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Brenda Palms Barber offers ex-cons in Chicago a honey of a second chance

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Barber arrived in Chicago after lengthy stints in Tucson, Ariz., and Denver, where she worked with nonprofit groups involved in empowering low-income Latina women and economic development. Her record led the North Lawndale Employment Network (NLEN), a not-for-profit agency tasked with fostering job creation on Chicago's West Side, to take notice: It offered her the job of executive director in 1999.

Barber immediately began trying to understand why unemployment was so high in that section of Chicago – 26 percent, according to NLEN. The median household income was only $18,342, according to 2010 US Census data.

"It was prison," Barber discovered. "This community was impacted by mass incarceration: 57 percent of adults had a criminal background. I realized we can't do workforce development in this community without developing programming that reintegrates these guys back into the community."

Enter the bees. NLEN began hunting for ways to teach job skills that could carry through to the outside world. A board member suggested beekeeping.

The idea caused Barber to step back, perplexed. She knew nothing about bees other than their sting. But she was desperate for something to rejuvenate the job prospects in an area mainly known for its homicide rate and open-air drug markets.

So, against the odds, it happened. A feasibility study and $140,000 in seed money from the Illinois Department of Corrections helped create a business plan and buy bees, hives, bee suits, and other equipment.

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