Rico Phillips is a retired, 27-year veteran Flint Firefighter. He is also an inspiration!. In 2019, the National Hockey League honored Rico with its prestigious Community Hero Award. They did so because, in 2010, Phillips started an inner-city hockey program to introduce Flint kids to the sport. Rico shares fascinating stories about growing up in Flint, being bi-racial, and how he decided to become a firefighter. He discusses his work with children in Flint. He also talks about his work as Director of Cultural Diversity and Inclusion with the Ontario Hockey League and his work with black NHL players to bridge the gap between urban communities and hockey. Don't miss this podcast. It is uplifting and will make you proud of what Flint area people are doing for others. Rico discusses growing up in Flint and the challenges of growing up bi-racial. His mom is from West Germany, and his father is from Flint. Rico is a well-known community activist in Flint, Michigan. He was a familiar face in area schools for his fire prevention and career development talks with students. For many years, he has been involved in helping to start Back to the Bricks, a popular car event in downtown Flint. His service also included being the community liaison between the Flint Firefighters Union and the community. For 17 years, he was a Vice-President of the Flint Firefighters Union. Rico has also been a hockey referee for 34 years. He is married to Sandy, a graduate of Flint Southwestern High School, and attended C.S. Mott Community College. --- Send in a voice message: https://anchor.fm/radiofreeflint/message
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OK, this is Arthur Busch. You're listening to Radio Free Flint, and I have our podcast guest today. Rico Phillips of Flint, Michigan. Rico is a retired Flint firefighter. Now he has a job with the Ontario Hockey League as its diversity director. Rico is.
One of those guys that we all know we have people that join stuff. We have people that give their money to things. Rico probably does a little of that, but he does stuff.
Welcome, Rico. I'm proud to have you as my guest.
Thank you, Art. It's it means a lot to be your guest. I mean, I remember the beginning of my career.
You were in the prosecutor's office, and I always looked up to you. But then, I got more involved with our Union and started doing things that union officials do, intertwined with the Community leaders.
We passed their friendship immediately, so it's an honor to be here with you.
Yeah, so Rico. I want to ask you some questions about your life.
How did you get to where you are today? So why don't we start by telling us about where you grew up and a bit of your background? Such as the schools you attended. All that sort of stuff.
Sure, I was born in 1969. So, as I say, the summer of 69 because I wanted to let everyone know I was a 70s kid for my youngest days.
I was born and raised here in Flint. My mom is interested. Many people don't realize she is an immigrant from West Germany. She was born and raised in Augsburg, West Germany. She is a war baby because she was born in 1939; World War II started not long afterward. Mom, her parents, and her sister survived the war. She was young, incredibly young. My mother does not talk a whole lot about this experience.
When the war ended, she was six years old, but the aftermath of that, I'm sure, created the character that she is today. Although, of course, anybody who knows my mom knows she's quite the character, anyway. She immigrated here to the US after having had three siblings. They're all older sisters of mine, and all were born in Germany. Their father was in the military. He was at the end of his tenure with the military. He returned to the United States, and ironically, he was from Beecher, so that's how my mom ended up here in Flint. They were divorced.
Later she met my father, originally from Cleveland, OH, but like so many people, migrated to Flint for the GM jobs. So, after his service in the Korean War, he found out about Flint, MI, and came up here and started working for AC. Spark plug.
They made a union, and I grew up when I grew up. So, it's an interesting story, yard I; it's hard to explain to people what it was like growing up in a multicultural family, not just a multiracial and multicultural family. So, I told people this when I was outside playing with my friends.
I was in good old USA. I mean, all the things kids do that you can imagine we did in the 70s. But when I went into the house, it was Germany. There, man, things were led with an iron fist. You eat all your food. Rico, don't waste any of your food. I'm skinny to this day because I think my mom gave me a complex about eating. But honestly, I could not ask for a better scenario because of my situation.
When growing up, multiculturalism was new. More, it wasn't that I say new. It wasn't quite as kind of a place as today to have biracial, be a biracial person in the world. So, this map challenges not fitting in with white kids and not fitting in with black kids. But I was fortunate. I grew up on 10th St, just south of downtown Flint, on the other side of I-69.
The little neighborhood that I grew up in was remarkably diverse. It's all working-class folks. Some are a little bit more on the under-index side, but honestly, there are black people and white people. They intertwine each day, so it was a perfect place to grow up biracial.
So, I ended up going to Lincoln Elementary School. But I started at Oak Elementary School. So, I know people and their history in Flint. I went to Oak Elementary School, which is now a senior home called the Oak Center. I believe it's called. But anyway, yes, I went there until it closed in 1976. I was transferred to Lincoln Elementary School in kindergarten and first grade.
That's where I did my growing days as an elementary school kid. I have to tell you this school was hard when I was in school. I wasn't part of every activity that there was. It wasn't because my parents had forced me to be; everybody was doing it. If I didn't, I felt left out. And so, I had taken part in virtually everything from basketball, in which I wasn't some great athlete.
I was an awkward kid, but I even took part in floor hockey. I didn't know what hockey was when I was a kid playing floor hockey.
So, as I got on in age, my middle school was in the old junior high school building when I started at Zimmerman School.
