by Graham Meyer
BRENDA PALMS BARBER
Out the window of her second-floor office at the North Lawndale Employment Network, Brenda Palms Barber can see a gas station with a reputation as the crime hub of her West Side neighborhood. Just across a chain-link fence, in her organization’s tiny backyard, live more than a million bees, housed in 25 wooden structures that look like small dressers.
Palms Barber, 48, understands how the seemingly Dadaist juxtaposition might cause some confusion. She runs Sweet Beginnings, a business that teaches ex-offenders to produce the Beeline brand of all-natural honey and honey-based skin care products. In the long run, she hopes the workers will attain job skills for permanent employment. “When I explain that we’re helping people who are formerly incarcerated find employment,” she says, “and we’re doing it through a bee farm, people say ‘A bee farm? An apiary? What?’ ”
A native of Tacoma, Washington, Palms Barber moved here from Denver in 1999 to head NLEN, a not-for-profit agency that helps neighborhood residents find jobs. The organization had a yard for beehives and a labor force in waiting. Beekeepers learn their craft by oral tradition—the best learning method for many ex-offenders with a limited education. Sales, marketing, and even skill in measurement transfer from the drug trade to the mixing and selling of beauty products.
“I had no idea we were green,” Palms Barber says. It was at the Chicago Green Business Conference in 2007 that she realized she’d entered the green movement through the back door. Attendees there didn’t just buy; they raved about the Beeline products’ local production, low-carbon footprint, and natural ingredients. A match was made: Environmentalists celebrated Sweet Beginnings’ use of local resources to build a green economy; Palms Barber informed socially minded folk about the needs of minority communities.
So far, it’s been a success. In two years, 108 employees have graduated from the Sweet Beginnings program, and only three have returned to prison. (Although it’s not a direct comparison, the national recidivism rate is 60 percent.) Beeline products are sold in several boutiques and Whole Foods stores in the Chicago area. In the near future, Palms Barber hopes to distribute to more locations and to open a bigger production facility. Meanwhile, in the apiary, a thousand metaphors bloom. From the idea of social justice pollinating the country to sweet things growing out of North Lawndale, the bees seem to have lessons for everyone. As Palms Barber says, “Bees don’t distinguish between what is a weed and what is a flower."
Photograph: Erika Dufour