The Peacemaker on the Bus

Phillip Summers was well into his career when he quit his job with the Clinical and Translational Science Institute at the Wake Forest School of Medicine. In a counter-intuitive career move, Phillip traded in his position as Associate Director of the Program in Community Engagement for the opportunity to become...a bus driver. 

It’s not an opportunity that many people, if any, on the pathway to professional advancement would consider. So what was Phillip thinking? And, maybe more importantly, what was the heart and motivation behind his decision? Was it brave or was it crazy? 

We met with Phillip to find out.

To Flourish, You Have to Be Able to Move.

We interviewed Phillip over breakfast, which he ran to, from his home 3 or 4 miles away in Waughtown.

He’s always been an active guy. In college it was boats, bicycles, and a degree in Physical Education. After college, it was wanderlust, moving to Belize to teach physical education and health—and later, to Ecuador, where he met his wife.

While still in Belize, Phillip asked an American pastor, “What degree would I need to get to help whole communities?” The pastor said, “Aren’t you from North Carolina? UNC has the greatest public health program in the world.” 

Phillip applied, was rejected, applied again, and got in. He set his sights on the cross-section between his two passions: public health and community development. 

While at Carolina, Phillip was taken by how vibrant active transportation was in the Chapel Hill community. All over town, people walked, biked, and took public transit. Which made him think—about the relationship between transit and community.

“Public health, at its heart, is all about communities,” Phillip says. To flourish, people have to be in community with others. To be in community with others, people have to be able to move freely—which includes everything from getting to work easily to getting physical activity to moving up the economic ladder. To flourish, you have to be able to move. (Phillip points out this recent article from The Atlantic.) And all of the ways we move—exercise, transit, economically, socially—are entirely related, and relevant.

On Blind Spots

“Riding the bus is like having a part-time job that doesn’t pay.” — passenger

Now here’s where the bus comes in.

When Phillip moved to Waughtown after graduate school nine years ago, he started riding the bus.

On an academic level, he knew the crucial role of public transit in community development and health. As a person with a passion for movement (he’d taken the bus in Chapel Hill, in Belize, in Ecuador), he wanted to know his neighbors this way: at the bus stop, sharing a row, in the empty spaces where there’s nothing to do but ride.

At the bus stop, relationships blossomed into friendships. But Phillip noticed something else.

‘The countenance’ of public transit in Winston-Salem was...downtrodden. 

  • Struggling bus riders: Less frequent service restricts passengers’ lives—their sleep, their ability to find a job that fits the transit schedule, and much more. (A short documentary on Phillip’s blog shows a day in the life of a passenger.) 

  • Discouraged administrators: Administrators of the transit authority were used to getting ‘the short straw.’ There wasn’t much support or priority given to enhancing transit, which often lies in policy makers’ ‘blind spot.’

  • Bus drivers feeling the brunt: Their jobs were impacted by all of the above. Like dispirited school teachers in an underfunded school, drivers’ services suffered at the lack of transit’s resources. Meanwhile, drivers’ day-to-day was being impacted as they came face-to-face with the community-wide consequences: homelessness, anger, disparity.

People suffer when they’re positioned in the blind spot of their community—the same way we individually suffer when we’re isolated from the care of friends and family. When we aren’t seen, we struggle, and that struggle is of a specific nature: We lose our dignity.

Phillip wondered what it would be like to ‘lead’ a bus.

What if, as a driver, he could learn more about the complexity of both the transit system and the people who drive and ride the bus? What if, by safely transporting others as a smiling face, he could help restore some of the dignity lost?

On Shifting Gears

Something happened when Phillip took his compassion and paired it with curiosity: Together, they inspired action. 

With his heart for transit and his mind for systems, Phillip shifted gears and started his three-month bus driver training.

“I don’t really believe it’s starting over,” Phillip says. 

To him, becoming a bus driver doesn’t mean stopping, or hitting pause, on his ‘real work.’ All along, he’s been working on local community issues. Now, he’s working for those same people by being in their midst—by being ‘with’—in hopes of learning the transit issue better. 

