West Side nonprofit inspires many as it helps the formerly incarcerated find jobs
Actress/activist Alysia Reiner, best known for “Orange is the New Black” and for her advocacy of prison reform, urged stronger support for the formerly incarcerated returning to their communities at a fundraiser for the North Lawndale Employment Network.
Upon his release from prison, Nityananda Bell, 41, completed a mechanic training program at Lincoln Tech but couldn’t get hired anywhere because of his criminal background.
He enrolled in the North Lawndale Employment Network’s U-Turn Permitted program offering counseling and job skills training to the formerly incarcerated.
“It’s a blessing that I’m sitting here. I received support. They didn’t know me, but they still had faith in me — when I didn’t have faith in myself,” said Bell, one of several formerly incarcerated individuals who spoke at the “Sweet Beginnings” celebration of 20 years of helping ex-offenders returning to their communities.
Completing the program in 2015, he was placed as a rebuild mechanic with the Chicago Transportation Authority, and after several promotions, is a bus maintenance manager today, overseeing a staff of 30.
“I was asleep for a long time, and everything I was looking for was right in front of me when I woke up,” Bell said. “And talk about discipline. Every day, it’s a struggle. Ithink it’s harder to maintain what you got than it was to obtain it. But I’m so grateful for the opportunity. A lot of times I think I don’t deserve it, but God saw fit that I do.”
Internationally known for its innovative “Sweet Beginnings” program creating transitional jobs for the formerly incarcerated in bee-keeping and producing honey and skin care products, the North Lawndale Employment Network has been helping West Siders like Bell get past the criminal record barrier to employment since 1999.
Bell was just one of the stories of successful lives post-prison shared at the event Friday at the Four Seasons, where actress/activist Alysia Reiner, who became an advocate for prison reform after starring in Netflix’s “Orange Is The New Black” series, was honored.
“With ‘Orange Is The New Black’ ending, I’m in a position where I have to find a new job, and I have to be honest with you, it’s scary,” said Reiner, who received a “Voice of the Voiceless Award” for her support of prisoner re-entry programs nationwide.
“I can’t even imagine what it’s like for someone coming out of prison. I can’t imagine how much heart and belief it takes. It’s why it’s so important to feel like other people are there believing in you, willing to give you that second chance or a helping hand,” said Reiner, who played Warden “Fig” on the groundbreaking women-in-prison series that ended last year.
It was Netflix’s most-watched original series, drawing a whopping 105 million viewers.
Deniece Rogers, 69, came to the U-Turn Permitted program in 2008, eventually enrolled at DePaul University for her bachelor’s degree and went on to earn a master’s degree in adult education. She’ll complete a Ph.D. in Educational Leadership at DePaul next year.
“I never thought I’d see myself earning a Ph.D. or even attending college at all. God blessed me with a mentor that I never thought I would have,” Rogers said.
“I feel blessed because I’m 69 years old and I went back to school when I was 53. I was an undergrad student at DePaul, and I was reading at the 7th grade level. I didn’t know how to write a sentence. I just knew that God was ordering my steps, so I just kept moving forward. Now I’ve got a new attitude about myself, about life,” she said.
Reiner, who is active with such national prison reform groups as the Women’s Prison Association and Still She Rises Tulsa, has made helping the formerly incarcerated her mission. “I have felt a responsibility, as someone with a platform, to help educate and inspire others about this issue.
“In the seven years I’ve been blessed to play ‘Fig,’ I learned so much about our criminal ‘injustice’ system, and mass incarceration. It has been deeply educational, humbling and heartbreaking,” she said. “One of the most important things I personally have focused on is, how do we support women coming out of prison, how do we make sure they have that chance to succeed? It’s why it is such a true honor to be recognized in this way.”
Chaired by the city’s former first lady Amy Rule, wife of ex-Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the benefit raised nearly a half million dollars toward NLEN’s new 20,000-square-foot campus opening at 1111 S. Homan Ave. this spring. It will double to 5,000 the organization’s capacity to train and find jobs for West Side residents with criminal backgrounds.
“Far too often, people turn a deaf ear or walk away from people who are in need. Alysia does just the opposite,” said Carla Javits, president/CEO of the California-based Roberts Enterprise Development Fund, an investor in social enterprises like “Sweet Beginnings.”
“After hearing me talk about how inspiring “Sweet Beginnings” is ... Alysia immediately joined the cause,” said Javits, who introduced Reiner to NLEN. She “uses her network and influence to get more people excited about NLEN’s work. That means more support and more jobs for people coming home from prison.”
The work of NLEN and others is critical against the justice system inequities feeding America’s prison industrial complex and the highest incarceration rate in the world, Reiner told the Chicago Sun-Times afterward.
“Part of being an actor is you dive into other people’s lives and you become another human being. As an activist and as an artist, I sometimes fall in love with an idea. After OITNB, I kind of wanted to quit my job and do exactly what Brenda’s doing,” said Reiner, who is married with an 11-year-old daughter.
“And then I met Brenda, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, she’s doing exactly what I wanted to do!’ ” she said. “I’m asked a lot where I learned to be an activist, and honestly, I have no clue. All of us can be the voice for the voiceless when we set aside our biases. With all the darkness, all the hopelessness we can feel in these times, all of us can be the change we want to see.”