Chicago’s North Lawndale Employment Network to transform former bank building into community hub September 4, 2019

When Chicagoan Sadie Joseph returned home following a period of incarceration, she was ready to retool her life.

“My biggest goal was to go to school, get a job, and stay focused,” she recently told an energetic crowd gathered at 1111 South Homan Avenue, the former North Lawndale branch of Liberty Bank & Trust. Community members, government representatives, local media, philanthropists, and others had come together to celebrate the building’s future incarnation as the North Lawndale Employment Network (NLEN).

NLEN is a 20-year-old nonprofit and client of IFF’s real estate and lending services teams. NLEN also participated in the IFF-administered Stronger Nonprofits Initiative.

Since its founding in 1999, NLEN has helped more than 2,700 returning citizens and low-income residents of North Lawndale join the workforce. Clients attend classes, receive hands-on training, and access jobs through partner employers like the Chicago Transit Authority, as well as NLEN’s own Sweet Beginnings, an ingenious social enterprise featuring an urban bee farm that harvests honey and produces popular honey-infused skin care products under the beelove brand.

They motivate me, they encourage me, and they keep my head lifted.

Joseph now coaches other returning citizens through NLEN’s READI partnership with Heartland Alliance. She described how she participated in the organization’s job readiness training program, U-Turn Permitted, graduating president of her class. Additionally, NLEN connected her to resources for obtaining financial aid for college and worked with her to build her credit.

“I used all of their resources,” Joseph said. “They motivate me, they encourage me, and they keep my head lifted.” (Watch Sadie Joseph tell more of her story here.)

That kind of support is vital given the larger national barriers affecting people like Joseph. According to a 2018 report conducted by the Prison Policy Initiative, 27% of the 5 million returning citizens living in America — the country with the highest incarceration rate in the world — are actively seeking a job but can’t get one.

As the report points out, that rate exceeds the 25% unemployment peak during the Great Depression. In addition, the report notes, “People of color and women face the worst ‘penalties’ in the job market after going to prison, making historical inequalities in the labor force even worse.” The unemployment rate for returning citizens who are Black women is 43.6%, compared to 35.2% for returning citizens who are Black men, 23.2% for returning citizens who are white women, and 18.4% for returning citizens who are white men.

A community-centered model like NLEN’s can make a significant difference. The rate of NLEN clients employed by Sweet Beginnings returning to prison is just 4% (as measured over a seven-year period), compared to Illinois’ 52% recidivism rate.

Returning citizens aren’t the only beneficiaries; the entire North Lawndale community gains from clients’ transition into the workforce. As Joseph explained, “What we do is we help take the violence off the streets … We build [returning citizens’] resumes up, we facilitate cognitive behavioral therapy, and then we try to find them jobs within the 18 months that they’re in our program.”

It’s clearly an approach worth replicating on a bigger scale. That is exactly what NLEN plans to do next. Once complete, the 20,000-square-foot former bank building where NLEN’s supporters recently assembled will double the organization’s capacity to serve the North Lawndale community.

‘Turn your imagination dials to 10’

That’s what Larry Kearns of Wheeler Kearns Architects, one of the speakers to follow Joseph, instructed listeners to do.

Kearns painted a striking mental picture of the renovation that will soon transform the space. In the coming months, a pleasant but uninspired bank building will become a bright, bustling neighborhood anchor where all community members can, as Sadie Joseph put it, find “real talk, real hope, and real love.”

NLEN’s new facility will bring together programs spread across five locations — including one at Homan Square, part of a strategic planning area for the Foundation for Homan Square and IFF — making it much easier for clients to access multiple services and resources. Highlights of the space will include:

  • The Worker Bee Café. This will be “the emotional center of the space,” according to Kearns — “a place that nourishes both body and soul.” Clients, employees, and community members will be able to relax and chat at natural wood tables while enjoying gourmet coffee and tasty meals through NLEN’s partnerships with Inspiration Kitchens, which runs a transitional jobs program for restaurant workers, and local coffee producer Metropolis Coffee.
  • A large, bright community event room with access to a peace garden. North Lawndale’s residents will welcome the addition of a space that can accommodate more cultural and community events. It will also have glass doors that open into a peace garden with trees, flowers, a calming fountain, and places to sit and contemplate.
  • A rooftop apiary (bee farm) and production space for Sweet Beginnings. NLEN’s bee farm will be on-site for care and honey collection, along with production space where employees package products. “This will not be a back room, where you’ll find most food processing spaces,” Kearns noted. “[It will have windows that allow people to] look into the Worker Bee Café and community room.”
  • An on-site community bank with drive-thru service. Chicago-based Wintrust will be an NLEN tenant and community resource. The bank already has a strong relationship with NLEN and North Lawndale; in the past three years, Wintrust has opened more than 100 accounts for NLEN job seekers and community residents.
  • Classrooms and a computer lab. Clients’ learning will take place in state-of-the-art classrooms, including an area where they can master diesel mechanics as part of the Moving Forward program NLEN runs in partnership with the Chicago Transit Authority.

