Take Five with Brenda Palms Barber of North Lawndale Employment Network
Take Five is an interview series that highlights Polk Bros. Foundation grantee partners who are taking impressive actions to overcome common challenges and who make a difference for Chicagoans most affected by poverty and inequity. We believe these insights are critical for Chicago’s future.
North Lawndale Employment Network (NLEN) is one of Polk Bros. Foundation’s grantee partners preparing people for jobs in growth industries that need workers and providing them with long-term support to get, keep, and advance in jobs with good pay and long-term career potential. NLEN also has three social enterprises under the umbrella of its “Social Enterprise Ventures,” including its well-established Sweet Beginnings, LLC, which uses urban beekeeping to create jobs and is known for its beelove™ honey and honey-infused products.
Brenda and her team at NLEN have been tirelessly working for years to address concentrated poverty and lack of opportunity that have resulted from decades of disinvestment. We’re grateful she has agreed to share her insights in this post.
1. The pandemic and the growing movement for racial justice have prompted a period of deep reflection and action about how we all lived before March 2020, how our priorities are changing or need to change, and how we want to move forward from here. What has changed over this time that you most hope will persist into the future?
Brenda: I most hope that the men and women performing “essential” work persist in understanding their value and drive changes – for the better – in compensation and workplace safety. People have been slow to return to work because they don’t want to return to jobs where they’re treated with no respect. They are called “essential” but are not treated as essential. At the same time, many millions of essential workers never stopped working. People who worked in nursing homes and hospitals, grocery stores and food processing facilities, as bus drivers and delivery drivers suddenly found their jobs had become dangerous. They died at elevated rates and had few supports to help them manage the fear of contracting a deadly new disease, their concerns about infecting loved ones, and the trauma of losing co-workers, friends, and family. Too often decision makers make the mistake of assuming that a frontline worker should just do as they’re told, accept what they can get, and understand their voice doesn’t matter. But they do matter and the pandemic created an important shift in how our frontline workers express the value of their work.
I also hope that the doors to employment and career pathways that have opened for justice-involved men and women during this tight labor market persist. I worry that restrictive policies will return upon shifts in the economy. I am concerned about essential workers returning to precarious work and still being food insecure, waiting in food lines, some literally a mile long, and having inadequate healthcare and limited opportunities for advancement.
I hope policy changes that have been made in response to the pandemic that show a glimpse of a better life for our low-wage workers remain in place and expand.
2. What changed for your organization the most since the start of the pandemic, and how has your organization responded to those changes? Will any of these adaptations remain as the pandemic recedes?
Brenda: So much changed.
Leading a service agency and social enterprises through the pandemic has been difficult and we are still learning about its many impacts. Those of us dedicated to working in the nonprofit sector continued our work throughout the pandemic, inspired by our missions and knowing our work makes a meaningful difference to the people we support. The pandemic for me brought a new level of uncertainty about the future of all our work, including completing our $10 million capital campaign for the new campus. I worried about retaining our clients; could we continue to attract new clients and create pathways for the under-skilled? I knew they still needed jobs but just engaging in workforce programming was (or seemed to be) a serious health risk.
A significant change was the pivot from in-person training to online. This required research, curriculum changes, and preparing staff for the new virtual environment. A major challenge was the limited access our clients have to reliable technology at home, including a desktop computer, laptop, or iPad, a printer, and internet. Many participated in financial coaching and job trainings using their cell phones, eating up their data contracts and increasing their expenses. This contributed to lower attendance. Once we (providers) figured this out, philanthropy quickly got on board with generous support so we could provide needed equipment for our program participants. Thus an innovation was borne out of these challenges – we now meet the IT needs of our job seekers with a technology library, where enrolled job seekers can borrow an iPad for training or independent job searches.
The second lesson, a bit more surprising, was learning that 90% of our employees had similar challenges with accessing reliable computers, printers and internet. We had to equip them with technology tools as well to deliver their services from home. And more – as a direct service provider, working with the most economically challenged and highly traumatized job seekers, our work is most effective when there is an authentic relationship built on mutual trust, respect, and understanding of career goals and dreams. Face-to-face client/coach engagement is the best way to build this rapport and was nearly impossible to establish through telephone and the online training. Participants had difficulty focusing, learning and retaining training. They often had distractions related to caregiving and so many experienced increased and untreated mental health issues like ADHD, anxiety and depression. But we were able to connect with people. And at the end of the day, we’ve created many ways for people to connect with our program. So there’s a silver lining. But our resources are even more critical now. Many job interviews are online now and people don’t have the equipment they need to compete in the job market. So things like our iPad library will certainly continue.
Adjusting to the new demands of working and serving remotely during the pandemic was difficult for our employees. Our sense of community had dissipated so we had events, games, and staff meetings online and outdoors, including golf at the new youth-designed Douglass Park golf course and online coffees. These activities were even more important as nearly 40% of our employees were hired during the pandemic; building a strong team was of the greatest importance. So internally, we had to be intentional about maintaining staff morale. And now we know, pandemic or not, we can build and maintain our community. We’ve adopted a hybrid schedule. We are a direct-service entity, so we need people in person, but we want to be flexible. We ensured all staff were vaccinated because we are in a community disproportionately affected by COVID. And we improved HR processes along the way.