And so, I went to them, and now, I rode a bus to get there, which was still 7th, 8th, and 9th. So, in, 7th-grade, I realized there were many people in Flint that match, and it was intimidating to have 9th graders in the building.
But my experience at Zimmerman was where most middle schoolers started to find themselves. What was so cool about it was finding myself there were the different people's dynamics. Also, I was getting known outside of my little circle of friends in my neighborhood. So that's where I started to figure out who I would be and what I wanted to do.
I recall we are in a social studies class where my teacher is Carol Barone. One week, we talked about occupations and careers. That's all you got back then. Today it is a whole curriculum. I can recall him going down the row of kids asking each of us what we wanted to do in life. I was sheepish because I knew I wanted to be a firefighter, right?
So, when I was six years old, I watched the show "Emergency" because we only had one television in the house. My dad liked "Emergency." So, I liked emergency. He was just like all of us. I wanted to think that he tapped into something hidden within me. I just wanted to be like those guys.
So, when I was a little boy, I always pretended I was a firefighter. And I have all my fire toys, trucks, ambulances, and police cars. And I would imagine all these things, and it kind of set the foot forward for me as far as what I wanted to do in life.
So, I was in class in 8th grade, and Mr. Barone asked us what we wanted to do. I was like, oh no, because, at that point, you can't pretend you're playing firefighter anymore. You know, I mean, it felt like I was going to say something like what a kid would say.
And so, when he got to me, I said I wanted to be a firefighter. He said, what did you say? I want to be a firefighter, and everyone started laughing, you know, at what I wanted to be in life. Then, Mr. Barone said some words that inspired me. He told everybody in the room to stop laughing. Now Mr. Barone came to my rescue. He said to the class of all of you that he's one of the few people here who knew it knew what he wanted to do. Rico, you should be proud of yourself, and I remember puffing my chest.
Yes, I was like, my teacher just gave me that confidence about what I want to do. So, in 8th grade Art, I went to the American Red Cross near the main post office. I took an advanced first aid and CPR course. Keep in mind, I was in 8th grade, and everybody was an adult in that class. So, I wondered aloud, what did I get myself into? I should not have come to this class. I was intimidated and ready to leave. But I couldn't leave because my mom had dropped me off, so I couldn't go anywhere. So, I had to stay, and little did I know my being there inspired the adults in that classroom, and they nurtured me. It set up the scene for me for years to come.
So, after I left middle school, I went to high school at Flint Southwestern. Go Colts.
I was a Colt, and started school there in 1983 as a freshman. Within my first couple of months, I was asked to be the head athletic trainer for the school. This is the person who handles all the athletic injuries. It was Joel Harris, and I was his substitute.
A teacher found out I had this CPR and first aid class, and he asked me. Would I be willing to help him come? You know we're working with him as an athletic trainer, student, trainer, and I thought, man, this is the golden ticket.
I can start working with patients and getting my craft and be ready. I can truly feel what it's like and prepare myself. I was right. It not only did it do that for me, Art, but it propelled me.
I was a lonely freshman, puny kid, and suddenly I was working with the varsity football team. Those guys are my buddies. I'm working with all these different teams. It was something to behold. I cherish those moments because that's what led me to ice hockey. I was assigned to the high school hockey team, where my love for the sport began.
Yes, we had an excellent hockey team. The hockey team went back as early as 1974 and 1975. The league didn't start until 1971 or something like that. Southwestern had a very talented team.
Flint Northern and Central were also in the Genesee County High School Athletic League. Central and Southwestern were bitter rivals. I mean, Central had a good team too. And when we played each other, it was ugly at times. But, just like any Central and Southwestern game, right in any sport.
So, were you playing hockey, or were you a trainer?
I was just a trainer. I had not learned how to ice skate yet.
So, I learned how to ice skate after I watched my first scrimmage. I said to myself; I got to do this. This is cool. The players were so fast, and so much skill was involved. The players were close to each other. So, I asked the coach and said if I get some ice skates, can I learn how to skate and play with the boys?
Dave Jensen is his name, and he laughed at me. And he says, you know we are a good team. I am sure Dave was thinking, like, I'm going to let this guy play. I can't even stand up on skates. Pull the boards around, as we call it. So, I'm pulling the boards and just moving skate with these guys.
Luckily, an assistant coach, George Earle, took 10 minutes out of every practice and worked with me exclusively on how to skate. So that's what led me to all these fantastic things I have done in ice hockey. But, of course, it all started with becoming an athletic trainer in high school for the high school hockey team.
Wow, so what year did you graduate from Southwestern?
I graduated in 1987. A significant moment in my high school hockey career was being an athletic trainer in 1985. I was a trainer for the baseball team. We had a star pitcher named Chad Joslyn who played on our team.
He was a transfer from Linden High School the year before. The whole idea is that we had a quality baseball team that he felt Coach Rettenmund would get him seen. Also, he would play D-1 at a bigger school than Linden, a D-3 program.
Chad was a great athlete. He pitched a one-hitter at Pontiac Central. He threw a one-hitter in the first game of the doubleheader. Then, after the break, we were back up to bat, and everyone sat on the edge of the dugout. We watched the batter. Then, Chad, standing up at the other end of the dugout, suddenly collapsed. Little did I realize it instantly, but Chad suffered a heart attack at 18.