A community space that reflects ‘who we are and what we deserve’

The centralized facility is the brainchild of NLEN’s executive director, Brenda Palms-Barber. She has grown the organization from two employees to 52 in the two decades since the Steans Family Foundation provided the seed money to launch NLEN. Along the way, she has injected lightning-bolt ideas into the organization, such as the creation of Sweet Beginnings in 2004, and then nurtured those ideas into impactful programs.

Her current goal: Reduce North Lawndale’s unemployment rate — which CMAP’s 2019 report shows as 20% — by at least 10% over the next five years.

When Palms-Barber stepped to the podium, she emphasized the critical role of staff and backers who have believed in NLEN over the years. “You’re really fortunate when you tell people you have this idea about creating jobs through honey and beekeeping for people who are returning from incarceration and [prospective backers] go, ‘OK, I think you might be onto something,’” she said.

There’s an architect and writer by the name of John Cary,” she told the crowd. “He explained that well-designed spaces are not just a matter of taste or a question of aesthetics. They literally shape our ideas about who we are in this world and what we deserve.

IFF is proud to be among those backers. “It’s a privilege to be part of the tremendous synergy that Brenda creates with partners, funders, staff and clients, the North Lawndale community, and city representatives,” says Gordon Hellwig, IFF’s Managing Director of Lending for Northern Illinois and Northwest Indiana.

IFF has supported NLEN in a wide variety of ways, based on the organization’s changing needs:

  • Stronger Nonprofits Initiative (SNI). IFF administers this capacity-building program that is designed to help nonprofits led by people of color and/or serving communities of color access financial knowledge, subsidized real estate consulting, and more. In 2018, Palms-Barber and other members of her leadership team participated in SNI. As NLEN’s Chief Program Officer, Mark Sanders, explained in this IFF article, “We [wanted] to bring new life and energy into the community by purchasing and rehabbing a building, and then ultimately centralize our activities to attract more walk-ins. We felt like SNI would be a great place to begin that process.”
  • Real estate consulting. IFF’s seasoned real estate consultants provided guidance to Palms-Barber and her team as they explored options for moving and expanding, vetted potential buildings, and ultimately made the decision to purchase the facility at 1111 Homan Avenue. “[IFF understands] that executive directors of nonprofits are not experts in real estate,” Palms-Barber recently told Next City. Working with IFF has enabled her to stay laser focused on applying her expertise to deliver life-changing services to her community — a benefit IFF commonly hears from clients.
  • Financing. IFF initially provided a $1.2 million bridge loan to help ease the timing gap between the time NLEN expects to finish its $10 million capital campaign and the closing on the building purchase. Post-purchase, IFF is providing a second loan of nearly $5 million to ensure that the renovations of the building proceed smoothly to completion. IFF’s loans represented just one part of the complex funding puzzle that enabled NLEN to buy the facility and prepare for the renovation work without worrying about how quickly its capital pledges would come in. Key donations came from organizations including Chicago’s Neighborhood Opportunity Fund ($2.5 million); JPMorgan Chase ($1 million), which also funds the Stronger Nonprofits Initiative; Jim and Kay Mabie ($1 million); the Steans Family Foundation ($1.5 million); the Chicago Community Trust; the Citi Foundation; and several NLEN board members.
  • Construction oversight. On behalf of NLEN, IFF has been helping oversee the design and construction process, navigating the complexities of project blueprints, zoning requirements, public approvals, architect and general contractor interactions (in this case, Wheeler Kearns and Ujamaa Construction, respectively), and more.

Palms-Barber believes the finished facility will mean a tremendous amount to the community. “There’s an architect and writer by the name of John Cary,” she told the crowd. “He explained that well-designed spaces are not just a matter of taste or a question of aesthetics. They literally shape our ideas about who we are in this world and what we deserve.”

Palms-Barber paused, then added, “So, this campus will not only be a much-needed community resource but will also represent what every person in this community deserves: a beautiful place to learn, to grow, to have a new beginning and experience a few new bees.”

To learn more, watch NLEN’s inspiring video describing its work and the new facility.