Business Skills Learned in Illegal Activity Are Transferable to Legit Jobs

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Garfield Produce Company

Darius Jones, V.P. and General Manager of Garfield Produce Company, a budding indoor vertical hydroponics farm based out of East Garfield Park, is a young man who comes off as sharp and professional from the jump. He knows his business well and can tell you more about hydroponics – growing plants without soil — than you ever thought you’d want to know. What isn’t obvious is that he has a background.

“I’m a felon. I was in and out of jail all my teenage life. I went to jail well over 10 times as a teenager, and when I was 17, I ended up sitting in maximum-security jail for 15 months. I got out seven years ago, and it took me 2 1/2 years of almost going back to jail and still being in the streets after jail to realize that I had an opportunity to do something cool into something different,” said Jones.

He discovered gardening while in a Boot Camp. Knowing what it was like to be in maximum and supermax units within prison, where he says he rarely got fresh air during the 15-month period, the award-winning program, The Cook County Sheriff’s Garden Project: A Patch of Paradise, was appealing. For eight hours a day he learned organic farming and gardening skills in a supportive, constructive, and positive environment. The idea is that inmates can use these skills to gain positive skills on the outside. But if you go back to where you’ve always been and now you have a background, it can be hard to have the vision to turn your life around, even with new skills.

“Unless you’re like homeless and have no family, then, you’re just back to whatever corner you used to hang out on with the same people. I got out of jail, gone back with my old friends, had this Homecoming party, and I was back in the streets, back carrying guns, selling drugs, even though I was working with this job training program,” said Darius, who after leaving prison started working in farmers markets with Windy City Harvest, which is the Chicago Botanic Gardens 9-month Apprenticeship program.

What changed for Darius is that people starting telling him he had a knack for sales. Garfield Produce Company was started by Mark and Judy Thomas in 2014 with the goal of providing employment to the west side Chicago neighborhood. Darius joined in 2015. He was hired as a salesperson after enjoying 100% sales increases year over year. He now owns 25% of the company after only five years off the streets. The company recently received one of six social impact loans made by Benefit Chicago. A collaboration of The Chicago Community Trust, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and Calvert Foundation, Benefit Chicago was created to expand the pool of loans and investments available to mission-directed for- and nonprofits, which, due to the communities or populations they serve, often find it challenging to get commercial cash to fund their ventures. Garfield Produce will use a $500,000 loan from the Fund to operate and expand their innovative and indoor vertical hydroponic vegetable farm. Through creating small 6,000 to 10,000 sq. ft. hydroponics facilities across the city, the small company aims to create wealth in underserved communities.

“I grew up over here, in Garfield Park, really just like down the street. I put a lot of negative energy into this community as a teenager, and so, yeah. Bringing just positive energy, positive people into this environment, you know, showing something different. To the right of us is an auto mechanic shop and to the left of us is a motorcycle gang. We’re a hydroponics company. There are gangs and auto body shops all over this community. So, what’s new, what’s innovative, what’s different, what can people utilize over here? Well, healthy food. People can always use healthy food.  People can always use jobs. Especially, in a growing industry like hydroponics,” said Darius.

Sweet Beginnings

Garfield Produce is not the only company to get a taste of success from the ground up with the purpose of helping people with backgrounds sharpen their natural business skills. Sweet Beginnings, a for-profit subsidiary of the North Lawndale Employment Network, uses the production of beelove™ – a line of honey-based products – to provide job training to community residents. 

“When you’re trying to address issues of unemployment in this community and we’re not alone, there are other communities like North Lawndale, then you have to do something to create an economic engine that will be receptive to hiring folks who had a brush with the law. That’s why there’s a sweet spot…men and women that have criminal backgrounds inspired Sweet Beginnings,” said CEO Brenda Palms Barber.

Palms Barber knows that most people aren’t going to go out and become beekeepers. But that they’ll use the skills they’ve learned at her small operation — production skills, safety skills around production, health around food products, customer service, and the financials in the business — in other industries. Sweet Beginnings also received a $500,000 loan from Benefit Chicago. Barber says the cash will enable her to extend the current 90-day hiring experience to 6 months.

“I might work for the rest of my life starting today. And I might have kids, grandkids, have my own house, travel and stuff. Everything that other people get to do,” said John Jenkins, who currently works at Sweet Beginnings. “It’s just nothing has ever worked for me. I tried so much. I went to college, I tried the military. Everything I tried, it just didn’t work out. This I’ve had a little bit more success. Especially in the beginning and I think that this might be the turnaround in my life. Every time I get up in the morning I feel like I’m doing something productive with my life. And peoples in my community see now. They see what I’m doing, they want to come to the program now.”   


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