So, by the time I got over to him, he had stopped breathing, and his heart had stopped. So, at 15 years old, I had to start CPR on a classmate. It happened in front of his teammates, parents, the other team, and everybody else who witnessed the whole thing.
A guy named Keith Fry, whose brother played on the team, happened to be there, and I worked on Chad. It was the first time I used that CPR class I took just a couple of years ago. I could not believe this was really in front of me.
When Flint or Pontiac Fire Department got there, they whisked him away. They gave him shocks to defibrillate him. At least three times, he's defibrillated that I witnessed, and between the time we got on a bus and started heading towards the hospital. I believe that he's going to live and he's going to be alright. He's 18 years old and an athlete. I watched them shock him. Unfortunately, he succumbed to a heart attack, and he died.
That was a moment in my life when I was beside myself. So then, Art, I wanted to step away from all of this. I did not want to use my hands that way again. I couldn't imagine the pain of going through this repeatedly. So, I questioned if I wanted to do this type of work. I realized this is very pressure-filled work not just because of that moment but also for anyone I helped.
I was called into the office later that week by Mr. Wilson, the principal at Southwestern at that time. I wondered why he called me to the office. I didn't do anything wrong. I was just beside myself, and everybody knew it. I wasn't talking to anyone, and they were the whole baseball team. Everyone, including Chad Johnson's mom, put her arms out, hugged me, and thanked me for giving them hope that day.
Art, that was when I realized I wasn't going to save the world in every emergency. That I was just going to offer hope through the work that I do. So, it led me down the path that I continued to follow my dreams and goals, to become a firefighter.
Now you left high school, where did you go? Where did you end up next?
I went to trade school for firefighters and EMTs. So first, I took the EMT course at Mott Adult High School. That was the easiest way to start working in the field to determine if I was made for this work. And shortly after that, I applied for the Flint Fire Department, but I wasn't hired, and I knew some things were missing credentials and experience.
So, I moved to Flint Township to join their Flint Township Fire Department as an on-call firefighter. There I received training, expertise, and experience. Then when I went back for a second time and applied a second time, I was hired by the Flint Fire Department in 1992 and started following my dreams from there.
It was hard to contain myself when I was first hired because my dream to work there had come true. So, I first visited the fire station that I was working at when I was 15 years old, and I met the firefighters. So, this incredible journey was coming to fruition. And here I was.
Now, where was that fire station?
I started at the main fire station at 310 E 5th St. I remember that number because the firefighter I first met there said, always remember where you started.
But yeah, I was at the Main fire station, downtown Flint. As a kid 13 years old, I'd ride my bike there because I didn't live far. There is a parking lot across the street from the station. So, after I got out of school and the businesspeople left the parking lot, I would ride my bike and sit over there in a parking lot.
I would just kind of think. Waiting in the summer for them to get a call and just watch them slide the polls. Then, to jump on the trucks and rescue vehicles with the lights and sirens on just thrilled me. More times than not, I didn't get to see them leave for a call. But the times that it did were moments to cherish. So, one day, a firefighter saw me sitting over there, and he must have recognized me from sitting there before and called me over. His name was Charles Lewis. Charlie said, what are you doing sitting over there? I told him, and he said, why don't you just come over and come inside? I said, well, I didn't think I could. He said absolutely, and that guy ended up putting me under his wing whenever I visited. I came to visit every third day. It became my work after school. After I had done my homework, I went to the station for a couple of hours.
I would visit with the firefighters, and he would take me out on the ramp and show me how the truck works. So, before I became a firefighter, I knew how the pump operated. I knew what was involved with the pump and felt enriched by this man. I was actually at his retirement on his last day. They have a retirement party on your last day of work.
Joe Davis was credited as being the first black Flint firefighter. I became buddies with him as a young teen and was there on his last day too. So, I had all these things to build off of, and I can't believe I made it. So now, what am I going to do?
Well, you made it; you know, coincidentally, my law practice was directly across from the Fire Department. There was an old green building, and eventually, they tore it down. That building was owned by the assistant principal at my junior high school, McKinley School, Harry Sutphin.
I got a chance to watch the firemen quite a bit too. There was an apartment above the office that looked at that fire Department. My wife and I lived there until I got on my feet on the ground in Flint.
And so that's an exciting story. So, you became a Flint firefighter, and that's when you joined the major leagues of firefighting.
Yeah, you can say that again. I knew that I was going to be in the major leagues. Still, when I was there, I hired in at 92; that was the beginning of Devil's night and its impact on our community. It started in Detroit and then crept this way north. It got a stronghold in our community. Devil's night had a lot to do with the sudden number of vacant houses available to torch, unfortunately.
So, I recall Devil's night as different in 1995 or 1994. When I worked in the field as a firefighter, I went to 11 or 12 structure fires on my first actual Devil night. It was unheard of at the time to have that many arson fires. It was extraordinary for a crew going to that many house fires in one night. There were over 200 fires reported on that one particular night.
When we were getting on the trucks that night, I said, all right, here we go. It was like 5:50 PM when we were going on our first call, and didn't return to the station until about 2:00 AM. We were entirely out of air tanks and entirely out of gas, so we had to go back and get a break. We went continuously for over 12 hours.
But one of the other things I think impacted my career early on wasn't just the volume of fires but the EMS work. Of course, we worked on the ambulance because Flint had its service.
