Advocacy + Opportunity = Economic Justice

By: Conner Kerrigan

The Kinship Initiative is helping to remove social and economic barriers that divide many Chicago residents. A particular barrier of concern is the disparity between the national unemployment rate of 3.7% vs. the appalling high rate of unemployment in North Lawndale which is nearly three times the national average. A lack of sustainable job opportunities for many North Lawndale residents and Old St. Patrick Church’s kinship with that neighborhood was the genesis for establishing North Lawndale Works, a job networking collaboration between the two communities. The following is the story of one company that chose to address this economic justice crisis head on to make a difference for job seekers and their families in North Lawndale..

Jakacki Bag & Barrel occupies is a warehouse just east of Kilpatrick Street, between Polk and the Eisenhower Expressway. On the surface, this brick building with music coming from the loading dock matches the description of almost any other manufacturing small business in the North Lawndale neighborhood. But, once inside, you’d notice what makes this 75-year-old family-owned business truly unique.


Spend any time with the decision makers and hiring managers at this small business and you’d start to hear a familiar story. Hiring locally had always been a priority, but in the past new hires would show up for two, maybe three days, and then never be seen again. This frequent turnover ended up burning through Jakacki’s time, money, and resources back in 2001, when they handed out 142 W2 forms at the end of the year – they only ever have 35 employees at a time.

It was around this time that Brenda Palms-Barber, the Founder and Executive Director of the North Lawndale Employment Network (NLEN) came to speak to Debbie Jakacki, who handles the bulk of the barrel re-conditioner’s business. Brenda was hoping to place graduates from NLEN’s award-winning workforce development program, U-Turn Permitted, into jobs at the company.

“I remember noticing Brenda’s enthusiasm for the work she was doing. I had the utmost confidence that if we partnered with her and her organization, it was going to work.” said Jakacki. Since that conversation 17 years ago, Jakacki has almost exclusively sourced new hires from NLEN. One hire was Kurt, who became a team member about 5 years ago.

“I’ve been up ever since. I know that when I tell my children to work hard, I’m saying to them what I’m doing,” said Kurt of his life now. He had previously been in the prison system, and afterward he worked odd jobs and continually struggled to find steady work due to his background even though he had fully paid his debt to society long ago. “Now, I have something to look forward to in the morning because this company gave me a chance.”

Kurt is just one of Jakacki’s many workers that came from NLEN. When speaking with her employees, Debbie finds the greatest joy in hearing about their children. “When one of my workers tells me that their kid just graduated, or is heading to college, I know we’re not just making a difference for the employes, we’re also having an impact on the whole family - the community.” said Debbie. “This is generational change.”

Jakacki’s partnership with NLEN isn’t just social good, though. As for W2’s, they’ve only handed out 42 last year. It’s also a win/win in terms of business and economics.

Perhaps you too or someone in your network can provide similar opportunities for job seekers and their families in North Lawndale. Engage today at