In Counter-Story fashion, we’re calling Phillip a ‘peacemaker.’ Why?

His continuous effort to fight for the flourishing of others is the embodiment of our favorite definition. But Phillip’s mindset also highlights two nuances regarding the peacemaker lifestyle.

  • Your role as a peacemaker isn’t defined by what job you have. Phillip didn’t become a ‘peacemaker’ when he quit his ‘real’ job as a researcher/advocate. He was already a peacemaker; he just changed the nature of his engagement.

  • The peacemaker mindset pursues shifts in perspective. Phillip’s willingness to experience a new perspective enabled and inspired a powerful ‘gear shift.’ Without curiosity, we get stuck in our stories and miss real opportunities to bring healing.

Seven months later, Phillip has formed a dozen new relationships driving the bus—and with them, a dozen new perspectives.

I want to keep working on this. What would that look like? is the modus operandi he uses to move forward.

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The Friendly Passenger

Phillip has a lot of stories from his time driving the bus route along busy Stratford Road. 

He shared this one:

I stop short to pick my neighbor—we’ll call her Ruth—who’s a retired school teacher, an elderly African American woman who reminds me of my grandmother. She’s a saint. She gets on the bus and says, “Thank you, Phillip. You’re a blessing.”

A half-mile down the road, a man sees the bus coming. He flicks me the bird before he gets on. He cusses me out as he gets on the bus. Ruth, visibly upset, moves further back on the bus. A few stops later, the man gets off. 

Even after, there’s still negativity in the air. I’m not impervious to that. It hurt. The next person to get on is a guy I met months before—who, at the time, was having an asthma attack. I drove him to the hospital for a special inhaler and put him in touch with some of my former colleagues for help. 

So this man, who I know, gets on the bus. I say, “I’m so glad to see you.” He instantly knows there’s tension on the bus. He says, “Why? Has someone been acting out?” When I say, “Yes,” he becomes the DJ and cues up a gospel playlist. The notes and lyrics fill the bus. The tension begins to dissipate. For the next 20 minutes, me, Ruth, and my friend ride alone, together. 

“We were sad. We needed to find some way, together, to understand,” Phillip recalls. The music and the empathetic presence of that community had a healing effect. Plus, Phillip knows the anger wasn’t really directed at him. Just a few days later, the angry man got on the bus and was totally polite.

“Community reminds us of who we are,” Phillip says, quoting Wendell Berry. He knows that Ruth wouldn’t be impressed if he punched a passenger in the face. He knows that caring relationships are the foundation of public health, which means absorbing blows from time to time.

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 “I try to show up on time, I try to smile, I try to be forgiving.” 

Phillip wants to be able to introduce his passengers the way a book can—to develop all the characters deeply, the way they are. To bring them out of stigma and stereotype. To tell a better story. He’s wrestling with how. 

In an early post on his blog (the post is titled Brave and Crazy), Phillip writes: “Turns out that crazy has its good side and brave has its scary side.” 

Lately, the scary side is visceral. 

Phillip writes about the fears of driving the bus at night, in his latest post: “Driving at night this last month is kicking my butt and breaking my heart. I am doubting whether or not I maintain it...At night you also have passengers seeking shelter, and I worry about what they will find.”

Phillip may be brave and/or crazy. But what we know we’ve glimpsed in Phillip is curiosity and hope.

“To feel afraid is part of the stretch of growing pains...I hope my experiences help shine a light on the importance of improving public transportation for our community,” he concludes the post—a resolution that harkens back to the hope with which he began:

“I can’t wait to see what lies around the next corner.”

Follow Phillip on his journey, via his blog: blindspot.city.


Counterstories is a blog collaboration between conflict resolution specialist Steve Beck and writer/editor Rachael Schmid. If you have a powerful story of forgiveness or peacemaking (or just want to share your thoughts on this post), we’d love to hear from you. Reach out at admin@cstevebeck.com.