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Difference Maker

Brenda Palms Barber offers ex-cons in Chicago a honey of a second chance

Sweet Beginnings, a growing business on Chicago's West Side, provides just released prisoners with job experience making honey and other products.

By Staff writer / October 5, 2012

Brenda Palms Barber's honey-products program has hired 275 ex-offenders since 2007. After 90 days, they shift to the outside workforce.

Courtesy of David Harold Ropinksi/Sweet Beginnings

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Chicago

"Pollinate" is a word that Brenda Palms Barber likes to throw around when talking to people about her work.

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She pollinates jobs for recently released inmates looking for a second chance. She pollinates faith among the people who take a chance in hiring them. She pollinates an upswing in North Lawndale, one of the most impoverished neighborhoods in Chicago, about five miles west of downtown.

She also pollinates honey. At least that's the job of the bees she has spent five years raising.

Indeed, Ms. Barber has brought swarms of bees to the city's West Side, using them to foster job creation among a stigmatized group of people who live on the bottom rung of the economic ladder: black males who exit the state or county prison system with little formal education or job skills.

While job creation is the hot topic of the national presidential campaign, it's very likely that neither major-party candidate would consider framing the issue around helping ex-offenders get straight. That is why Barber felt it was important to start a program that created jobs and job skills for the most marginalized people in her community.

"We have to be their first employers," she says. "We have to prove to society that people who did bad things, people who need second chances, can be positive in the workplace, that they will be loyal and hard-working and honest employees."

So far the numbers are working in her favor: Sweet Beginnings has hired 275 ex-offenders since 2007. After working there for 90 days, they transition to the outside workforce, where they hunt for jobs in sectors such as manufacturing, customer service, and food service. According to its records, Sweet Beginnings has a prison recidivism rate among its employees of about 4 percent – far below the national and state averages of 65 percent and 55 percent respectively.

Barber arrived in Chicago after lengthy stints in Tucson, Ariz., and Denver, where she worked with nonprofit groups involved in empowering low-income Latina women and economic development. Her record led the North Lawndale Employment Network (NLEN), a not-for-profit agency tasked with fostering job creation on Chicago's West Side, to take notice: It offered her the job of executive director in 1999.

Barber immediately began trying to understand why unemployment was so high in that section of Chicago – 26 percent, according to NLEN. The median household income was only $18,342, according to 2010 US Census data.

"It was prison," Barber discovered. "This community was impacted by mass incarceration: 57 percent of adults had a criminal background. I realized we can't do workforce development in this community without developing programming that reintegrates these guys back into the community."

Enter the bees. NLEN began hunting for ways to teach job skills that could carry through to the outside world. A board member suggested beekeeping.

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