Something about beekeeping spoke to Brenda Palms-Barber. As the founding CEO of the North Lawndale Employment Network, she was conducting an exhaustive search for a line of business to employ people facing barriers to conventional employment because of the criminal justice system.
This was in 2003, still the early days for the North Lawndale Employment Network. In a study it had just completed, 57 percent of adults from the North Lawndale neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago were currently serving time, out on parole, or on probation. Largely as a result, unemployment in North Lawndale was consistently three times higher than the city overall. It wasn’t until 2015 that Illinois would pass “ban the box” legislation outlawing employers from asking about criminal records on job applications.
Since it couldn’t find enough willing employers for graduates of its early training programs, the North Lawndale Employment Network decided to take things into its own hands and start its own business. Palms-Barber looked into landscaping, delivery services, others. None offered the right fit. Finally, she recalls, a board member mentioned she knew a beekeeper.
“I found out that it’s a type of profession or hobby that is passed down through storytelling, and I thought there’s real power in storytelling, that no matter who you are, people love to learn through storytelling,” Palms-Barber says. “It gave me a glimmer of hope that it could work.”
That glimmer has since grown into Sweet Beginnings LLC, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the North Lawndale Employment Network. The subsidiary now earns $200,000 a year from sales of jarred honey and honey-enhanced natural skincare products, while providing full-time transitional jobs to people returning from incarceration. Thanks in large part to its success, the North Lawndale Employment Network recently broke ground on a new headquarters that will bring the organization’s five current programming locations under one roof. More broadly, the new headquarters will be a major coup for a neighborhood-wide, cross-silo effort to revitalize historic North Lawndale, the place Martin Luther King Jr. choose as his northern base for the civil rights movement.
“A very important part of our work is that we are one solution around retaining residents in community and not losing them due to displacement or gentrification,” Palms-Barber says. “Our hope is that not only will our clients be able to purchase a home, but they’ll be able to purchase a home in North Lawndale.”
North Lawndale has come a long way from the days when King lived in the neighborhood. The neighborhood’s population peaked in 1960, at nearly 125,000 — as one of the many Chicago neighborhoods where families of the Great Migration ended up. Today, North Lawndale’s population is down to around 36,000.
The families of the Great Migration came in large part to search for jobs, but people started leaving North Lawndale — not to mention much of the rest of Chicago’s South and West Sides — because the jobs started disappearing. Meanwhile, the neighborhood’s historic housing stock began declining due to redlining, the practice of banks declining loans to certain people and neighborhoods because they were black or immigrant.
The King family moved to North Lawndale in 1966, largely to help the fight against redlining. When King was assassinated in 1968, North Lawndale was one of many neighborhoods in cities across the country that rose up in anguish. As others have previously reported, the neighborhood has yet to really recover.
For many who remained in North Lawndale and Chicago, gangs became the only source of empowerment and self-determination. But then came the “war on drugs,” which did nothing to stop the flow of drugs into communities but did much to disrupt families and neighborhoods by incarcerating and stigmatizing a significant proportion of their working-age adults — as it did to North Lawndale.
Funded out of the wealth generated by a civic-minded Chicago community bank investor, the Steans Family Foundation in 1995 began targeting all its work on the North Lawndale neighborhood, seeding a few resident-led organizations working across different areas, starting in education and housing. In 1999, it seeded what became the North Lawndale Employment Network. After a local search for someone to run the new organization proved unfruitful, the foundation invited Palms-Barber to apply for the job. She was living in Denver at the time.
“I was fortunate to have a transition oversight board — mostly residents, community leaders in North Lawndale, who took me under their wing, took me on different tours, and told me stories on lunch dates,” Palms-Barber says. “They were amazing people, and sadly many of them are no longer with us.”
The North Lawndale Employment Network started out as an intermediary, matching residents with training providers and potential employers. When that wasn’t working, they shifted to the transitional jobs model, creating Sweet Beginnings and providing full-time employment on a temporary basis to give formerly incarcerated people a hands-on, paid opportunity to learn some transferable skills and earn a good reference for a job elsewhere. City and state subsidies help support wages during the transitional period. In the case of Sweet Beginnings, the city and state also provided grants as seed capital for the business.