So, I could work with our community on a real hands-on basis, unlike firefighting. So, it's abstract to fight fires compared to emergency services and directly helping people.
EMS is in people's homes and in people's atmospheres. You are dealing with their crisis on the worst days of their lives. It is challenging for those working in EMS and particularly in urbanized centers like Flint. It takes an incredible mental toll to work in EMS. But I have no regrets about some of my experiences in that job.
Both are good and bad, or stuff you know created something too. Do you know why we all have our war stories? So, I have hundreds of war stories I can go on and on about.
Well, we'll skip that part for a while.
Enough as it is.
Now, eventually, Devil's Night became quite a big deal. There were a lot of efforts to prevent it, with some success. I don't know if maybe it was just that those kids moved on to other stuff. I'm not quite sure what the story was there.
Flint hasn't had a perfect track record at solving arson crimes. In fact, not only did it have an extremely high rate of arson, but it had an extremely poor record of solving them.
Why was that? Why was that, and has that changed, if you know?
Yeah, you know, in my opinion, arson is probably one of the most complicated crimes to solve because you virtually have to go on inferences of information and evidence. So, unless you have a witness who says I seen that person start the fire, light the fire, then it's hard to convict a person.
People are on edge when they work in a community under stress. They are worried about their safety. So, they tend not to want to speak out. Again, they get concerned that their house can burn next with them in it. So, there's an intimidation factor involved.
From my experience as a firefighter, just because someone walks out of a house 10 minutes later, it's on fire doesn't prove arson. It is necessary to show more evidence to convict a person in court.
Say that the house was set on fire, so these crimes come without the necessary witnesses. You need people to say, "I witnessed that I'm willing to stand up for my community," Without this, it goes on and on.
There are all these other variables as to why there are arson fires. One of them is gang initiation practices; another one is blight control. Self-imposed blight control by neighbors. The other is just pure destruction. There is also the element of pyromania, where people set fires because they enjoy watching stuff burn.
The problem with all these things is the danger it poses to others. It is dangerous for firefighters. It is especially dangerous for people en route to a fire. Some people do not respect the law when our lights and sirens are wailing. These people are in jeopardy of getting into an accident with an emergency vehicle.
I've always tried to say how citizens can do their part. What can we best do?
So back in those days, we had a little bit of an Arson Bureau. That unit kept some things at bay sometimes because they would investigate arsons. They started sniffing around, saying, hey, who's setting the fires? Then the word gets out. Hey, they're looking for whoever is setting these fires, and then they quiet them for a time. What happened after the Arson Bureau went kaput for budgetary reasons, there was nobody pushing arsonists around. So, there was free fall, and that helped to create more blight because of fire-damaged homes.
Now the federal government came in probably five years ago and started demolishing vacant homes and vacant building structures. And that has created a lot fewer arson fires. But, from what I understand, Flint is still going through a cycle of arson fires for some odd reason. Flint arsons are not news anymore. So, you don't even really hear about it as much.
But there's a lot of vacant land in Flint right now. It has to do with those vacant houses being burned. Then, of course, as I said, I think you start to see more demolition of some structures.
One of the things that cities do to stem arson is to start employing modern techniques. So, for example, we use DNA in criminal investigations.
Physical evidence could be used if retrieved and tested for DNA evidence if somebody was smoking cigarettes or left a soft drink cup or bottle at the scene. Police can interview that person. Then go back to them if they deny being at the location of the fire.
Before you were born, the Flint Schools used fire prevention programs in elementary schools. They worked with kids to explain fire prevention and what a firefighter does daily. Flint had what they called a Fire Prevention Bureau.
Because of the Flint Fire Department fire prevention program in my elementary school, I saw my first Detroit Tiger baseball game. They gave us seats in the left-field bleachers, where I watched Rocky Colavito.
We discovered all these fire violations at our house and my Grandma and Grandpa's houses. I had to get them corrected. This program was supposed to help us develop an awareness of home fire prevention.
But you know, I took it to kind of a high level. So, if you found the most violations, I think they said you could win this trip to see the Detroit Tigers game. So, I was like a baseball. That's how I won the trip to Tiger Stadium through the Flint Fire Department. But it didn't win me points with my grandma and grandpa. They weren't all that happy with me because they were a little nervous about where those little slips were going.
I have a similar story. I was in the junior Fire Department program at Lincoln Elementary School. I didn't mention it because I was trying not to over-mention stuff. But I did the same thing. I went through my house to our neighbor's house. What they did back then was slightly different from if your time. I was promoted from firefighter or cadet to Fire Marshal of that program. So honestly, I was learning because of those firefighters, Emmanuel Farrell and Pete Mata, at the age of eight or nine. They're both still in the fire department, and I went to Pete and said I wanted to start preventing fires. I don't want to just respond after everybody's houses are burned up.
It's not what I was expecting. Do you know? OK, it was thrilling for a moment, but when you look at the faces of the people who lost everything, that's not so thrilling. So, he encouraged me to start teaching fire safety. And I went right back to where I came from.
And that's where people talk about my community involvement. It all started with teaching fire safety in the schools and then. Then I helped put together an event called the Flint Firefighters Field Day. That launched my career as a union official with the Flint Firefighters Union.
