Behind the Scenes: Brenda Palms Barber

Brenda Palms Barber's quest to find work for residents of Chicago's economically disadvantaged North Lawndale neighborhood — where some 50 percent of adults have been in the criminal justice system — led her to start Sweet Beginnings, a transitional jobs program for formerly incarcerated individuals and others with significant barriers to employment. Sweet Beginnings' Beeline products — raw honey and honey-based body care products — are now sold throughout the Midwest.

Producer Emily Botein talks about Brenda’s refreshing openness, Brenda and Majora’s fast connection, and meeting ex-offenders turned salespeople with their own compelling stories.


Above, Brenda Palms Barber tells host Majora Carter and producer Emily Botein (both decked out in beekeeper gear) about her work helping ex-offenders become entrepreneurs in an inner-city neighborhood in Chicago.

What drew you as a producer to Brenda's story?
The minute you call Brenda, she jumps out of the phone. She is just one of those people who tickles your ear. You don’t have to meet her to know that she is a character. Brenda pops; she stands out. I hope that will come across in the show.

From the first time I spoke to her on the phone, I knew the show was going to work. In my first conversation with Brenda, one of the first things she mentioned was the challenge of "being a mom on top of things.” I called her about her bee business and right off she tells me something about her home life. That appeals to me. I guess I have this instinctive sense when someone combines personal with professional that things might get interesting. It makes her seem real, human, and I know I'm going to have more compassion for her. She's like any of the rest of us — struggling to make it all work.

Saying someone is "real" can sound trite, but I do adore Brenda. She doesn't feel canned at all. She's so immediate, so funny. I understand why she has her groupies — she’s engaging, and she's direct.

What sort of connection did Majora and Brenda develop?
They didn't develop a connection. They would say they had one the minute they set eyes on each other. They refer to one another as sisters. Their connection is something deep and revealing.

What surprised you about the interview?
We went out to do a piece about Sweet Beginnings, the honey business. But the fact is, the success of that business is all about the success of their job training program, North Lawndale Employment Center. This program has a shockingly low recidivism rate — 4 percent, which in the world of rehabilitation is really, really low.

I think it's because they are all about supporting their clients, and they do so much work with the ex-offenders. For example, the first week out of jail is a week on anger management. An important lesson ex-offenders learn there is how to interact with people, customers, bosses, outside of prison. When you're in prison, to survive, you learn not to have eye contact with people. One of the most concrete things that they have to learn is that when you go on an interview, you need to have eye contact.

What were some of the challenges of the interview?
The challenges will be figuring out how to tell a complicated story. There's so much to include … there’s the story about how to make honey, there's the story about what it's like to live in North Lawndale (Chicago), the story about running a job training program, and the stories of each of the ex-offenders in the program.

Majora also interviewed participants in the program Brenda runs. Tell us about a few people who stuck in your head after the interview.
Really, everyone stuck in your head. Their stories were stark and dramatic — and different. I wasn't familiar with how the Patriot Act brought people's old criminal records forward. This woman in the program, Tiffany, had a job at a bank for almost 20 years. Then, when she lost her job due to layoffs, her newly surfaced record meant that she couldn't get a new job. Tiffany was someone whom I could have worked with. She was so together, and so on top of things. She was working alongside an attempted murderer. And he was totally together too.

All of the ex-offenders whom we met made such an impression. I wish we had more time with them. Coretta Rivers, a job trainer at North Lawndale Employment Center, said they work to convince people that they have something to offer. She liked to tell people that, yes, you were a successful drug dealer, so you can be a successful salesman.

Anything else you wish you could have done, if you had more time?
I would have liked to have gone to Brenda’s church because she talked about singing there. I would have loved to have heard her sing. I like to see people in their home environment. Brenda is that kind of person where … I don't know what she would tell me, but I do know it would be interesting.

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