We love finding others who are building hope within their community, especially with a story like this. ATL Bench Works is a new, upcoming project taken on by the passionate Jessie Phillips. We headed over to what some may call the "dangerous" part of Atlanta where it just so happens Jesse lives. We wanted to capture him and his guys in their element building what they have their small, yet inspiring business named after, benches. Simple, reclaimed benches made from pallets. We asked Jesse a few questions about ATL Bench Works and how it's cultivated community since it's began. Read on and be ready to be inspired.
Can you tell us little bit about your story/background?
Several years ago I read one of Bob Lupton's books - Theirs is the Kingdom. It challenged me to look at poverty in a different way. I started to read and learn more about helping the poor & loving my neighbors. I learned that giving people dignity by giving them work, rather than handouts, was a better way to help people. Over the years I started my own online business & became very interested in starting businesses & I learned this was possibly a way I could help people. About 1 year ago I loved to "The Bluff" and I was being overwhelmed with guys coming by daily asking for food & money. So I started to give them odd jobs: washing my car, sweeping the porch, watering plants, etc. But there's only so many times you can water the plants before they start drowning. Around this time one of the guys built us a bench for our garden, and it looked pretty cool. And I knew that Brian had started Lamon Luther making furniture with homeless guys. So I thought maybe I could make & sell benches. And I've been trying to do it since then.
Oops, I didn't really answer the question. I'm a computer science major from UC Berkeley. I grew up in California, moved to Georgia back in '07 to work for a leadership company: Catalyst. Then launched my own business selling calendars online (NeuYear.net), which gives me a lot of free time. So now I live in the hood & I'm trying to learn to love my neighbors and help them on their feet.
What inspired you to start ATL Bench Works?
I was inspired seeing Brian build awesome rustic furniture with homeless guys. I was also inspired by reading Bob Lupton's "Compassion, Justice & the Christian Life" which started me thinking, "what business can I do that could employ low skilled labor, yet be sustainable." When a friend and I walked by our garden in the back, she said "oh, cool bench! I want one!" and right then it clicked. I realized I might have a product worth selling.
Why do you use pallets/recycled wood?
We use pallets because they are very accessible. Our neighborhood is kind of a dumping ground for stuff. There are lots of tires & random furniture that gets dumped on various corners. There are pallets too, in various places. Since my goal was to bring money to the community, I figured it was better to pay my neighbors to round-up free pallet wood, than to buy the wood from somewhere outside the neighborhood. And it was easier to test the idea with pallets. And it's fun to take something that is essentially trash & turn it into something useful & even beautiful - it's so efficient, I love efficiency. And also, pallets tend to have a weathered and worn look, which is so hot right now, it's like the rustic-ness is built in. They're perfect!
Can you think of one great story that illustrates the unique strength and impact that building these benches has?
One of my neighbors - "Cali" - lives on the front porch of an abandoned house. He scrapes by on unemployment. He saw me building benches and he saw his friends coming to my house to work. It inspired him to pursue one of his own dreams. He's always wanted to have a coffee shop. And he had an idea to sell coffee & donuts on the side of the road to commuters on their way to work. So he bought some coffee beans and found a table and a coffee maker, and made a cardboard sign & started his own business. I think showing people that they can do stuff has been a big part of what I'm doing. Sometimes people just need a good example, or a bit of inspiration to get off the couch & try it. Unfortunately, he gave-up after a couple weeks. I wish he would've stuck with it.
Have you felt like sense starting this business that it has given these guys and the surrounding neighbors a sense of community?
Possibly. The two main guys that I have working for me seem to have become good friends. I don't remember if Gangsta (the builder) knew Malachi (the stainer) well before they started working for me. Unfortunately, I used to hire more than just them, but they pushed me to hire only them, so I haven't gotten too many others involved with this work. There's a strong sense of competition with the other homeless guys around because they all want work and sometimes feel that Gangsta & Malachi are selfish to want all this work to themselves & there's a bit of jealousy and people trying to jump-in when Malachi or Gangsta don't show up. So it's kinda messy, it's not cut & dried. Perhaps if I had a shop that was more secluded - but we work in the backyard and it's open and people I don't know sometimes come up and ask for work, which I usually can't afford to give.
So, I would like to say "yes" but I don't know for sure. The surrounding neighbors aren't involved, unfortunately because we have so few neighbors. Half the houses on our block & the neighboring blocks are burned down or abandoned. But, I think people appreciate what we're doing. We've put benches at a few bus stops, which people appreciate and elsewhere we've put them around. One guy even sleeps on one of the benches. Sooooo, we're doing something, I guess. But no community around this yet. Well, definitely building my relationships with Gangsta & Malachi. Without the bench business I wouldn't really know them. And I've met several other guys through this business. William brings me pallets. A couple months into our relationship, I helped him build a website. Then there's another guy, James. He brings me pallets sometimes. Terry helped me a bit, but now he just fills-in when Gangsta's not around. We've done other stuff together. I'm helping him sell a dog on Craigslist.