Founder & President William M. Evans:
Residing in the South Bronx, William lived through traumatic experiences as a youth and adult. Much of his personal experiences led him into a career of counseling. After about 6 years of combined experiences as an Alternative to Incarceration Counselor and overseeing a team of Discharge Planners stationed on Rikers Island, he resigned from his job with a plan to locate more people willing to act as leaders and find solutions for improving communities across New York City. William advocated for fairness, transparency, and efficiency in his South Bronx neighborhood. His strengths started with organizing and building alliances with people, companies, organizations, and leaders to push reforms that protect the public and improve the justice system.
Understanding the culture of his “hood,” William could easily identify individuals that contributed to the destruction of community or steered others in the wrong direction. These people looked up to him. William believed that by returning with a specific plan to recruit individuals in the “hood,” helping them understand the need for change, as well as the role they could play in inspiring others to follow them in finding and implementing solutions, great changes would come. He knew these extraordinary individuals had a tremendous impact on how youth live today, on how their society functions, and on what values young people hold. They were the leaders who “made a difference,” and he wanted to recruit them to create long-lasting changes that improved the quality of life in some way. William figured a good strategy would be an effective alignment between benches in the courts and benches in the “hood,” focusing on systematic changes. This strategy would start by assessing what courts do, and what society needs courts to do, while simultaneously addressing gang behaviors on neighborhood benches.
Founded in 2015, Neighborhood Benches was designed to increase the presence of volunteers, professionals and students at the neighborhood level, and collectively engage young people sitting on benches in harder to reach areas on issues impacting them and destroying their community. Each session offered opportunities to both, the students and harder to reach population of youths to participate in brainstorming sessions. The sessions would offer some form of solution, followed by additional support and services from partner organizations. However, from many of those discussions came very distinct views not captured in NB professional brainstorming sessions where community organizations and volunteers were engaged. For NB, such issues having a negative impact on the community came from the horrible conditions in which they lived, lack of opportunities to showcase hard and soft skills, poor educational experiences, including poor leadership. The issues raised by the community were all too familiar and recognized as leading issues destroying community and adding to the cycles of violence and incarceration.
Upon this review, the original plan to create change using community service, beautification projects and leadership development was no longer acceptable by the team because it felt like the “one size fits all” approach. NB acknowledged the huge need for a deeper conversation around the impact of both violence and incarceration, alongside contributing factors. The team agreed contributing factors are visible, but also acknowledged the people closer to the problem being furthest from the solution are the same young people with no interest in the social justice movements and those normalizing violence in the community. As a result, incarceration and violence continued to increase and destroy community. NB shifted focus in 2016 to focus on neighborhood leadership and changing the trajectory of those young lives. As part of a strategic plan, NB focused on messaging that captured the attention of the harder to reach young people and encompassed the three interrelated scales: micro, mezzo and macro. This messaging focused on attire/apparel and coined "The Gift and The Curse", the understanding of prior experiences as tools to reinventing oneself. NB used this coined phrase to promote opportunities for young people.