I remember the Flint Fire Department had a training location with giant towers that people climbed up. I don't think I ever attended an event there, but I think we were invited to visit.
Is that what you're talking about?
No, no, no. What I'm referring to is being taught in elementary school.
No, the field day.
Oh, the field day. I apologize. Yeah, no. The field day was an event where we brought together fire departments. We would have a softball tournament. Then we'd have a water ball. They would call it where they had a big metal ball, the firefighters were on both sides, and they squirt the water. Each team represented its department. They had a tug of war or all these activities. It aimed to highlight the firefighters and let them have competitive fun, bringing the community together. And we did that over at Waley Park.
It was the first time we brought that into the city since I was a kid in 1977. At that time, it was at Kearsley Park, as I remembered it as a kid. So, when I got my chance, once I was in the department, I said, hey, I'll run this thing. We can run it in Flint, and they're like, yeah, if you think so, and we did at Whaley Park, and we had a parade.
It launched so many good things for me in my career right there.
Now your career as a firefighter was pretty successful. Did you reach a higher rank?
Yeah, I did. So, what ranks do I rise through more along the seniority ranks?
After becoming a firefighter, I became what's known as a second driver. So, you're a driver in training. You're expected to know the territories of each jurisdiction within our city. Then I became an apparatus operator, which meant I was in charge of one vehicle per shift. It would be my truck. I'm responsible for it and everything that happens with it. Eventually, I became the Quartermaster of the Fire Department. So, I took a test and took a promotion.
My role was significantly changed from anything I'd done before. Now I was responsible for the equipment and supplies used by the fire department. So, it involved everything from our gear to the supplies they use in the station. Because as you likely know, we lived there 24 hours a day. We employ supplies in the field, like hoses, bandages, whatever. So, I had a different role. I worked from 9:00 to 5:00 in that last role for the final five years of my career.
You also became involved in the firefighter union.
Yeah, so early in my career, I was a fortunate guy. I barely had three years on the job, and I ran for a prestigious union position as an executive board member and second vice president. I say that because everybody on the board had served well over 16 years. These were folks that were in the trenches for years.
Here I am, this rookie, coming onto the scene thinking I want to be a part of this. It had a lot to do with my passion and my ability to communicate well with others.
The role I ran for was community relations liaison for the firefighters union. So, it was right up my alley. Little did I know, it propels me into a political spotlight, but I wasn't trying to be a politician. It certainly got me to a place where I was intertwined with the inner workings of our local government. I had to negotiate with mayor Woodrow Stanley and his team of folks working in the office back then. It was an incredible experience for a young person.
But when I look back, I worked 17 of my 27 years as a vice president of our Union. I have no regrets whatsoever.
You were out and about in the community. You put the best face on firefighting that was possible. Your interests all along have been community activity, not just community relations.
So, you became involved, took your passion for hockey, and started working in the community. You used your love of hockey to help others understand the game of hockey.
Yes, that is how my career path in hockey started. I started as a trainer, but I wanted to know more about the sport by my senior year. I was fortunate that 20 kids make up the roster, that's all. So, you go to tryouts, and you got to work hard. But I was lucky, so my senior year, 19 other kids and myself showed up. Otherwise, I would not have made the team.
I was not ready to play. But I made the team and have pictures on the wall at school of being a player. Also, that same year, I became a referee, which is amazing. When I look back at it, I haven't learned how to stop yet. So here I am, refereeing little kids skating circles around me. It's kind of a running joke, so to speak, because there was a guy out there looking goofy.
Two months into my tenure as a referee in 1986, I blew a call, and a coach called me over. The coach's assistant started berating me and called me the N-bomb. He told me he would kick my tail out in the parking lot. I'll be honest; I wanted to leave the sport and never return. That's a hateful thing to say to anybody, let alone a 17-year-old.
But I had an inspiration in my partner that day. He was quite a bit older than me. He told me it was time to stand up for myself. He didn't mean I was supposed to fight the guy but stand up for myself and realize that I wasn't what he said. The assistant coach tried to get to my deepest roots to throw me off even further and hopefully never see me again.
So, I had to grow up that day and realize that I would come across as racist in my world. You had to learn how to deal with them. I had the authority to deal with him, but I cowered. That's the funny thing when I look back at it.
So, throughout that time, I stayed in the sport and got better at skating. I started playing adult rec hockey. I also started refereeing a lot more and a lot bigger games. I started getting my feet under me. In my 12 years of refereeing hockey, I noticed that I was virtually the only person of color in the arenas. That included the links beyond the ice employees, whoever it was. The players, in my mind, looked all the same. They're all from affluent backgrounds. They're all white kids living in the suburbs or rural settings. It just really felt bland. I guess it's the best way to put it.
I wasn't necessarily looking to say where all the black people are here. What's wrong with this situation? It was more like there needed to be more people in general. I didn't know what the word diversity meant back then. But this, in simple terms, that's not what I was looking for. So, in my mind, I said, if there's a day that I could ever create a program that allows kids to come to participate in our sport for free, just kids from Flint and man, that would be cool. So, in 2010, my idea came to reality.
