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Featuring Jessica Butler, Chief Development Officer at the North Lawndale Employment Network.

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Q: Hi Jessica, thank you for taking the time between all of North Lawndale Employment Network’s awesome projects to do this interview! Can you tell us a bit about yourself and NLEN’s mission?

Jessica Butler:
Absolutely, my pleasure. I’m proud to serve as NLEN’s first chief development officer, where I lead the revenue growth of the organization and our marketing and communication strategy. It’s been a blessing to work for a mission-driven, Black-led organization that is perfectly aligned with my personal mission, which is to bridge the racial wealth gap and open doors to access and opportunity for people who need it most. At NLEN, we are more than a workforce development agency; we are a social justice organization that uses innovative employment initiatives to undo the devastating impact of historic disinvestment within Black communities on Chicago’s west side. NLEN’s mission is to improve the earnings potential of the North Lawndale community through innovative employment initiatives that lead to economic advancement and an improved quality of life. Today, NLEN serves more than 2,500 people annually (pre-pandemic footprint), helping them to gain new skills, improve their self-worth, secure jobs, and become financially secure.

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Q: What does expungement and record-sealing mean to your clients and the North Lawndale community?

JB:
When we talk about what expungement and record-sealing mean, I think it’s important to provide some context on the community demographics.

At a glance, North Lawndale is a historic community of 31,000 resilient residents. Forty-seven percent of residents live at or below the federal poverty level, and 26 percent live in extreme poverty with a per capita income of just $12,034 (2015 Community Data Snapshot: North Lawndale, Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning). The unemployment rate is 21.7 percent compared to 4.7 percent in Chicago (2015 CMAP). Our clients not only deal with the effects of poverty, but also the compounded impacts of mass incarceration. In 2001, NLEN commissioned a study that found 57 percent of the adult population in North Lawndale had some involvement with the criminal justice system (McKean & Raphael, Drugs, Crime and Consequences, 2002).

So, what does expungement and record-sealing mean to our clients and the North Lawndale community? Well, it means a lot. It means individuals have a real and authentic second chance and opportunity to rewrite their future! Expungement and record-sealing significantly increase the chances of individuals who have been involved with the criminal justice system in getting a job, securing housing, gaining access to education, and alleviating a host of collateral consequences that create barriers.

Q: NLEN’s Sweet Beginnings, LLC program works to reduce the barriers to employment for recently incarcerated individuals—can you tell us a bit about Sweet Beginnings?

JB:
In 2004, NLEN founded Sweet Beginnings, LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of NLEN, to help returning citizens reenter the workforce and their community through transitional job opportunities. But truly, Sweet Beginnings, LLC was born out of sheer frustration (the mother of innovation) with a community where employers refused to hire their own local residents. In order to reduce unemployment, North Lawndale residents needed jobs. Brenda Palms Barber, NLEN’s founding president and CEO, knew she had to provide our residents with the second chance they so desired and greatly needed. The Sweet Beginnings social enterprise is committed to solving the problem of unemployment among Black men and women with criminal backgrounds. We do this by providing reentry services, job training, and three-month transitional jobs in our honey and skincare business. When no one else will give them a second chance, we present them with the opportunity to build a work history and develop skills transferable to jobs in green industries, manufacturing, food and customer service, and more. We have hired our 500th employee. More than 75 percent of our workers secure unsubsidized jobs, and 85 percent keep them long-term. Sweet Beginnings elevates humanity one jar at a time. With these jobs, men and women restore their sense of self-worth, regain family connections, and meaningfully contribute to their communities. And more broadly, customers and supporters learn to value every human being, regardless of a past mistake.

Q: Aside from Sweet Beginnings, what other services does NLEN provide?

JB:
NLEN programs and services include the following:

  • U-Turn Permitted, NLEN’s flagship job-readiness training program that helps returning citizens to reintegrate into the community and secure employment
  • Path to Prosperity, a condensed version of the U-Turn Permitted program for individuals who face barriers to employment but who do not have a criminal background
  • Moving Forward, which provides middle-skills training and job placement within the growing Transportation, Distribution, and Logistics (TDL) sector
  • READI Chicago program, a transitional jobs and cognitive behavior therapy program aimed at reducing violence among the population at highest risk of gun violence involvement in Chicago
  • Financial Opportunity Center, which helps individuals and families reach their economic goals by offering financial and credit-building coaching, self-directed job searches, and access to affordable banking products

As part of NLEN’s new campus, located at 1111 S. Homan Ave., NLEN will also be launching the Beelove Café, a new social enterprise which will address an urgent need for access to affordable, fresh food in North Lawndale, which, like many communities of color on Chicago’s south and west sides, has a dearth of healthy dining options for residents and employees who work in the neighborhood. Across all programs, NLEN is committed to bridging the growing digital divide and strengthening our work in digital equity and inclusion.

Q: How can someone take advantage of NLEN’s programs and initiatives?

JB:
We encourage individuals who are interested in taking advantage of NLEN to attend our weekly program orientation that takes place every Monday at 10 AM. Individuals can also reach out to our community outreach and engagement specialist, Richard Lawrence, at richard@nlen.org.

As a founding member of the North Lawndale Community Coordinating Council, a group of North Lawndale stakeholders, including community-based organizations, business owners, elected officials, and individuals that guide comprehensive planning and implementation in North Lawndale, NLEN connects participants to a host of other resources aimed at improving the quality of life for those we serve.

Q: How can individuals and companies in Chicago support NLEN’s mission?

JB:
There are many ways for individuals and companies who care about our mission and want to effect change to engage with us. For example, our partnership with Green Thumb Industries has presented unique opportunities for support beyond their generous monetary investments in our organization. Through our collaboration with GTI, we’ve had the opportunity to plant trees and native flora at our new workforce campus, helping to create a beautiful, much-needed green space in our community. We are also working on an innovative project to bridge the digital divide in our community. Individuals and companies interested in learning more about NLEN can visit us online at www.nlen.org. I am also personally happy to discuss meaningful opportunities for volunteers to engage with NLEN, and for donors to support. I can be reached at jessica@nlen.org or 773-265-7944.

Q: Drumroll moment . . . We know you have an exciting event coming up, can you share the details?
JB: We invite you to join us for our Open House hosted in partnership with Wintrust Bank from 11 AM to 4 PM on Thursday, August 26, as we celebrate the opening and transformation of the Community Bank of North Lawndale to a workforce development campus, featuring our Beelove Café and Sweet Beginnings production facility.

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This is a sponsored content series, paid for by Green Thumb Industries. Submit YOUR questions on expungement and record-sealing in Illinois to socialequity@gtigrows.com.

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Click here to view all articles in the GTI expungement series.


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