When she was 16 years old, Dr. Brenda Phillips, Dean of the IU South Bend College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, was watching the resignation of President Richard Nixon on television when someone started pounding on her door. It was a 15-year-old neighbor who had run to her house to get help as her father was trying to kill her mother.
“I let her in the front door as my parents, thank God, came in the back door,” Phillips said. The sheriff came and helped the mother; and Phillips’ family never saw them again. “The intervention made a difference with this family and at 16 I realized pretty quickly how serious a problem domestic violence was as it was right next door.”
This stark realization and a family history of community service has led Phillips to be actively engaged in our community. Today, she serves on the boards of the YWCA and the History Museum, is coordinating a fundraiser for Reins of Life, and is knitting projects through Busy Hands of Michiana.
Phillips started volunteering at the YWCA when she arrived in South Bend in 2018 to help with a silent auction and to meet members of the community. Working with the Y allowed her to continue the work she had done in other communities to support victims of domestic violence. Those efforts are meaningful to her because of what she learned when she was 16—it is right next door.
Phillips had set up programs at other universities to support women experiencing domestic violence noting “not a week went by that didn’t have someone coming into the (women’s studies program) office that had been assaulted in some way and looking for a place to land and get help.” She also said, “So, I’ve been doing this kind of work since I was 16, but certainly since I was in my 20s and I was more able to do so.”
Her interest in domestic violence also has roots in her studies in sociology—she has a Ph.D. and master’s degree in Sociology from the Ohio State University and a bachelor’s degree in Sociology and History from Bluffton University in Ohio.
Her passion for history (“If I’m going to pick up a book, it’s going to be history.”) led her to serve on the History Museum’s marketing and membership committee, which helped the museum offer more virtual programming during the pandemic. When the History Museum reached out to Phillips about getting a historical marker for the South Bend Blue Sox, she jumped at the opportunity to honor this women’s baseball team. Phillips said, “It’s really exciting to be a part of trying to memorialize what people have done here in this community.”
Phillips has been an advocate for community-engaged teaching in the College of Liberal Art and Sciences as well. In 2019, she provided grants to support 10 community-engaged projects including technology education in high schools, urban gardening, a girl’s camp at St. Margaret’s House and a study of Elkhart Vibrant Communities initiative. The projects helped students understand the value of engagement and contributed to the community in a variety of ways.
Even when Phillips isn’t looking for a service opportunity, such opportunities seem to find her! When she and the other deans accompanied Chancellor Susan Elrod on a visit to Reins of Life, an organization that provides therapeutic horseback riding for people with different abilities, a Reins staff member mentioned that they were planning a 5K road race fundraiser, but they hadn’t organized one before. “Next thing I know I’m committing to help organize the race,” Phillips said. She pulled in Hope Smith Davis, Dean of the School of Education, who is a runner. The pair hope to raise enough money to make road races a viable fundraising program for the organization moving forward. “I really think you can do a lot with these events if you just keep going,” Phillips said. “You can bring in enough money to do some programming or maybe to buy another horse or improve the stalls.”
The pandemic led Phillips to volunteer with Busy Hands, an organization that knits blankets and creates other items for children with autism, people in nursing homes, and veterans. Busy Hands provides products to more than 120 agencies in nine counties.
Phillips’ actual knitting, however, started in pursuit of a girl-scout badge in second grade. She liked earning badges, and with her mother and grandmother already working yarn craft, she was sure she could earn that badge. After earning the sashwear, she largely dropped those knitting projects until she was working toward tenure and picked it back up to relax. As the years went by, projects started (and possibly not finished) yielded a lot of un-knit yarn.
Then the pandemic hit.
“So, like everyone else during quarantine, I cleaned out my closets and I found all this yarn and then I remember this local organization called Busy Hands of Michiana,” Phillips said. “So, I had all this yarn and I thought, well, I might as well do something; I’m just sitting here.”
In January, Phillips asked Busy Hands what they needed, and they said hats, scarves, gloves, and afghans. She made a commitment to make one afghan a month between January and October and in June finished afghan #5 as well as fifteen hats, seven pairs of gloves and seven pairs of slippers.
Knitting during quarantine helped with the isolation and lack of community involvement.
“I just felt so distant from people,” she said. “This year I’m on like probably five to six Zoom meetings every single day, but it’s not the same as being there, having conversations with people, or walking into the shelter knowing you’re doing something there, and I was just feeling really frustrated and like I wasn’t really contributing to the service ethic that I believe in so strongly. I thought this was something I could do that’s been relaxing and reflective. I think a lot about the people that I’m making these things for.”
Many of the people who will get her afghans are veterans, like her 91-year-old father. “I’m very much aware of what these afghans would mean to the veterans,” she said. “My father is always wrapped up in blankets because he just can’t seem to get warm. I think a lot, like this is probably going to someone’s father, someone’s grandfather, and maybe their family is all the way across the country now.”
“To me, that’s something tangible that you can give: that someone else is thinking about you during the pandemic; I was thinking about you, period.”