I created the Flint inner-city youth hockey program to introduce the sport to kids between the ages of eight and eleven who lived in Flint. That's the only place they reside. I have taken a couple just outside the city, but my focus is the kids from Flint. Because there's virtually no ice hockey in Flint anymore. There are no outdoor rinks. The Flint Firebirds are there, and I love the Firebirds. Still, they're practically the only bit of real youth hockey. So, you know, no associations or grabs for the Flint kids.
Because one of the things Flint had when you were growing up, and I was growing up, is they had these rinks. Ice rinks that were run by the city. Right? I don't know how many locations there were throughout the city because I didn't play hockey. I can't remember. I know there was one downtown. Yeah, and that's the one I would walk by on my way to Oak School, Memorial Park. And so that's why I knew of this sport. Today's kids don't even know of this sport and what's great about it.
Since 2010, we've had to do some revamping, but it's a collaborative community effort. This isn't just Rico. Rico is putting these sources together, like the United Way and ELGA Credit Union.
Perani's hockey was the first one that believed in my idea and gave me 50 free sets of equipment. Identical equipment so I could launch it. That's been a barrier for kids in the city is the expense of hockey. And that's the truth. Ice time is at a premium. It's well over $250 per hour just for the ice just to rent the ice. Then all the other elements involved, whether it be instruction or when I am talking about the equipment, equipment will run.
You run the average kid somewhere in the neighborhood of $200 to fully outfit, and that's just with the most basic equipment. That isn't competition-level equipment. That's a little bit more protective, and so.
I know that going into this is too hard, and I'm not foolish to believe that every kid who comes to our program will stay with the sport.
But I am trying to offer our community an opportunity or allow them to experience something like they get anywhere else to become fans of the sport. Hockey isn't just played on ICE, and that's what I'm learning now. In fact, at some point or later today, I will be playing floor hockey. So, we're starting a program at this Sylvester Broome Empowerment Village.
We want to introduce floor hockey back to kids in our community. This is what's most important. Give them opportunities to meet different mentors, and the mentors have different opportunities to participate with kids I want.
How many years Rico? How many years have you been involved with this? The Inner-City Flint hockey?
Yeah, so we started in 2010, but after our first year, I ran into some glitches in the program. I had to revamp how we were going to do things. I had to get more people on board.
I was the end all be all, and it was too much for Rico. I'm still an active firefighter, and my head was spinning around on my shoulders. So, what I did is waited a little bit, a couple more years, until 2014. We worked with United Way, and those were the first few fisheries that would support the ice rental. So, between that and Perani's Hockey World, we started in 2014, so it's only been a few short years. But I have to tell you that having 30 free slots, including transportation, is difficult. Mass Transportation Authority works with us to supply Your Ride style transportation from their house to the arena and back home. So now we have all this clamor thing that's happening with volunteers. Volunteers are from high school hockey teams like Grand Blanc, Powers, and Davison. Tonight, the list goes on. They come in, and there are weekly volunteers, so we're reaching their lives by working with our kids. And then I have 30 slots, and I can barely get 20 kids.
So, this has to do with this disconnect between our sport and our community. And that's what I'm trying to unpack right now.
Has your activity as a referee continued?
Yep, 34 seasons complete this year. And let me tell you, it has been met with trials and tribulations, but mostly good. Good things, especially the last decade or more of my career. I'm very personal. But when I'm on the ice, I try to maintain myself as who I am. Because of that, I admire most players and most coaches. Wherever I go, I'm well received. That is something you don't hear many referees talk about. That is how well received they are by people before, during, and after the game.
I feel very blessed that I can referee.
Do you still play hockey?
Yep, I still play too. I play now that the golf league is over. We're at Crystal Fieldhouse in Burton.
I took this past year off once the pandemic hit and did not skate. But I recently played in an adult tournament in a mid-Michigan High School Hockey Alumni Tournament.
It's made up of only players and teams from high school. There are no travel players involved. It is one of the coolest events you could imagine. We put our jerseys back on. I'm wearing a Southwestern High School jersey. It doesn't look the same back then, but we are all wearing our jerseys representing our schools.
We skate a little harder, even in our age group. We skate as hard as we can at 40, 30, or 18 and over, our families come out, and it's a great event. I'm proud to be a part of that.
Now you ended your career with the Flint Fire Department I. I don't recall what year you retired. Yeah, and that must have been a sad day for you.
To be honest with you, for the last several years, when I took the role of Quartermaster, I was waiting until I had enough time to retire. It took 23 years of service to retire. So, once I did, it was like cruise control. So, I was trying to decide what to do next because I was relatively young.
I talked about that badge. I put on that Fire Marshall badge or whatever it was when I was eight or nine. Well, I still had that in my mind. How am I going to take this badge off metaphorically or physically? Or any other way off my chest for the last time and not be firefighter Phillips anymore? So, it became my idea too, and that was great, and it's still this great. I still am very proud of that. But by the same token, it left me in a bad spot, trying to decide how to change my mindset.
I knew that my time was up. It wasn't that I was irrelevant, but it had taken a mental toll on me. I'm not going to turn in any other direction, but mentally it wore me out. I didn't know how to take it off.
Suddenly I was nominated for the Willie O'ree Community Hero Award by the NHL. Once that nomination happened, I started to see myself as someone other than firefighter Phillips. I felt like I had a future in hockey bigger than I ever could imagine. But I didn't know what it was.
