Change the Ending

Chaz Williams success story
as told to Katie Cortese (Groupon staff writer)

The ping of each shell casing as it hit the ground was drowned out by the loud pop of the next bullet. More than 100 in all, the shots came from guns that belonged to Chaz Williams and the police that surrounded his car. He was a free man for the moment, having escaped from prison after being handed a 95-year sentence. Those earned years came after robbing more than 60 banks, making him one of the most notorious bank robbers in US history. It is a feat some men might boast as their biggest accomplishment, but not Chaz. His greatest success is surviving.

Surviving the streets of the notorious “40 projects” in South Jamaica, New York, and surviving episodes of segregation in the South during family visits. Those two shaped his thought process about people in power and jump-started his career as a bank robber who meticulously planned each heist. It was a career that inevitably led him to prison. But being a man that liked to use his brain, the thought of doing nothing day after day struck Chaz as a waste.

“When I was incarcerated, I learned to fight my own causes. With the same tenacity and determination, I started to do other things with the time I had,” Chaz said. He earned two bachelor’s degrees and studied the legal system from top to bottom, which helped him successfully appeal his sentence and get paroled in 15 years. The degrees instilled a new set of tools to function in society.

“We are never doing things just to do them. Everything is about survival,” Chaz said. “We need to give the young men in our neighborhood other tools for survival.”

And so upon his release, Chaz found an available storefront in South Jamaica and opened Black Hand Entertainment, which boasts a past-and-present list of clients that includes 50 Cent, Foxy Brown, and Tayo. It was all part of the plan to show other young men from South Jamaica what their lives could be like if they took the higher road. As an outreach supervisor for Cure Violence, Chaz also works with a staff of violence interrupters to reach the ones considered incorrigible, a word that holds meaning.

“I was once considered incorrigible,” Chaz remarked. “So nothing is impossible.”  cure_violence_partnership_banner

Cure Violence workers reach out to these high-risk individuals, and help them get into a GED program, find job placement, and work out risk-reduction plans.

“We try to introduce respect and rules of engagement, and other rules of being a person of honor and honesty and loyalty within our own selves,” Chaz said. “We try to introduce some of those attributes that are sometimes lost with our kids because there isn’t someone telling them or teaching them about those inherent qualities.”

The cycle of violence Chaz is helping to end comes from a community blanketed in a sense of hopelessness. The access to things other urban communities enjoy is not found in South Jamaica. Funding dwindles daily, forcing alternatives to crime, such as the youth center, to shut down. Couple that with the fact that “you can get a gun easier than a GED,” and bloodshed ensues. But Chaz’s job is to stop the bleeding. So he reaches out to the same community he grew up in and shares his stories with inmates as part of a prison outreach program.

“Nobody can go back and change their beginning,” Chaz said. “But today you can change your ending.”

– Katie Cortese