When the North Lawndale Employment Network (NLEN) was established in 1999 as a result of a community planning effort, its “facility” was comprised of several cubicles at Sinai Community Institute. From these humble beginnings, the organization has evolved into a multifaceted nonprofit playing a critical role in creating a more vibrant future for Chicago’s West Side.
Through job training, financial coaching, and job placement and retention programming, NLEN has helped thousands of Chicagoans who face barriers to employment – many of them returning from incarceration – join the workforce. Now, for the first time, NLEN has a facility all its own befitting its status as one of the city’s preeminent workforce development organizations.
Last August, NLEN moved into a 20,000-square-foot former bank building in North Lawndale, newly renovated to enable the organization to consolidate its job skills training programs, financial education center, and social enterprise from four leased facilities to one that it owns. Doing so has doubled the number of individuals NLEN can serve annually to 5,000 and will help the organization achieve its goal of reducing unemployment in the neighborhood by 10 percent by 2025.
NLEN raised more than $11 million to cover the acquisition and renovation costs of its new headquarters, including $2.5 million from the City of Chicago’s Neighborhood Opportunity Fund grant program and an $8 million New Markets Tax Credit allocation from the Chicago Development Fund, with Chase Bank serving as the equity investor. IFF supported the project with two bridge loans totaling $5.875 million that enabled NLEN to expedite payments associated with the renovation of the facility while the organization waited for capital campaign pledges to be fulfilled. IFF also provided real estate support for the project by conducting a feasibility study and serving as the owner’s representative during the buildout of the space.
The photos below showcase NLEN’s new headquarters, which includes administrative offices, dedicated spaces for NLEN’s workforce development programming and community events, a Wintrust Bank branch, a rooftop apiary and ground-floor production facility for NLEN’s honey-centric social enterprise Sweet Beginnings, and a community cafe.
Re-purposing community assets
Finding a permanent location that could meet all of NLEN’s needs took several years, but the organization eventually settled on a building with historic roots. Built in 1978, the facility was originally the Community Bank of Lawndale, which was the first Black-owned bank in the neighborhood.
“I’m so proud that we were able to repurpose and revitalize this building because of what it represented for North Lawndale when it was built,” says NLEN President and CEO Brenda Palms Barber. “We’re standing on the shoulders of visionary leaders who were trying to address an unmet need for retail banking services in our community.”
Audacious design for an audacious organization
Immediately after entering NLEN’s headquarters, it’s apparent that the organization wanted to make a statement about its investment in the community.
“I love the moss wall in the foyer because it represents the audacity of our work and makes a clear statement upon entering our campus of our value and respect for the environment,” says Palms Barber. “We’ve brought a design element that you might expect to see downtown to a neighborhood organization on the West Side, and it’s the first thing people see when they arrive. There’s no reason unique features like that can’t be a part of our experience and a part of our community.”
While the moss wall is the most visually striking example of NLEN’s commitment to environmental sustainability, it’s just one of many throughout the property. The building’s entrance plaza – formerly a parking lot – is filled with native plants and plenty of seating, creating a green space for the entire community to enjoy. On the east side of the facility is a walled-in “Peace Garden” with a small fountain, seating, additional native plants, and plaques that recognize donors and memorialize community members lost to gun violence, creating a quiet place for self-reflection and collective healing.
The Peace Garden is named for the late Harrison I. Steans, a banker and philanthropist whose family foundation has long worked hand in hand with the North Lawndale community to promote stronger education, employment, health, and safety for residents.
A community gathering place
Named for Michael Scott, Sr., a dedicated public servant and longtime advocate for North Lawndale, NLEN’s facility includes a room for community events. The space features floor-to-ceiling windows that look out into NLEN’s Peace Garden, providing a calming atmosphere in a location where North Lawndale residents can gather.
Nourishing the body and soul in the beelove café
At the July 2019 groundbreaking ceremony for NLEN’s new facility, Larry Kearns of Wheeler Kearns Architects remarked that the on-site café would be the “emotional center of the space,” providing a venue that “nourishes both body and soul” for NLEN clients, staff, and members of the North Lawndale community.
That vision for the space has come to life in the beelove café, which offers gourmet coffee and a variety of food made in the neighborhood that’s served by individuals returning from incarceration who are participating in a full-time transitional jobs program.
In keeping with the name, unique hexagonal lights that mimic honeycomb cells dot the ceiling of the beelove café, while a glass addition to the exterior of the facility creates an eye-catching entrance that welcomes community members in.
A production facility to bee proud of
Immediately behind the beelove café is production space for Sweet Beginnings, NLEN’s social enterprise. Sweet Beginnings offers full-time transitional jobs to citizens returning from incarceration in a green industry—the production and sales of all-natural skin care products featuring its own urban honey, sold under the beelove brand.
Large internal windows in the beelove café make it possible to watch honey being harvested from hives and turned into Sweet Beginnings products.
Carrying on a legacy of financial inclusion
Limited access to financial services stifles wealth-building opportunities, and NLEN decided to address this challenge that has long affected North Lawndale head-on by partnering with Wintrust to incorporate a bank branch into the NLEN complex.
After passing through the beelove café, a glass door opens into Wintrust’s space, which is staffed with bankers from the community. In the first few months after the branch opened, more than 120 NLEN clients opened accounts, helping build their financial capacity.
“Having a checking account is an important part of being ready to join the workforce, since the majority of employers utilize direct deposit,” says Palms Barber. “The pandemic has further underscored the importance of having access to online banking, and Wintrust is an amazing partner. Because of them, we were able to carry on the legacy of providing access to financial services for North Lawndale residents in this facility.”
That legacy extends to the infrastructure itself, with the original drive through lanes from the Community Bank of Lawndale once again in operation.
Ample room for programming and administration, with a larger-than-life nod to North Lawndale’s history
Throughout the facility, NLEN has created welcoming spaces for clients to work with staff to overcome barriers to employment and financial challenges. On the first floor is the LISC Chicago Resource & Financial Opportunity Center, which serves as a hub for all resources provided by NLEN. On the second floor, clients have access to job training, coaching, and support services in The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Career Training Center. Also located on the second floor are NLEN’s administrative offices, a conference room, and additional informal meeting spaces that support collaboration between NLEN’s staff.
The second floor contains another audacious design choice that serves as both a reminder of what NLEN means for the community and an inspiration to keep striving to do more.
“Having this mural in the hallway of Dr. King during his visit to North Lawndale in 1966 inspires a sense of pride in the community and the time he spent here, and it anchors our understanding of how workforce development is our role in advancing his vision for social justice and equity for all of God’s people,” says Palms Barber. “Feeling his presence in our hallway is pretty remarkable, and we’re honored to carry on the work that he started here.”
To learn more about North Lawndale Employment Network’s new facility, watch highlights from the August 2021 ribbon cutting ceremony and read our September 2019 story about the project.