I was so fortunate, in June of 2019, to win the Willie O'ree Community Hero Award for the work that I've done with our program in our community, and I was celebrated. You know, I won the award in Las Vegas at the NHL Awards.
It's like going to the Grammys, the Emmys, or any major award show. I found out at the moment my name was called. There were two other finalists. So, when I could go up on stage and represent the Flint community, it sounds cliche, but it was a moment that I'll never forget. I knew the gravity of that moment when I said I wanted to thank my friends, families, and supporters from my hometown of Flint, MI. I could just feel the electricity and the pride that was coming from Flint.
When I returned from Vegas, I saw billboards and electronic billboards with my face on them; they congratulated Rico. So, I knew that I had something else in my future, so I decided that I was going to retire at that point that summer.
And so yes, it was sad because I was turning a page, and I think what was most sad for me was that I won't be able to teach fire safety in that uniform anymore. So that's probably the biggest impact. I won't go to schools and teach career development as a current and active firefighter.
Now I've retired. It may not seem the same or have the same effect, and so there are little things that I missed.
Most of my fire crew members had all evolved to a younger group, and I missed the older guys. I mean more senior crew members. I wasn't sleeping at the fire station anymore, so I transitioned. But honestly, I was ready for something fresh, and here I am.
Now, you did something fresh, and you had an opportunity that recently came available to you. Tell us about that.
Yeah, so I was on a roll after I won the award. I was being invited to places that I could have never imagined. The Detroit Red Wings asked me to drop the ceremonial puck, and I was able to speak to the Red Wings. I gave a pregame speech and read out the starting lineup, which is incredible stuff. Keep in mind; that I've been a coach also.
And so, all these things were coming to culmination. I remember standing in front of the Detroit Red Wings with literally 10 minutes to prepare for what I would say. The first words out of my mouth were, I'm just a kid from Flint. That's all I could think of.
Well, how did I get here? I thought back to all the things we've talked about thus far. So then came George Floyd. After that, George Floyd was killed, and I bring it up as briefly as I can because it's not a brief subject, but it inspired me. I want to speak out louder and have a bolder statement.
But I knew my voice wasn't with Black Lives Matter. It wasn't. I couldn't find another place that was adequate for me to make a statement. What's that going to do?
So, I found my voice in hockey. I decided I was going to propel my voice. So, I contacted David Branch from the Ontario Hockey League, who I had met once before. I asked him if anything was being done with diversity and inclusion.
He said, ironically, we've wanted to work on this. It led to several phone calls and eventually the creation and appointment as the Director of Cultural Diversity and Inclusion for the Ontario Hockey League. In the meantime, I also work with a group of black professional NHL players to help do some of the same things using grassroots programming. We will try to make some efforts across the entire landscape, so I'm doing something incredible.
I call it a second calling. I'm not lying. I've been talking to families, players, and officials to all.
The people involved in our sport are having these courageous conversations as I'm calling, calling them. They are opening up a dialogue about diversity and inclusion in race relations. We are exploring how to better understand one another to hopefully get along better in our sport.
Does the NFL have a diversity leader?
You know, I'm not sure of that. I would only assume so. So, the NHL has an entire department or team that works on this. So does the USA Hockey. It is the parent organization for all amateur and student hockey in the United States. So, they have a person that works with diversity and inclusion. But as far as I know, I'm the only person working in major junior hockey from a league-wide standpoint.
I want to shift gears just a little bit and talk about Flint. You've given your whole life to that community in ways you can. I don't measure my activity with yours; it doesn't compare, although I'm older than you are.
Don't cut yourself short.
Those burning buildings, nobody made me do it, I promise.
I don't want to make this about myself. I'm here to learn about you. But we both love our city and our city has a lot going for it and has many problems.
You have, for sure.
I don't want to focus on the problems, but I want to understand you. You know, some people say that Flint has seen its better days. How do you feel about that? That crowd?
Well, I think Flint's future is just going to be different. But I believe that what's going to have to occur, and I don't know that it's possible because of the politics involved, but the city needs to shrink. I don't mean where we're pushing people out of Flint. But, still, I mean that in a way where jurisdictions change lines so that it's more affordable for the city to maintain what we have. What I believe needs to happen is this town needs to focus on being around a 75,000 thousand population. Then I think that's more reasonable for the land-based area. That will take Mt. Morris Township, Genesee Township, and all these townships on the outskirts to potentially absorb more. Flint potentially gives up some areas, so will that ever happen? I doubt it. In my opinion, if the city were to shrink to what's more manageable, you would have these pockets of vacant land. Because there is so much vacant land, you must have all this infrastructure running through those places. When you have that, it's hard to maintain all of that and those infrastructure issues. That infrastructure, I think, is causing the demise of Flint.
Do you think that others widely hold the view, and if so, why not?
I don't think so because I think everybody has a line they want to draw. And I mean everyone. I want to make sure it's clear I don't. I wouldn't want to push people out of Flint to shrink Flint, and that's what this somewhat suggests. In places like DC, where they changed, the areas right around. The capital to make it upscale. So those are areas where wealthy people can afford it. But by the same token, it will have to be able to create a tax base. That's why firefighters in the city of Flint are making 10 to $12.00 an hour in 2021. Those are wages that I started off making in 1992. It's because there's just no way to afford what those public servants are worth and what they mean to the community.
