…by Meg White
The place Meg puts the stuff she wrote
Sweet Beginnings, Where Honeybees Create Second Chances for Economically Marginalized Chicagoans
Categories: Company profiles, Copy

by Meg White

Economic indicators may be up, but the North Lawndale neighborhood of Chicago is not one of those places where you can see the recession receding.

“You know, we have a crack house right here,” said Brenda Palms Barber, pointing to a house with a brown door across the alley. “People go back in there and get high all the time. It’s crazy what I see in this alley.”

Barber, the founder of the social enterprise Sweet Beginnings, is giving me a sort of tour through the single window of her small office.

“This gas station is the highest crime area in North Lawndale, one of the highest, because of the drug traffic that goes on on the highway,” she continues. Her finger moves to the barrier between Sweet Beginnings’ back yard and the gas station. “You see the different colors of fences? That’s how many times it’s been knocked down, driven through, rammed through…”

You wouldn’t guess that such a troubled area is also home to a 28-beehive apiary. The honeybees don’t seem to mind the crime or the drone of highway 290. Then again, they draw their inspiration from what grows in North Lawndale, as opposed to what is merely waiting to be torn down.

The bees tell a different version of this community’s story. They help people get out this alley and back on their feet. These are the honeybees of Sweet Beginnings, a nonprofit social enterprise venture on the West Side of Chicago that helps people who have spent time in prison transition into the work world through beekeeping.

“In the case of men and women who have been incarcerated, it is too seductive — it’s almost too easy to go back to a life of crime if you can’t attach to the labor market in a legal way,” Barber said. “People can turn their lives around. But they have to have the opportunity to do so.”

Barber explained that often many barriers — from lack of education to the stigma of incarceration — make this a huge challenge. And it’s a major problem in North Lawndale, where 57 percent of adults have been involved in the criminal justice system.

I was lucky enough to meet some of Barber’s budding beekeepers in a visit to Sweet Beginnings on a breezy but sunny day in late April. BuzzFlash sells Sweet Beginnings honey as well as their “beeline” honey-derived beauty products in our Progressive Marketplace. Sweet Beginnings opened their busy doors to me so I could paint a picture of a day of urban renewal via honey for BuzzFlash readers.

The apiary looks like it was once a daycare play lot. The walkway surrounding the dandelion-choked yard has playground equipment sunk into the concrete; a turtle, a pony and what appeared to be Donald Duck were each set on coiled springs, waiting for a kid who needed a ride.

Beekeepers-in-training LaMorris Patrick and Orieal Williams are carefully pulling slats of honeycombs out of the hives, which resemble 28 little nightstands, each humming with hundreds of bees building up the comb so their queen can lay her eggs.

Williams, a quiet young woman with short-cropped hair in a hoodie and jeans, shows me how to tell how old the pupae are and which ones are going to grow up to be drones and which ones will be worker bees.

John R. Hansen, a professor and beekeeper who oversees the apiary, teaches classes at both Sweet Beginnings and at Wilbur Wright College, where Sweet Beginnings installed six more beehives last year. Using a “smoker” full of burning wood chips to calm the bees, he goes on teaching his two students new material, automatically raising his soft voice a little whenever the train or a semi truck rumbles by.

Back in the classroom, Hansen goes over some of the parasite problems common to bees. Unlike industrial beekeepers, Sweet Beginnings doesn’t use antibiotics or chemicals to keep their bees healthy.

“If we do see a problem, we’re going to address it, but we’re not going to address it with chemicals,” Hansen reminds his students. Beside where he stood in the small room sits a shelf packed with 20-some different jars of honey, ranging from off-white to dark amber in color.

The classroom is also where employees make the many skin care products sold by Sweet Beginnings. They also learn sales and demonstration techniques that they can take to the local farmers market or Whole Foods, in order to get the word out about their products.

Unlike typical employment available to economically marginalized workers, Sweet Beginnings gives its employees more than just training and work experience. The sense of pride evident in everyone working there made an immediate impression on me.

Sweet Beginnings team leader Tiffany Chinn told me that it’s not too difficult to get people to clear out of the busy classroom/kitchen/production center once you explain that you’re sterilizing the area in order to make beeline products.

“It’s really how you say it… no one really gets offended,” Chinn told me. “There’s almost a sense of community ownership.”

And that sense of ownership extends outside the doors of Sweet Beginnings as well. After all, when bees collect nectar from a certain area, they are also collecting the floral profile of an entire community.

“One of the few farmers markets that we do now is here in North Lawndale, because we want people to see that something called honey was made in our community. And they’re like, ‘This was made here?’” Barber recalls. “I love that sense of pride. That’s what I love most, is that you see their faces and they’re like, ‘Wow.’ And that sense of pride comes from, yes, working with the bees. But oh my gosh — go to a Whole Foods Store and let them see the little hanging tag that says ‘Made in North Lawndale.’ It’s awesome.”

Recidivism rates for participants in Sweet Beginnings are almost unbelievably low: Less than 4 percent wind up back in jail, while the national recidivism rate hovers around 60 percent. Barber said that pride also plays into the program’s impressive success rates.