Sweet Beginnings will soon celebrate its 500th participant. So far, 77 percent of its alumni have found a full-time job elsewhere with three months after their time in the program. Of those, 90 percent retain that job for 30 days or more; 85 percent retain it for 90 days or more; and 75 percent for more than 180 days. While the state’s recidivism rate is 52 percent, over a seven-year period less than four percent of those employed by Sweet Beginnings returned to prison. The city of Chicago, meanwhile, is now subsidizing transitional jobs programs at six other locations.
The new 20,000 square-foot headquarters will allow North Lawndale Employment Network to add several new lines of transitional employment beyond Sweet Beginnings. The renovations will create a cafe, an event space, and also make space for a bank as a tenant in the building. The North Lawndale Employment Network will operate the cafe in partnership with Inspiration Kitchens, a transitional jobs program in the restaurant industry that has been operating for years on the West Side. The new event space will provide opportunities for cultural and community events as well as a few more transitional job opportunities in event planning and equipment rentals. The bank will offer spots as tellers and other staff positions under a transitional jobs arrangement with the network.
The network launched a $7 million capital campaign earlier this year to pay for the renovations, and also received a $2.5 million grant from Chicago’s Neighborhood Opportunity Fund — which supports commercial revitalization projects in Chicago’s South and West Sides, using funds generated by payments from developers seeking permission to build taller and larger than current zoning allows in downtown Chicago.
IFF, a Chicago-based community development loan fund serving the Midwest, provided North Lawndale Employment Network a $1.2 million bridge loan to allow construction to start before the capital campaign is complete. IFF also helped Palms-Barber and her team navigate the real estate process through its Stronger Nonprofits Initiative.
“They understand that executive directors of nonprofits are not experts in real estate,” Palms-Barber says. “It helped us to think about our budgeting, how we prepare ourselves to be in a position to purchase real estate.”
Palms-Barber is especially excited about bringing the organization’s financial coaching services into the same location as the rest of its programs. It’s especially crucial to make those connections as part of the long-term vision of transitional employees and alums becoming homeowners in the neighborhood.
“Our biggest challenge has been that our clients don’t have the benefit of being able to engage more organically between each of our programs,” Palms-Barber says. “With a one-stop location, you can participate in Sweet Beginnings and then go over to get financial coaching after work.”
With the new building, Palms-Barber projects 1,500 transitional job alumni over the next three years. They may not all be from North Lawndale or end up moving to the neighborhood, but those that do would put a dent in the North Lawndale’s 20 percent unemployment rate, representing about 2,700 unemployed.
And the jobs are indeed coming back to North Lawndale, finally. The neighborhood has become the center of Chicago’s film and television industry. Cinespace Studios opened a North Lawndale location in 2011, now with 70 acres of studios with job opportunities for set design and construction as well as production. Lagunitas Brewery, Chicago’s largest, is also in the neighborhood. At 5.4 percent, the vacancy rate for industrial land in North Lawndale is below average for Chicago.
Palms-Barber hopes more new employees, out of her organization and others, will help put a dent in the 27 percent of homes and 60 percent of commercial land in North Lawndale that are still vacant. One commercial property has just been saved from falling into vacancy — the new North Lawndale Employment Network headquarters will occupy a former black-owned bank branch that shut down just last October.
“In the buildings we’re currently in, there’s no signage outside that says North Lawndale Employment Network,” Palms-Barber says. “Being on Roosevelt and Homan with a big giant sign out there will be extraordinary.”
This article is part of The Bottom Line, a series exploring scalable solutions for problems related to affordability, inclusive economic growth and access to capital. Click here to subscribe to our Bottom Line newsletter. The Bottom Line is made possible with support from Citi.
Oscar is Next City's senior economic justice correspondent. He previously served as Next City’s editor from 2018-2019, and was a Next City Equitable Cities Fellow from 2015-2016. Since 2011, Oscar has covered community development finance, community banking, impact investing, economic development, housing and more for media outlets such as Shelterforce, B Magazine, Impact Alpha and Fast Company.