3. What’s one thing that continues to stand in the way of your organization’s work to create a more equitable and just Chicago, and what can be done about it?
Brenda: If we want an equitable and just Chicago, we must bridge the racial wealth gap. To do this we must erase the stigma of a criminal record and embrace everyone within the labor force. And we must allow people with skills but no college degree access to career-pathway employment. We must combat the negative narrative and stigma of our most economically vulnerable people and neighborhoods.
Organizations and leaders of color in underinvested communities known more for problems than solutions are addressing generational poverty. The closer you are to the problem, the better you are at solving it. But we also need government, corporations, and philanthropy to see us, to invest in us, and to have confidence in us. We need external resources. Successful communities have access to resources – that is what makes them successful. Our history of institutional racism and systemic disinvestment is the underlying cause of concentrated poverty and it is time to address it with new resources. We appreciate the support we’ve received, but there’s so much more that’s possible.
And back to jobs. Equity lies in the ability of a person to be able to execute a job based on skills. There’s so much degree inflation. We’ve been challenging employers to question, “Is a degree necessary to do this job?” And there absolutely are some instances where a degree is required. But not all. Employers think that if they hire someone with a degree, they’re getting a better worker. But that simply is not true. Employees with the skills but no degree are often the most loyal to that job.
The same thing holds true for criminal records. My challenge to employers is, “What is the relationship of the crime to the job?” Everyone says we have a labor shortage. I don’t think we do. I think if employers were open to people with skills and who can use skills in areas unrelated to their crime, we would not have a labor shortage. That would open up the labor pool in a big, wonderful way. Every year, over 700,000 individuals are released from jails and prisons across the country back into their communities. That’s more than the entire population of Wyoming. They’re here, but there are serious policies and barriers that block their opportunities. Read Heartland Alliance’s report, Never Fully Free. There are 982 unique “permanent punishment laws” in Illinois that prevent or hinder access to jobs well after involvement with the criminal legal system ends.
In spite of all the social, economic, and health challenges that are all derivatives of working in a community that is poorly resourced, people want to work. Even though the unemployment rate is three times higher in North Lawndale than the city overall, let’s rewrite the narrative about communities like ours. There are reasons people are not working – we need to change policies that create unnecessary barriers to work and strengthen education, healthcare, housing, food, and other social safety nets to allow people to work.
4. In addition to financial support, what do you need most from the philanthropic community to advance your mission?
Brenda: Grantees and philanthropy work together to advance the quality of life of people our society has left behind. This happens when values and priorities align. Financial support enables transformations – we can never take lightly the importance of transformative financial support. Transformational results require transformational investment and time.
I am encouraged by the growth of Trust-Based Philanthropy and hope to see more of it. We can be accountable without onerous proposals and reports. Nonprofits spend a great deal of time and resources raising and reporting on money – these are vast resources that we could expend on tackling community problems instead. And it’s not just about streamlining the paperwork – it’s about those with power and resources respecting our expertise and trusting that those of us doing the work know how to get it done.
After trust-based grant support, creating diverse platforms and avenues to elevate our voices and our impacts can demonstrate what neighborhood-driven approaches can accomplish. The Polk Bros. blog and similar publications, sponsored articles, and communications are excellent forums to amplify our experiences, perspectives, and results. One of the most incredible opportunities of my career was to recently have a platform to lift up challenges and solutions in front of the City Club of Chicago. It’s not just about doing work, but also about raising awareness of the work and the importance of the issues we tackle. Policymakers and investors can discover new perspectives and different approaches. The philanthropic community can help give voice to the work so we can continue to innovate and create new approaches and opportunities.
Employers are so important to advancing the mission, too. I recently had an employer reach out to me who was in agreement about prioritizing the skills required to do a job instead of having a degree requirement. Some corporate and higher education peers fight me on this issue, so it is helpful for employers who agree to share their really good experiences.
5. What has given you the most hope recently?
Brenda: It’s possible to live the American dream. What gives me hope is seeing the men and women we serve complete our U-Turn Permitted job readiness and re-entry program, receive financial coaching through our Financial Opportunity Center, and realize their hopes and dreams of securing a good job, advancing in their careers, establishing a checking account, being approved for a credit card, finishing a GED or earning a college degree, purchasing a first home, and inviting their children to join them for the first holiday celebration in a new apartment. It gives me hope to know that we’re here and remain a resource for people ready for a U-Turn and a sweet beginning.
70% of our capital campaign revenue was generated by our partners in philanthropy. Many of our friends in philanthropy, like the Polk Bros. Foundation, trusted my leadership, believed in our organization’s vision, and invested in our campus and programs raising $11.5 million in two-and-a-half years – much of it during a pandemic! My hope is that philanthropy is listening and receptive to organizations that may be nontraditional in their approach but effective and committed to meeting our community and our participants where they are. It feels good to be heard and understood. We are doing everything we can for our most vulnerable residents.
Brenda Palms Barber is President and CEO at North Lawndale Employment Network & Sweet Beginnings LLC.