) Initiative and is supported with Dogwood matching funds. The program deploys Certified Peer Support Specialists like Cooper to help connect workers affected by substance use disorder with supportive services and training so that they can prepare for, secure and retain employment.

As a networker, Cooper has worked with many outstanding organizations in WNC seeking the betterment of the community, but of his work with Dogwood he says, “It has been graceful and genuine. I think Dogwood was needing a person like me, and I was needing a foundation like Dogwood. I came with lived experience and knowledge of gaps in services and relationships in the community. They were genuinely looking for people like me to provide experience, strength and hope.”

“I think Dogwood was needing a person like me, and I was needing a foundation like Dogwood.”

– Change Agent Phillip Cooper

Dogwood Partner In

Area(s) Served

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Health & Wellness | Goal 4

Increase Access to Behavioral Health and Substance Use Prevention and Treatment

Support programs and networks that reduce deaths, treat addiction, and prevent first use

Objective 4.1: Reduce opioid overdose mortality throughout the region

Objective 4.2: Reduce untreated behavioral health and substance use disorder in disproportionately affected communities

Objective 4.3: Prevent and reduce behavioral health issues and substance use (tobacco, alcohol, illicit and prescription drugs) in youth

Health & Wellness | Goal 3

Address Health Disparities

Help reduce disparities based on race, location, education and income factors

Objective 3.1: Improve health outcomes for women and infants in rural and low-income communities and communities of color

Objective 3.2: Reduce the prevalence of common chronic health diseases in disproportionately affected communities

Objective 3.3: Increase effectiveness of health care through delivery of culturally aligned services

Health & Wellness | Goal 2

Increase Access to Whole-Person Health Care

Invest in integrated heath care with seamless connections to supportive services

Objective 2.1: Increase the number of people with affordable health insurance coverage

Objective 2.2: Increase the available workforce for primary and allied health care services

Objective 2.3: Increase access to comprehensive and integrated care

Objective 2.4: Increase access to community-based services in low-income, elderly and rural communities

Health & Wellness | Goal 1

Support and Build Healthy Communities

Support communities that promote healthy living and resiliency and help mitigate the impact of trauma, isolation and stress on individuals and families, especially those experiencing poverty

Objective 1.1: Decrease adverse experiences (ACEs and traumatic violence) and improve individual and family resiliency

Objective 1.2: Increase access to community environments that promote healthy living and social connectedness across the age continuum

Economic Opportunity | Goal 4

Foster Entrepreneurship

Support a well-funded, sustainable, competitive entrepreneur and small business ecosystem throughout the region

Objective 4.1: Increase the number of Person of Color (POC)-led small businesses throughout the region

Objective 4.2: Increase the number of rural small businesses throughout the region

Economic Opportunity | Goal 3

Build Economic Ecosystems

Help build a regional economic ecosystem that supports increased creation/retention of jobs and business ownership

Objective 3.1: Improve access to higher-paying jobs throughout the region, targeting the lowest income populations

Objective 3.2: Increase and retain quality jobs

Objective 3.3: Stimulate economic growth, catalyzing businesses and revenue

Economic Opportunity | Goal 2

Promote Work Readiness

Help build a skilled workforce with the knowledge and technical abilities to excel in a wide range of industry employment opportunities that provide a competitive, sustainable wage

Objective 2.1: Close the educational attainment gap in WNC, staying on pace with regional and county-specific projections (myFutureNC 2030).

Economic Opportunity | Goal 1

Develop a Comprehensive Data Resource

Source, analyze and share a comprehensive, county-by-county data set that paints a full picture of work readiness, economic development and entrepreneurial needs and opportunities specific to Western North Carolina

Education | Goal 3

Support Higher Education Career Readiness

Work in tandem with Economic Opportunity Strategic Priority to invest in career readiness at the community college and university levels

Objective 4.1: Close the educational attainment gap in WNC, staying on pace with regional and county-specific projections (myFutureNC 2030).

Education | Goal 2

Improve K-12 Education

Support K-12 learning experiences with the resources and sustainability to provide an excellent academic and social-emotional education, so that all students graduate ready for college or career

Objective 2.1: Address teacher workforce challenges

Objective 2.2: Equip families of students to support academic growth and social-emotional health

Objective 2.3: Increase capacity of partners to provide supports and services, particularly for children facing challenges related to poverty, systemic racism, being differently abled or English language learners

Education | Goal 1

Improve Early Childhood Education Ecosystem

Invest in an improved early childhood education ecosystem with the resources and sustainability to provide developmentally appropriate, affordable and accessible education and care to support ages birth to five, so that all children in WNC enter kindergarten ready to learn

Objective: Address early childhood educator workforce challenges

Education | Goal 4

Develop a Comprehensive Landscape Study

Source, analyze and share a comprehensive set of publicly available data that provides a regularly updated, county-by-county picture of access, workforce and student outcomes in early childhood education and K-12 education specific to Western North Carolina

Housing | Goal 5

Use Impact Investments to Create Affordable and Workforce Housing

Loans, guarantees, and other financial tools to leverage funding opportunities

Housing | Goal 4

Create and Preserve Housing Units for Persons Below 50% of the Median Income

Increase affordable housing for lowest-income individuals and families

Objective 4.1: Create rental units for households below 50% of the median income

Objective 4.2: Help families pay no more than 30% of their income on housing

Objective 4.3: Create and preserve communities in a way that is representative of the WNC natural landscape

Housing | Goal 3

Create and Preserve Senior Housing

Support age-appropriate resources in affordable and workforce units, rental and owned

Objective 3.1: Create needed rental and homeownership opportunities for seniors

Objective 3.2: Incorporate supportive services in rental housing developments

Objective 3.3: Increase use of universal design in development

Housing | Goal 2

Create and Preserve Supportive Housing Rental Units

Invest in housing with sustainable supports for physical and mental health and wellbeing

Objective 2.1: Create new supportive housing

Objective 2.2: Preserve existing supportive housing

Objective 2.3: Leverage state and federal funds

Single story home in the midst of being build with 3 volunteers helping.

Housing | Goal 1

Support Healthy and Safe Revitalization Opportunities

Support healthy and safe revitalizations that work against displacement and gentrification, preserve home ownership and create generational wealth.

Objective 1.1: Revitalize Neighborhoods

Objective 1.2: Repurpose existing structures to minimize environmental impact

Objective 1.3: Support home ownership