Honey, I Shrunk the Recidivism Rate

A social enterprise on Chicago’s west side puts the formerly incarcerated back to work as beekeepers and honey harvesters.

Every year in Illinois, more than 35,000 individuals are released from prison. Of this number, 10,000 return to only five zip codes in the state, including the community where I live and work: North Lawndale in Chicago. In fact, according to a 2002 study by the Center for Impact Research, more than half of the adult population in North Lawndale has been arrested at some point.

North Lawndale is situated just a few miles west of downtown and the luxurious Magnificent Mile. Despite this proximity, the residents of this community could not be further away from the opportunity and privilege that looms over them in Chicago’s sprawling skyline.

Once a thriving community that was home to the original Sears Tower, the population has dwindled from over 125,000 residents in the 1960s to just 35,000 today. Per capita income in North Lawndale is a meager $12,548, compared to $54,714 in Cook County and $55,775 nationwide. The unemployment rate here is 18.5 percent, compared to 4.7 percent statewide. All of this is the legacy of generations of incarceration: broken homes, lost opportunities and loss of hope. For all too many individuals, a criminal record means the door to opportunity is shut forever.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Given a fair chance to work and an opportunity to rebuild their lives, formerly incarcerated individuals can both become full participants in their communities and contribute to its economic revitalization. That’s the lesson I’ve learned as Executive Director of the North Lawndale Employment Network and as the founder of Sweet Beginnings, an innovative social enterprise aimed at providing formerly incarcerated individuals the skills they need to hold down a well-paying job and gain financial independence.

One of the programs we established was U-Turn Permitted, a four-week job readiness program that prepares returning citizens for employment. But while the program was amazingly effective at job training, there were not enough jobs in the community to absorb these newly trained workers. So we decided to create our own, by starting a honey-based skin care company called Sweet Beginnings. We harvest honey from the beehives we maintain all throughout the city, and we offer a variety of skin products that are now available at retailers throughout the city and the state and even nationwide by mail. Since our launch, we have hired 430 residents of North Lawndale.

Most importantly, the company has helped to change the narrative for returning citizens and their potential. Instead of being defined—and limited—by their criminal record, our workers are now seen as the mothers, fathers, and hardworking taxpayers they are. It is about demonstrating that neighborhood-based organizations could be a part of the solution. I wanted to model to other businesses that they could be good employers to individuals seeking a second chance. The reality is that, in some communities, reentry happens, but Sweet Beginnings is about restoring the individual, community and self-worth.

The first person I ever interviewed for Sweet Beginnings was 27 years old and had never held a legal job. The entirety of his previous work experience was as a drug dealer, which is something he did well, and he took pride in it. He understood competition in a tough market, marketing strategies and inventory management—skills needed to run a successful retail business. And while his prior activities were clearly illegal, his experience in his lifestyle gave him skills that were transferrable. Sweet Beginnings helped take those skills and make them legal and employable.

Beekeeping, harvesting and selling honey and honey-infused products not only provide transitional jobs for returning citizens, but also build the tangible skills our participants need to become more competitive in a hostile job market. Through production of our honey and honey-infused skincare products, participants gain skills in manufacturing, sales, inventory, quality-control, customer service and digital literacy.

There is something about the ancient profession of beekeeping that seemed to be the perfect analogy with people returning from incarceration. Like returning citizens, honey bees are often villainized due to fear and stigma, but they pose little threat to the public. Honey bees, like our participants, draw nectar from both flowers and weeds, seeing no difference in either one. Some may only see the remnants of a once bustling community, but honeybees and people searching for a better tomorrow have the ability to find something sweet in even the most unlikely environments. Sweet Beginnings is a market driven solution to a pervasive social issue of incarceration and re-entry.

The need in North Lawndale continues to be compelling and deeply urgent, but through the frustration and pain, we have something sweet. Flowers do grow in North Lawndale. As does hope.

Brenda Palms Barber

Brenda Palms Barber is the executive director of the North Lawndale Employment Network.