William M. Evans on grassroots organization ‘NeighborHood Benches, inc’ and finding ‘people who have the potential to lead’

William M. Evans started 'Neighborhood Benches, inc' to break cycle of youth incarceration and violence

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Restorative justice practitioner, William M. Evans, 43, is on a mission to break the cycle of youth incarceration and violence with his grassroots organization ‘Neighborhood Benches, inc.’

Growing up in Andrew Jackson Projects in the South Bronx, Evans realized the importance of mentorship and positive role models in communities. His life experiences are the motivating factors that led him to a career in counseling. Evans has provided mentoring and supportive services for 10+ years through volunteer work, internships, and nonprofit work. 

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William Evans thegrio.com
(Credit: William Evans)

In 2016, feeling unfulfilled at The Fortune Society, Evans took a leap of faith. He quit his full-time job and decided to fully invest in Neighborhood Benches, inc.

During an interview with theGrio, Evans revealed he wasn’t nervous about quitting his job and investing in his dreams. The only thing he wasn’t sure about was how he would manage financially.

I struggled way before Fortune Society came in,” shares Evans. ”Those were the most fulfilling years of my life because I knew what it was [like] to be out overnight. I knew what it was not to eat. And I suppose I knew what it was not to have the fancy clothing. I knew all of that.”

Evan continues, “So leaving Fortune to pursue a dream was like the least of my worries, because I said to myself,  ‘William, you’ve been there before. This won’t be anything different. You just have more knowledge and more skills and more connections than you had back then.‘ So it was just more about me trusting myself and knowing that I had to really be and how I design it.”

Founded in 2015, and established in 2017, Neighborhood Benches is devoted to educating young people from communities of color on leadership and good practices that break cycles of youth incarceration and violence. The organization has initiatives and programs geared towards youth programming, adult programming, school partnerships and neighborhood partnerships.

Neighborhood Benches, inc thegrio.com
(Credit: Neighborhood Benches, inc and William and Evans)

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“It’s about going back to communities who are impacted, communities that are overlooked, and going back there to find the people who have the potential to lead,” shares the president and founder. 

“That can be people who may still be involved in negative activities,” Evans continues. “Or could be individuals who already had the strength to shake those negative activities off of their roster. You have individuals who’ve been impacted by violence, who’ve been impacted by incarceration, and those people still have the potential to lead. So I understood with ‘Neighborhood Benches,’ the way that it needed to be designed was being able to go back to reach neighborhoods and looking for the individuals who had those skills.”

Evans has witnessed the positive impact on the people he’s brought into the program. A young man in his community did 14-years in prison and when he came home, he returned to the streets. Before he could get too deep, Evan took him under his wing.

“I let him shadow, [took him] to conferences, meetings, put him in suits,” explains Evans. “And immediately he enjoyed that feeling of how he can share his knowledge and his experiences in a room of professionals and understand that he’s also a professional in his own right.”

“Now this young man established his own non-profit and is doing the same work similar to the Neighborhood Benches.”

The grassroots organization is also focused on solutions to improve the relationship between police officers and the community. The organization entered a study with other organizations under the ISLG (Institute for State and Local Governance) where they have conversations about the relationship between police officers and community members and what type of training they want to see implemented.

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CREDIT: NEIGHBORHOOD BENCHES, INC

A lot of that discussion is somewhat woven together with restorative justice practices and conflict resolution,” Evans shares.

And at the same time, we have to put a little bit of the CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) in it, because you have a lot of people who have been traumatized in many ways and they bring that into work. So we look at that as not only internalized oppression, but intergenerational trauma.”

During these conversations, Evans focuses on the healing, not the complaints or disagreements but how they can move forward with healing in the community as well as practices and self-care.

A lot of people, no matter what field, have a problem with practicing self-care. So that alone contributes to how they show up to work every day,” says Evans. “We try to make sure our discussions is somewhat [a] shift in a narrative about how we talk to one another, how we treat one another, how we rebuild communities of care.”

“If we’re going to be able to practice this thing that they’re using now, which is credible messengers, or we’re going to practice obstruction of justice, we have to not only understand it, but we have to be fully transparent,” he adds. “So our model is really focused on how do people practice this on everyday basis, which we call model and change behaviors to rebuild communities.”

Evans’ advice to those who want to start a mentorship program is “trust your instincts and design a plan that works for you and the people you’re trying to help.”

(CREDIT: NEIGHBORHOOD BENCHES)

“You have to be strong enough and trust yourself enough to try it out for someone to see if it works. And trust me, if it worked with them, it could work for an entire community.”

*Neighborhood Benches are following COVID-19 precautions and continue meetings and conversations via video conferences.


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