Blacks helping their own

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Urban honey bees are very unique, I’ve recently learned. They don’t distinguish between a flower and a weed when gathering nectar. They see the good in whatever blossoms. Which makes Brenda Palms Barber, founder of Sweet Beginnings, a transiti

Urban honey bees are very unique, I’ve recently learned. They don’t distinguish between a flower and a weed when gathering nectar. They see the good in whatever blossoms. Which makes Brenda Palms Barber, founder of Sweet Beginnings, a transitional jobs program that hires ex-offenders to manufacture and market honey-based personal care products, wonder “Why can’t we be more like the honey bee?”

Palms Barber, executive director of the North Lawndale Employment Network, knows all too well the challenges ex-offenders face re-entering the workforce. Palms Barber became so frustrated with the lack of job opportunities in North Lawndale–where 60 percent of the residents have a criminal record–that she founded Sweet Beginnings to help ex-offenders gain on-the-job experience. To date, Sweet Beginnings has given 86 men and women a second chance and transitioned them into unsubsidized jobs. Fewer than 3 percent of her clients have returned to prison.

“This is a powerful response to a social ill,” said Palms Barber, one of 15 entrepreneurs selected to participate in the Chicago Urban League’s nextONE entrepreneurship program. nextONE is a nine-month competitive program the Urban League created in partnership with the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University to help minority-owned businesses grow to scale and reach their next level of business success.

“Many of these folks just needed an opportunity to get work experience,” said Palms Barber, who founded Sweet Beginnings with a $140,000 grant from the Illinois Department of Corrections in 2004. Today, her products can be found in retailers such as Whole Foods. “We are truly creating a beginning and pathways out of poverty.”

In life, second chances are not guaranteed. That goes double for ex-offenders trying to rejoin the workforce. Many employers view these individuals as “untouchables.”

That is why for the Urban League’s second nextONE class of entrepreneurs, we gave special consideration to businesses that offer employment, management and ownership opportunities to ex-offenders. We understand that employers’ unwillingness to hire ex-offenders contributes greatly to the state’s 67 percent recidivism rate, among the highest in the country. We also know that Black-owned businesses are more likely to hire Black people. Literally, if these firms didn’t hire ex-offenders or other hard-to-employ individuals, there is a good chance no one else would.

But hiring ex-offenders isn’t as unsafe a bet as people might think. In fact, if you ask Bill Leggett, president and CEO of CTI Collection Services, a collection agency based in Chicago, who is among his most loyal and trusted employees, you might be surprised by his answer.

“Ex-offenders,” said Leggett, adding that 15 percent of his 200 employees are ex-offenders who were convicted of non-violent crimes. “They’ve worked out extremely well. They are very loyal and appreciate the opportunity. We haven’t had one issue with an ex-offender.”

Leggett joins Palms Barber and Quentin Love, president of the I Love Food Group, a consortium of fast-casual restaurants on the South and West Sides, in a special subset of nextONE businesses eager and willing to employ ex-offenders.

Even for non-violent offenders, a prison sentence can feel like a life sentence when it comes to finding a job. Imagine filling out a job application and coming across the inevitable question–“Have you ever been convicted of a crime?”–then getting that sinking feeling that the door to opportunity will likely close once you check “Yes.”

Earlier this year, Congress passed the Second Chance Act to provide transitional assistance for ex-offenders coping with the challenges of re-entry. Sponsored by U.S. Rep. Danny Davis, D-Ill., it’s too early to know the impact of that law, but it was an important first step to removing the stigma.

The truth is, if you have a Black-owned business in an urban or low-income community, you invariably will encounter ex-offenders looking for work. In Illinois, about half of the 44,000 prisoners released every year return to Cook County. Of those, the majority wind up in five communities: Englewood, North Lawndale, Austin, Garfield and West Humboldt Park. These communities, not surprisingly, also have the highest unemployment rates in the city.

Love said not a week goes by when he isn’t approached by ex-offenders looking to work at one of his Quench or Soul Express restaurants. He said he treats them no differently than any other applicant.

“Everyone deserves a second chance,” said Love, who employs as many as 15 ex-offenders at any given time.

Cheryle R. Jackson is the president of the Chicago Urban League. She can be reached at president@thechicagourbanleague.org.

Copyright 2008 Chicago Defender. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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