Chynna A. Phillips almost became a nurse. That plan changed three years into her undergraduate nursing program when she treated a patient with acute lung disease caused by asbestos and mold.
The symptoms were caused by the patient’s apartment, something Phillips couldn’t get out of her head.
“As a nursing student, I was more concerned with why in the world this patient was here, because it was totally preventable, and this was a disease they would have to deal with for the rest of their life,” Phillips says.
And that made her think big picture. A nurse could meet patients’ immediate needs — that was initially what drew her to the profession. But what if she wanted to stop them from getting sick in the first place? What if she wanted to focus on marginalized communities? Thinking even bigger: What if she wanted to upend the systems that perpetuate the cycle of poverty, one of the biggest drivers of health disparities?
“Regardless of where you sit on the aisle, poverty is pervasive in this state,” says Phillips, who now works as senior director of policy and research for the poverty-fighting Sisters of Charity Foundation of South Carolina. “It touches everyone, it touches every county, it touches every legislator.”
The foundation focuses on reducing poverty through servant leadership and financial stewardship. Since 1996, it has distributed more than $81 million in grant funding statewide to thousands of nonprofits working to reduce poverty. Beyond grantmaking, the foundation conducts research and engages with legislators about ways to help constituents thrive.
In a state where one in six residents live in poverty, Phillips’ work matters.
“When we are talking about what we are doing to ensure that more individuals have healthy education systems, that impacts everyone,” she says. “When we’re having the conversation on hospital closures, that impacts every new mom in that county. When we’re having conversations about Medicaid expansion, that impacts so many South Carolinians. It’s important for somebody to be talking about these issues, because for such a long time there hasn’t been.”
A native of the Bahamas, Phillips came to the U.S. with her family in middle school and settled in West Palm Beach, Florida. Her father worked two jobs to provide for them: by day, as a banker; by night, as a police officer. In her mind, she says, his dual identities made him a real-life Superman. Watching him give so much of himself to his community shaped her own sense of purpose.
“He was always saying, ‘This is not only my job — this is my duty,’” she says. “I saw what community policing looks like and how you could work as a banker and be the first person to give somebody a loan.”
College reaffirmed those values. After high school, Phillips ventured 1,000 miles away to Xavier, a Jesuit university in Cincinnati, Ohio. There, she learned the guiding principles of a Jesuit education — ideas like reflecting on the world around her and showing God’s love through acts of service. But the concept she kept coming back to was “magis,” a Latin word meaning “more.” Students who were committed to magis went beyond what was expected, because doing more for others was glorifying God.
Phillips always aspired to do more. When it came time for graduate school, she sought a degree program that would prepare her to form deep connections with people in her community and address the broader public health problems she observed as a nursing student.
“Lo and behold, USC had this dual degree with social work, where you could learn about people in place and a public health side that encouraged you to pull back and see how everything is connected, how people can’t be healthy if their community isn’t functioning at its best,” she says.
Once she got to South Carolina in 2013, she fell in love — with the degree program she started two years later, with the people and with the state. Elements of the Gullah Geechee people in Charleston felt familiar to her because of the ethnic heritage the group shares with Bahamians. “And then I loved how in South Carolina you’re always, like, six people from knowing who you should know,” she says with a laugh. “That reminded me of my island.”
But personal connections don’t always translate to organizational connectivity when it comes to fighting for the public good. Phillips has been working to change that since completing the dual master’s degree in 2018.
In 2020, Sisters of Charity Foundation of South Carolina partnered with the Arnold School’s Rural and Minority Health Research Center to examine the factors that contribute to poverty in South Carolina. Their findings were sobering: 80 percent of counties are at or above the national average for evictions. Half have persistent child poverty. More than a quarter of South Carolinians have medical debt in collections. And racial disparities were found across all of the issues studied.
The study illuminated the realities in South Carolina, but Phillips — a self-described “pragmatic optimist” — says it also pointed at potential solutions.
“So many people wanted to partner after that,” she says. “Everyone was asking ‘What’s next? How can we do this?’ The beauty of South Carolina is that there are so many smaller groups wanting to do more. They’re just not connected to each other.”
So Phillips spearheaded the foundation’s first-of-its-kind Anti-Poverty Advocacy Agenda, a road map of priorities to help build strategic partnerships with like-minded organizations across the state. The agenda identifies three focuses: supporting pathways to economic mobility, advancing health equity and prioritizing human dignity.
“It gets our board to the place of understanding that we need to be funding groups who are doing advocacy work and then saying, ‘Let’s get to the top of the hill to really prevent some of those problems from happening.’”
Already, she has aligned with grant recipients who are working to address issues like predatory lending practices, tenants’ rights and Medicaid expansion, and in some cases, she’s garnered bipartisan support from state legislators. Her efforts— and progress — in this arena come as no surprise to former Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, who saw what Phillips was capable of four years ago when she co-chaired the city’s census committee.
“Chynna is the quintessential leader of the future,” Benjamin says. “She focuses very intently on building meaningful partnerships between the public sector, the private sector and the philanthropic sector, recognizing that most of the problems that we’re dealing with in this country, particularly as we try to address poverty and help people with economic mobility, are complex and require everyone to be at the table, regardless of political philosophy, geography or socioeconomic status.”
Phillips’ influence reaches every corner of the state, but her ability to build networks started at the University of South Carolina.
While working toward her dual MSW/MPH degree, she sought work experience and professional connections as a graduate assistant in the Arnold School’s Core for Applied Research and Evaluation. On the recommendation of former social work instructor Katrina Spigner, she took a part-time position with Sisters of Charity Foundation of South Carolina to dip her toes into the world of philanthropy. To learn about policy, she took classes with political science associate professor Todd Shaw. To learn about decision-making in her community, she interned with Columbia Councilwoman Tameika Isaac-Devine.
Kelli Kenison, a clinical assistant professor at the Arnold School who taught and advised Phillips, knew right away there was something special about her student.
“What has always really impressed me about her is her commitment to do everything she could to enhance her learning, to enhance her professionalism, and that goes back to her sincere dedication to making a difference,” Kenison says. “To do that as a student, she realized she needed to take advantage of every opportunity and she also needed to make connections. And she did that very, very well.”
Most importantly, her classes prepared her to get the point across to prospective anti-poverty allies, a critical skill for someone who might have just five minutes to speak to a legislator in passing.
“In social work, they teach you how to make the most out of your time to connect on a personal level with somebody and get the information across,” says Phillips. “And then in public health, they’re teaching you how to make sure that data is relatable, that you understand it and can say it in a way that no matter who hears it, they will understand you. And so those two worlds colliding, I will always say, was one of the best decisions that I made for my career.”