Politician on the verge 

It's pretty energizing to be in a room full of recent college grads gearing up to do something together. In a house on Scottsville Road, just over the river from the University of Rochester where many of them first met, 10 young people discuss the plan. But unlike many of their peers, they're not going on a road trip or to a concert.

            Welcome to the headquarters of Malik Evans' campaign for Rochester City School Board. It's a sunny mid-June afternoon and Evans, a Democrat, is in the midst of a petition drive to get his name on the ballot. Even if you are nominated by the party, as Evans was, you still have to gather 1,000 signatures. Soon these volunteers will don bright blue "Malik Evans for school board" T-shirts, grab clipboards, petitions, and maps and climb into several cars. They'll descend on a city neighborhood and do the patient and often unrewarding work of knocking on doors, talking to dozens of people, and coming away with a handful of signatures.

            Evans, who I haven't met, has not yet arrived. I had heard that he was young --- 23 years old --- but it hadn't occurred to me what that meant until I hung around with his peers. The whole thing has the tentative feel of young adulthood. As if someone could show up with a six-pack or start tossing a football around and the afternoon's plans would effortlessly morph from political action to recreation.

            Instead, Evans arrives. He is not at all what I expect. Sure, I'd seen the head shot on his website (www.malikevans.org). I knew he had a slender mustache that curves around the edges of his mouth, and I knew his hair was close-cropped. But the tall, lean man who graduated from UR with a degree in political science doesn't seem like the kind of person Mayor Bill Johnson would have picked to introduce him at last year's state of the city speech, nor does he seem like the unknown who had won a major landslide for nomination for the school board seat. He doesn't even look like the branch manager of an M&T Bank, his day job.

            He seems like an ambitious, if somewhat tentative, kid.

The last thing you should call Evans, however, is "kid."

            "I resent being called a kid as if age is a determining factor," he says in a Starbucks a week later, upon hearing one of his opponents for school board referred to him as an "inexperienced kid."

            "Dr. King was young. JFK was young. Jesus? Hello? Joan of Arc. Do we need to go on and on to find young people who've made a difference?"

            Evans left his childhood behind years ago, when he turned to his fellow students and inspired them to work together on education and community projects. He started a prototype for the popular City-County Youth Council when he was 16. He brought a list of youth action priorities to the White House and presented them to President Clinton when he was in high school. And as if to respond to any lingering doubts you might have about his seriousness, Evans dresses beautifully --- in pressed casual clothes and expensive shoes --- and drives a staid black Chrysler Concorde.

            Evans says that he has had his sights set on the school board for years, and that it is not a stepping stone to other political jobs.

            "School boards are the single most important bodies in any community because they set policy; they're a voice for the young people. When I first considered it, I saw it as a position that shouldn't be political. I want to advocate for education, for kids."

            For the past five years Evans has put his money where his mouth is, spending a few hours a week tutoring boys. Evans prefers to work with 13- and 14-year-olds, an age when children can be so difficult they drive even their parents away. But he sees it differently.

            "It's the ideal age. It's a critical age. They're just getting ready to hit high school and they're not jaded yet," Evans says. "I call them 'youth on the verge.' They're on the verge of success or trouble. I like to get them right before that."

Ambition and experience garnered as a teenager are all very well and good, but does Malik Evans have the real-world experience he'll need to take on the school board? City Councilmember Wade Norwood, for whom Evans worked as a legislative aide for two years, seems to think so. He offers the example of when Teen Court changed from an intermittent function of the courts to a full-time program under the auspices of city government.

            "Malik was the point person between the mayor and the council," Norwood says. He had to communicate between them during the challenging transition. "All I know is that he got it solved. And [Teen Court] just had him come back as keynote speaker."

            Lately Evans has been speaking at youth groups, recreation centers, and local colleges that run youth-oriented programs. He is a popular speaker because his long record of activism in the schools and community make him an ideal role model, and, I learned recently, because he is very good at it.

            At a special meeting of the Adams Street Recreation Center Youth Council, a big spread of pizza, veggies, and soda await the mayor's arrival. The council, which is celebrating its seventh year, has also invited Malik Evans because he helped start an early iteration of the Youth Council.

            To watch Evans address a classroom of distracted, leg-bouncing teens is to watch a master. He not only knows kids, he knows what it is to be a kid. He understands that his audience would rather be down in the basketball court that they can see, through an interior window, from where they sit.

            Evans takes his time when he talks. He greets the students and asks them their names, in turn, and what schools they attend. As the children speak, he repeats their names, looking each one in the eye.

            "Do you ever feel like people talk down to you?" Evans asks. The children don't move. "Like you're dumb?" A boy beside me says "yes," a few nod their heads.

            "Don't let that stop you. You can do anything you want to do. I used to ask myself, 'What can I do as a young person? As a 14- or 15-year-old?' The answer is a lot. A lot. When you see something going wrong in your community, you know you have a forum." He makes an inclusive sweep of his arm to take in this room, these people.

            When Mayor Johnson enters later, everyone is standing around eating pizza. He greets Malik warmly. The mayor is a long-time friend of the Evans family.

            "I've watched Malik evolve," he says. "He came from the kind of roots that create a leader. But he didn't wait until he got old. He's doing something now. He was a very precocious child."

            As the other adults vie for the mayor's attention, Evans drifts to the back of the room and sits down with some teenagers. He's made this small move, from one side of the room to the other, from shaking hands with the mayor to chilling with some students, without the slightest change in his demeanor.

            The tentativeness that I perceived on the first day I met him turns out to be Evans' typically low-key attitude. He maintains a sense of calm that serves him well as he moves between high-powered Dems and high-energy kids, between childhood and adulthood.

On that sunny Saturday afternoon in June, the petition-drive volunteers arrived at a neighborhood near West Avenue and Ames Street. They split up and headed out looking for signatures.

            Evans grew restless as he rang doorbells at house after empty house. Finally, he found two men sitting on a porch decorated by a row of plastic tulips. "I vote," one man said, "but it doesn't do any damn good."

            Here Evans hit his stride, rubbing his hands together and talking about his "KFC" platform. "Kids, Finance, and Community," Evans explained. "I want to hook kids up with mentors and get schools hooked up with the community at large. And finances need oversight so kids can get what they need."

            According to Mayor Johnson, Evans himself got what he needs from his family. "He's from parents who are very focused on their children, highly motivated, and education-oriented," the mayor says.

            In an earlier interview, Evans had proudly pointed to his parents as great influences on his life. His father's non-profit group, First Community Interfaith, Inc., connects mentors with young people.

            When I told him that I'd like to interview his father, Evans balked. He offered to introduce me to a beloved retired teacher who is now active in the Democratic Party instead. That's fine, I said, but I'd like your dad's number, too. Evans changed the subject, asking if I'd spoken to Wade Norwood yet. I pressed him and Evans' normally calm expression changed. I caught a fleeting glimpse of something I couldn't quite place.

            "Do you have to talk to my father?" he said. School-board candidate Malik Evans wants to be considered on his own terms; not viewed as the child of someone else.

            And then it came to me. For a split second, the look that flashed across this man's face was a pout.

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