Last week I received an interesting package in the mail from Sweet Beginnings LLC, a Chicago-based neighborhood non-profit “committed to training and employing residents who are often locked out of the traditional labor market due to past criminal records and other barriers to employment.”
Opening the large cardboard box, I discovered two of their signature “beeline” products: homemade beeswax body cream and lip balm. I met Brenda Palms Barber, the CEO of this remarkable organization, at the Aspen Ideas Festival last month.
The Sweet Beginnings story is one worth sharing—an example of success against some pretty incredible odds.
North Lawndale, a neighborhood on Chicago’s west side (where the organization is based), has seen its share of challenging circumstances in decades past. With six in 10 residents having been in trouble with the law and one in four currently unemployed, the community faces some of the most troubling realities confronting urban America.
Experiencing an alarming rate of “white flight” in the years following World War II as government housing policies favoring white Americans incentivized mass migration into new suburban communities, North Lawndale saw its white population drop from 87,000 to 11,000 between 1950 and 1960, while its African American population increased sharply, from 13,000 to over 113,000, during that same time.
Moreover, “the next two decades [saw] a series of economic and social disasters for this increasingly isolated, segregated community. Riots followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, destroying many of the stores … accelerating a decline that lead to a loss of 75 percent of the businesses in the community by 1970,” according to the Steans Family Foundation—the Lawndale-focused foundation enabling Sweet Beginnings to get off the ground in 1999.
Confronting the twin challenges of rampant unemployment and the difficulty of finding work for individuals with a criminal record, Sweet Beginnings provides job opportunities for once-incarcerated community members while equipping them with the skills, experiences, and hope necessary to sustain and pursue work in the future.
As I’ve often said before, “Work works,” but only when it empowers people to meet their needs while affirming their dignity as image-bearers of God. When people are given the right information, the right education, and sufficient economic opportunity they are far more likely to make good choices.
For more information, please check out the Sweet Beginnings Web site here.
Additionally, Sweet Beginnings and their Beeline products were featured on the CBS Evening News awhile back. Check out the story here.