man climbing out of manhole

b&b193 Prosperity Now: North Lawndale Employment Network (NLEN)

Welcome to Prosperity Now, a series interviewing non profit organizations who are part of Building High Impact Non-Profits of Color. This consistent stuff doesn’t make the news, but it’s a thing that makes a community.

In this episode we interviewed Brenda Palms Barber, Executive Director of the North Lawndale Employment Network and Founding CEO of Sweet Beginnings, LLC, and  Lauren Wesley, Director of Development of NLEN. NLEN is an urban workforce development agency which helps local communities build job skills, credit, and other necessities. Sweet Beginnings is a related social enterprise project using urban beekeeping to create jobs for those with significant barriers to employment, especially those recently out of prison, to ensure NLEN’s hardest to employ clients could get jobs and gain a history of employment. They share their remarkable success stories, and the experience of finding and filling this need.


Music featured in this episode:

Development by Schematic
Jazz by Maze
SmartMouf – Money Hungry by The Mayor Allen Poe (Prezident Poe)

Photo by Simone Acquaroli


Brenda Gardner: 57% of the adults within our community have had some involvement with the criminal justice system…and if you look at men by themselves, it really escalated up to about 80%

Brenda Gardner: the unemployment rate right now is the lowest it’s been since 2008…the unemployment rate right now in North Lawndale is 23.4%…that prosperity hasn’t filtered into communities like ours.

Lauren Wesley: Once you’ve been institutionalized, that has to be deconstructed.

Lauren Wesley: You have to follow orders because otherwise you could lose your life or you could spend more time behind bars or you could be put in solitary confinement. You learn how to follow rules in order to survive behind bars, and so the workplace is a lot different. People reward you for taking initiative. You get extra kudos if you’ve taken on a project on your own. You get promoted for those types of things, but when you’re used to falling in line you have to undo that.

Lauren Wesley: Being institutionalized is a mental health problem…it’s not like you come out and you’re like “Okay I’m free.” Freedom is not just a state a physical freedom; it’s mental freedom, and you don’t have that mental freedom when you’ve been locked up for ten or more years.

Lauren Wesley: The key is accessing resources. Whether it’s your grandmother, whether it’s friends, family, cause you need to have that support.

Lauren Wesley: It’s expensive to be poor.

Brenda Gardner: A flat tire on the road could be a catastrophic experience for somebody who’s in that low wage job and doesn’t have savings and can’t get to work and then potentially could lose their job or they get a warning and then there’s the stress that comes with the warning…it’s expensive to be poor not only financially but also mentally. There’s a stress involved there.

Brenda Gardner: Prison really is about stripping a person of their identity and of their self worth, and I think that what we do is, upon serving your time, we wanna help restore your sense of self worth. We want you to know that you are a valuable member of society.

Brenda Gardner: They tell stories about men and women who’ve been released from prison and what their journey looks like and what a struggle it is…it’s the mental, because, it’s that mental transition. It’s being in a car for the first time and feeling movement, and what does that feel like, or smelling baked bread for the first time, because you don’t get that so much.