The other thing is we're at a generational problem with the water crisis without going deep and delving into that where there's just a mistrust. We will not be able to solve that mistrust for at least a generation.
There's no way to tell some folks that the water is safe and you can drink it. And I don't blame them. My mom is of a different mindset. She drinks the water out of her faucet, but she probably did when it was led coming through it too. I hate to admit that because I would give her what she needed. Sometimes I go in there, and the filters are off.
My point is that until those things are old and go by the wayside, you're not going to have major businesses look at Flint as a viable location.
The one thing that didn't happen here is that we didn't diversify our industry. So now we have to figure out how to do that and make sense.
Now you believe there's distrust, just so we're clear about it. That you're referring to people's distrust of government?
No, I believe it's mistrust of government.
When I look at folks saying that we're not drinking that water, I don't think they're saying they don't trust the current mayor or the current governor. People were sold a bill of goods. So many people, and their kids, in particular, are dealing with water poisoning issues.
They trust it up to this point and throw everything in should they trust the water they drink after what has occurred. It's hard for some people to do that.
The phosphorus has been replaced in the pipes. There's no lead being leeched anymore. For me to say that, I live in Flint Township, but basically, some people would say you're slapping us in the face. So, I don't want to cross lines because I don't deal with it directly. I deal with it indirectly.
But the bottom line is, I think we still have at least a generation, if not a second generation, where the mistrust will be a problem for the government. The distrust is focused on the water and not necessarily the government itself. They depend on the government for everything they do. We are dealing with COVID now. People in Flint trust what Governor Whitmer is doing up to this point.
But as far as getting COVID vaccinations and those types of things, we're not saying we don't trust the government, so we're not getting the vaccination. It's just based on the water problems.
I've learned that many people in the Flint area, and not necessarily just within the boundaries of Flint, but a lot of people in the Flint area identify as Flintstones.
Do you identify as a Flintstone?
Uh, I identify as a Flintstone. In my award speech award in Las Vegas, I said Adaway flinched it.
I was trying to say Flintstones to my Flintstones, and all kinds of words came out, but that's why I say Flintstones like when I think of a Flint. It's hard, and it's resilient. It's it stands the test of time.
The mentality of the folks I've worked alongside is that if you keep kicking at us, like anybody from Flint knows, we can talk crap about our city if we want. But, still, if you say one bad word about Flint, we're ready to go down with you, right?
Because that's the Flintstone mentality. When I think of the Flintstones, the cartoon, I think of that era of time. That time was somewhat primitive in nature, and we had to just work with what we had. And we're going to get it done.
Whatever it takes, you know this town has undergone some tough tribulations. But before this tribulation, there were so many triumphs. I mean, community education was launched here. The Fire Prevention Bureau that you spoke about fire prevention was established in Flint, MI, in the early 50s.
Flint was known for so many more things than a water crisis. That's why I've always been proud to be a Flintstone. What it means to me is that we're just hardened, and we'll do whatever it takes to get her done.
So, you believe that Flint not only can come back but can also thrive.
Yeah, I believe it could come back and thrive. But I'm going to tell you why I don't think it lies in the hands of what I've seen in the last several years. Flint does not lie in the hands of the government. It doesn't lie in the hands of the local government and state government.
Flint's future lies in the hands of local people that want to not just gamble but believe in Flint. So, I'm talking about small business owners. Look at downtown Flint and how they've helped transform the landscape to make it a place where people want to visit, not have to come to visit or drive through to get somewhere. So, I think these are the mindsets we can build off that empower more people and more ways to launch it further in all directions, further south, north, east, and west.
We have some other problems in our community that isn't being addressed. The problem is in every type of urban center. I'm talking about opioids. I can never say enough about the opioid crisis in some of these neighborhoods because it's ripping Flint up. That's a whole other topic that we won't go into. But I believe that the small business owners and the people who support those small businesses provide this resurgence that we're seeing; even though it's slow, it's happening.
What you're saying is you believe in the people of Flint, not so much all the institutions.
Whatever determination these people have and creativity will determine Flint's fate.
Yeah, without question. I felt fortunate to be a part of the Back to the Bricks Committee for over a decade. That's the group that launched this research. As like said, we believe in Flint. We're from here. We're going to do this here in the city that we love.
All our memories started here. The mindset and the theme behind Back to the Bricks is commerce, small commerce.
And the people of Flint, I could not have been prouder to be a part of that. I see the differences from the first time I went to Back to the Bricks. I own my fire truck. I asked Al Haqq if I could bring it, and he said absolutely. The buildings we set our vehicles in front of were all boarded up and vacant.
So, when you go down there now, none of those buildings are boarded up, so I'm seeing it firsthand. I've been a part of that and witnessed it. I think our future is bright, but it is the people. It is the people.
Rico Phillips, thank you for joining me on Radio Free Flint. You're an amazing person, and I appreciate the time and interest that you've had in coming and talking to my podcast audience. I wish you the best in your new job.
Thank you, I appreciate it.
And I especially wish you and your group to work with the Flint kids.
The best of luck you've got, and a good insight into that. So, with that, this is Radio Free Flint; we're signing off over and out for right now. So, we'll see you the next time. Thank you.