“I think it’s a person regaining a sense of self-worth. I think that when you’ve done bad things, and when you live with stigma and then you’re able to connect with a program and a work that is of high quality, where you feel respected… and see that people are buying a product that you have something to do with, something that you helped to contribute to, I think it does something to restore one’s sense of self and their self-worth,” she explained.

Holley Blackwell, Sweet Beginnings’ general manager, agreed. When I asked her about their low recidivism rate and their 70 percent employment rate for program alumni, she said the sense of pride and purpose were important.

“I think the success comes from getting back into the habit of going to work, finding value in something that is positive and meaningful and creative and exciting, finding value in having a productive day,” Blackwell said.

“It’s a mind set,” Patrick added. “I think [the program] sets the ground rules again, because somewhere along the line I lost the focus and the basic things that I already know.”

Sweet Beginnings may sound like it’s step number one, but the true new beginning comes from an older program called U-Turn Permitted. Barber established the training program in August 2000 within the larger nonprofit North Lawndale Employment Network to transition people from prison life to the work world. Participants get personal development coaches and work on issues such as anger management and strengthening communication skills.

“The development coach was very powerful. He made you want to do better for yourself. So many times people just tell you that this is what you should do,” Chinn said of her experience with U-Turn Permitted. “That makes you want to transition from the U-Turn program.”

Participation in U-Turn Permitted isn’t required to apply for a job at Sweet Beginnings, but it helps.

“We also found empirical data that showed that people who did not go through U-Turn Permitted and came to Sweet Beginnings were not as successful as those who did U-Turn,” Blackwell said. “I’ve never been through U-Turn Permitted, but I’m jealous. It sounds like a good place to really do some introspective thinking and to look inside and say ‘OK, what am I doing?’ It’s valuable.”

The poetic resonance of worker bees getting economically marginalized people back into the work world was pitch perfect to me, but it certainly was never a foregone conclusion. After she established U-Turn Permitted, Barber started thinking about what kind of work she could help her alumni to obtain. She toyed with starting a temp agency, a landscaping business, a delivery service… but nothing seemed to fit.

“We enrolled folks in the program, and then I felt very frustrated and very disappointed that after people had done all the right things, we still couldn’t really get them the kind of employment opportunities that they needed. And I thought, ‘My gosh, I’m letting these people down,’” Barber said. She began to get a little desperate. When a friend mentioned that the art of beekeeping is something that gets passed down by word of mouth and mentorship, she thought she’d investigate. “So, next thing I know, I’m meeting with a group of beekeepers!”

Still, not everyone was immediately sold on the whole “urban honey” notion.

“I was facing a lot of criticism for this idea,” Barber said. So she decided to bounce the plan off of Paula Wolff, a friend and influential Chicago policymaker, over breakfast. “I explained it to her. And she paused, and then she said, ‘What a sweet beginning for those people.’ And I still get chills every time I think about it, because then I knew I had a name. There was a name for what this was going to be. We were going to create sweet beginnings for men and women who needed second chances.”

The Sweet Beginnings program itself is only temporary — employees work Monday through Friday for three months, or until they find another job, whichever comes first — but the hope is that permanent change can come of it.

Chinn told me that besides the skills she’s acquired in beekeeping and marketing since being hired, the green ethos of Sweet Beginnings got her to start thinking more about the environment around her.

“That whole green thing, and knowing that it’s giving back to Mother Earth — it’s not depleting her — it makes me feel good,” she said. “Now I’m trying to get into the whole recycling thing, so this goes hand in hand with that.”

Though Barber’s priority is workforce development, she says there’s no reason to think you can’t do that and be green at the same time. Besides, she said it’s better for the bees and the honey anyway.

“We don’t use pesticides. We use natural approaches to taking care of the hive and our bees. We’re very respectful of the colony, if you will, and — like most beekeepers — we only extract about 50 percent of the honey that is made, so that they can actually live and thrive on the honey that they’re making. I think that’s important,” Barber said. “I think that one of the reasons we weren’t struck with CCD — colony collapse disorder — was because of our old-fashioned approach to beekeeping. I think that some of the commercial beekeepers probably ran into more of a problem because sometimes they use a sugar derivative [to feed their bees].”

The whole operation comes down to a group of people with a great respect for bees.

“I respect bees for many, many reasons,” Barber said. But, perhaps most of all she noted that “they don’t distinguish their floral source from a flower or a weed. They just don’t. They go, ‘There’s another flower source; there’s another pollen source or nectar source for me.’ And so, what I love is that they take something good out of what people see as weeds and make honey with it. Oh, come on. It doesn’t get better than that.”

Just then I noticed the vacant lot behind Barber’s office window boasted a bright bolt of yellow flowers that surely no one had planted there, yet which were destined to become urban honey.

Doesn’t get much sweeter than that.


You can learn more about Sweet Beginnings, U-Turn Permitted and other North Lawndale Employment Network programs here. And don’t forget to check out the many beeline products for sale at the BuzzFlash Progressive Marketplace.

Originally published at BuzzFlash.com.

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