June 2011Volume 16Number 5PDF icon PDF version (for best printing)

Pay it forward

The concept of “Pay It Forward” was introduced to me in 2000. It was the title of a movie that year which starred Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt and Haley Joel Osment. In the movie, a young boy attempts to make the world a better place after his teacher gives him another chance. This is a variation on the concept of “Paying back.” Instead of paying back to someone, you pay forward by doing good deeds for three new people. The concept has remained with me over the years. I have attempted to pay it forward as well as looking for examples where others are promoting the concept. This year it occurred to me that I was a witness to the concept being applied at two different organizations on the West side of Chicago in the North Lawndale community. I grew up there when it was only Lawndale. One of the organizations is North Lawndale Employment Network and the other is Sankofa Safechild Initiative.

A snap shot of North Lawndale reflects the following statistics: Median family income - $20,253; Poverty rate – 42%; Female heads of household – 55%; and Criminal justice involvement – 57%. In this environment, the North Lawndale Employment Network (NLEN) is doing its work. The organization became a 501(c) (3) not for profit in 2000. It has grown from a staff of 3 to 18 person staff with a 15-member Board of Directors, multiple subcontractors and partners with an annual budget of $1.3 million. Its mission is “to improve the earnings of North Lawndale residents through innovative employment initiatives that lead to economic advancement and an improved quality of life.” There are over 100 agencies that form a referral network for their programs. Their programs are as follows: U-Turn Permitted which includes job development and business partnerships; The NLEN Resource Center which provides a variety of services to the community including computer literacy, financial coaching and assistance; Behavioral Interventions; Partnership of New Communities; Productive Choice; Emergency Fund; Community Voicemail; and Sweet Beginnings LLC, which creates and sells Beeline products. The program that I found most interesting is the Sweet Beginnings.

Sweet Beginnings, LLC is a corporation initiated by NLEN. The corporation works to provide green pathways out of poverty for formerly incarcerated individuals by developing “green collar” jobs. These jobs are created by generating honey from apiaries in North Lawndale and at Wilbur Wright College. The employees produce premium grade natural, raw honey which is used to create spa quality, natural honey infused personal skin care products. These products are sold in stores like Whole Foods, Peapod and Mark Shale. Their brand is called beeline which a registered trademark. Their employment model has a 3% recidivism rate as opposed to the national average of 65% after three years in most rehabilitative and /or re-integration programs.

Their annual fundraising event is a creative endeavor. They have an Annual Sweet Beginnings Tea which is a High tea. It is held at a different venue each year with a keynote speaker and awards. This year the Tea was held at the Peninsula hotel. The event was supported by numerous corporations including Jewel-Osco and Boeing. Majora Carter was the keynote speaker this year. Prior to her presentation, I had no idea that an African American woman was so involved in creating “green-collar jobs”. Ms. Carter was born and raised in the South Bronx of New York. She founded the Sustainable South Bronx in 2001. This organization is a non-profit environmental justice solutions corporation. She was the Executive director until 2008. Thereafter, she founded a consulting firm, the Majora Carter Group, LLC. The organization focuses on providing services with the use of the green economy and green economic tools to unlock the potential of every place. Ms. Carter has earned a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship and several other honors. Each time that I have attended the Tea, I have been impressed by the innovative and forward thinking speakers. This was no exception.

This organization continues to thrive in a depressed economy with reduced resources. Barbara Palms Barber, the Executive Director of NLEN and CEO of Sweet Beginnings, is the driving force behind the continued excellence of the organization. She received a Woman Excellence Award from the Chicago Defender this year. Her vision is helping North Lawndale to discover green pathways to economic sustainability. The desire to pay it forward is the key in promoting “green” in this environment.

The other organization which I referred to is Sankofa Safechild Intiative (Sankofa). This agency is paying it forward to a different constituency in North Lawndale. The word Sankofa is from the Akan language. The agency is named for the mythical bird that flies forward with its head turned backwards. The bird’s stance reflects an Akan belief. A belief that the past serves as a guide for planning the future or the wisdom in learning from the past in building the future. The focus on looking backward to go forward and learning from that history was the reason for choosing the name. Prior to the creation of the agency, there were a series of town hall meetings. These meetings were convened by Seventh Congressional District Congressman Danny K. Davis in 1999. The problem that these meetings were attempting to address was the fact that 40% of all intakes for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services came from two Chicago communities in 1999. Those communities were Lawndale and Austin. With a problem of that magnitude many concerned citizens and various agencies came together to address it. After several meetings, recommendations were created to set priorities and implement them. The implementation of several of those recommendations resulted in the creation of Sankofa.

The mission of Sankofa is to provide supportive services, referrals, resources and skills that encourage underserved families and communities to be strong, self-sufficient and remain intact. Due to the expansive nature of the mission, they have attracted many “Village partners” that provide resources, encouragement and direction. In order to accomplish their mission, they have developed numerous programs and services. With the support that they receive the services cover assessments, advocacy, individual and family counseling, education, housing and many others. To effectively promote and implement these services Sankofa has the following programs: After school computer, tutorial and mentoring; Girl Scouts; Teen pregnancy and violence prevention; juvenile justice leadership navigation; youth empowering programs; health awareness; grandparents raising grandchildren support; parenting classes/family conferences; and support helpline.

There are two programs in particular that address a growing need for jobs and housing in the community. The grandparents raising grandchildren support caused the creation of housing. There is a facility called “Sankofa House.” It is 58 units of affordable housing specifically designed for older American/kinship caregivers/ grandparents raising children and youth between the ages of 18-21 aging out of foster care. With such divergent age ranges residing together, Sankofa has created a residential community where the wisdom of the mature adults can be given to a new generation. The need for jobs, economic empowerment and job training resulted in the opening of a boutique. The boutique is called “It’s in the Bag.” It is a social enterprise business dedicated to train and employ individuals from the community. At the Boutique, Sankofa provides certified customer service training and job placement services. The proceeds from this enterprise is reinvested into the program to support the services.

The Executive Director of Sankofa is a woman that I have known for several years. Her name is Annetta Wilson. She is shorter than I if you could imagine it. However, she has more heart, stamina and compassion than anyone that I know. Her vision has sustained the continued growth and viability of Sankofa. Annetta’s ability to pay it forward has changed the lives of so many. This has helped to change the some of the disastrous outcomes that would have otherwise occurred in this community.

The North Lawndale Employment Network and Sankofa Safechild Initiative are only two instances where paying it forward is alive and well. Organizations of this type give hope to a community that I grew up in. If we all tried to “Pay it Forward” for the sake of a community, imagine what change and hope we can accomplish. ■

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