Episode 3: Working With People That Walked in My Shoes

In this episode, you’ll hear from Charlotte Austin, our lead operations assistant and a former client of both NLEN and Sweet Beginnings. Charlotte shares how she created a sweet beginning for herself when she returned home after twenty years in prison and decided she wanted to do something positive with her life. Charlotte now works with and inspires other clients coming through our program on a daily basis. 

You’ll learn how NLEN and Sweet Beginnings played a role in Charlotte’s journey, why it’s so important that we employ staff like Charlotte who have the lived experience of incarceration, and how she helps our transitional workers turn their lives around.

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Alice: Hi, and welcome back to Inside Sweet Beginnings, our podcast that gives you an inside look at how we run our social enterprise. 

At Sweet Beginnings, we provide transitional jobs to formerly incarcerated community members, and we produce the beelove family of honey and honey-infused skincare products. 

In this episode, we’re featuring the person in charge of making those products: Charlotte Austin. Three years ago, in 2017, Charlotte returned home to Chicago after spending twenty years in prison. She came to the North Lawndale Employment Network to get help with re-entering society and finding employment. Charlotte completed our U-Turn Permitted program and came to Sweet Beginnings for a transitional job. Then she turned out to be so good at her job that she was hired on as permanent staff. Today, Charlotte is our lead operations assistant. She works with our team of transitional employees to produce all of our honey and honey-infused skincare products. 

Here’s Charlotte to share her story and offer her perspective on our work at Sweet Beginnings.

Alice: Hi Charlotte, good morning!

Charlotte: Good morning, Alice, how you doing? 

Alice: I’m doing well, how are you? 

Charlotte: Great, long time no see. 

Alice: I know, right? Thank you for making the time to talk with me, I know you’ve been really busy filling orders over there. So thanks for coming on the podcast. Can you briefly introduce yourself and say what your position is? 

Charlotte: My name is Charlotte Austin. I’m the lead production for Sweet Beginnings.

Alice: And how long have you been in this role?

Charlotte: I’ve been in this role like two and a half years now. About two and a half years. 

Alice: Great. So we’ll come back to talking about Sweet Beginnings later, but I wanted to start by talking about you. Because you’ve had an incredible journey in life and I would love for you to tell listeners about that. So can you give me an overview of your story? Just start at the beginning and tell me how you came to be here today. 

Charlotte: Okay. So I grew up – I was born in Louise, Mississippi. I’m the sixth child of seven children. We had both parents in the home. I grew up on 45th and Champlain, in a place called the walkups. I stayed on the south side, like the low end – we called it the low end. I grew up in a loving family, loving home, and loving people. 

It’s like when you meet the wrong person, peer pressure, you want to be like them and join them, and be in they crowd. I ended up dropping out of school like in my junior year. Got to doing heroin, you know, smoking crack, at the age of 17. I had my first child, I was 21, and my son came out born addicted to heroin. And that’s when DCFS stepped in and I knew that I had a problem. I had a problem that I couldn’t shake, seeing my son being born addicted because I was thinking of myself. And I knew that was so wrong. 

I ended up moving to Milwaukee in like 1997. I began my crime spree in 1998. I had nine charges of bank robbery. They dropped four, I pleaded guilty to five. And with pleading guilty to five, they gave me thirty years under the old law. I got arrested December 5th, 1996 – no, 1997. I came home March 7th, 2017. So I did twenty years straight in Wisconsin. I stayed in a maximum [security] facility for like fifteen years in maximum. Thank God I still had a loving family, they never turned their back on me like I turned my back on them. Being incarcerated I got my GED. I was working. I had to find something to do instead of just sitting there in prison letting that time do me. So being incarcerated, I was thinking, I was thinking, my mind was just like – so I ended up working, they put me on community custody work release, so I had two jobs. So I was in the world and I felt free. I felt free. But  I know when 5 o’clock to 2 o’clock – at 2 ‘clock I had to go back to the facility. At some points I felt free and at some points I didn’t feel free. I was missing the outside world. Missing my family, not seeing my kids graduate, not seeing my daughters have their children, my parents getting older, and it’s just so much I missed in life. But I did that. You know, I did that mistake. I sat there and did that time and also my family did the time with me, but they wasn’t incarcerated like I was. 

Alice: Yeah, I remember you talking about that before. Can you tell me a little bit more about the impact of your incarceration on your family? I know you told me they came to visit you a lot, even though you were in Wisconsin and they were still in Chicago, right? 

Charlotte: Yes. So my mom, my dad, siblings, children, they would come up there every other month and visit me all the way from Chicago to Wisconsin. And I’m like wow, something gotta change. They love me. You know, the only thing my father didn’t like, when the gate closed. And he’ll look back, he said, I’m leaving my baby in there. But I used to tell him I’m all right. Dad, I’m all right, I’m all right, I’m doing this, I’m doing that. He said yeah, but you’re not home. And I said one day – I said one day soon I’ll be home, Dad, and I promise, I’ll never leave again. A lot of people was telling me your dad not the same. And I’m like what y’all mean? And I asked him what’s wrong? He said you’re not here. And I was like wow so, my parents got older, my mom suffered three strokes, she’s paralyzed on one side, she’s blind in one eye and going through dementia, but she is so strong. She is so strong, So finally I go to parole, and they was like you going home March 7th, I’m like yeah right, okay. You know how many times you told me I’m going home? So finally I got the black and white paper. You getting released March 17th, 2017, you living at this address. And I’m like alright, right. 

So they called my name at midnight. Charlotte Austin, come pack your stuff. And I looked around. I said I’m finna go home. I’m finna go. So I was up all that night because I couldn’t believe it. So i got up and the only thing I took home was paperwork. All the other stuff I left at the prison because I know a lot of women never going home. So I left a lot of stuff, and I bought a lot of canteen, I was knocking on people’s doors, here you go, I’m finna go home. But I will never forget them. So that was my family too. That was my family. And they still my family. 

Alice: So you were incarcerated for twenty years. 

Charlotte: Twenty years. Straight. 

Alice: And you came home in 2017.

Charlotte: Yes.

Alice: And what was it like coming home, and what were you looking forward to and what were you worried about? 

Charlotte: As I got in the car and I looked back – but then I looked up and told my grandmother i’m free. So I called my sister Yvonne, go to my sister Yvonne’s house. She stay in Waukegan, Illinois. I gave her a hug, her and her husband, and we sat and talked, and talked and cried, and talked and cried. I was looking forward to going home and never going back. And I knew in my heart and mind I’m never going back. 

I was scared of – I don’t know if you ever saw The Color Purple, and Oprah Winfrey’s sitting at the table, and she told her family I don’t know y’all no more. My cousins, nieces, a lot of people I forgot. And I didn’t feel like an outsider because my parents was there and my sister. But at some point I felt like an outsider, but I knew I wasn’t. So for me to adapt back into that life, they had to learn me like I had to learn them. 

It’s a lot of stuff I didn’t know, like – I hear a phone ring and I’m like, looking at the phone, like – do I answer the phone now? Or with keys I’m like – I was just so stuck by being incarcerated. 

Alice: Yeah. The world changes a lot in twenty years. I mean that’s almost my whole life. 

Charlotte: So I got on the bus and it was like Roosevelt – I’m like, the bus saying where I’m at! It was scary to a point. But I knew I had to adapt and I couldn’t be scared in this world. I couldn’t be scared in this world, not now. I couldn’t be scared in this world. 

Alice: Did you have plans for what you wanted to do when you got home? 

Charlotte: I knew what I wasn’t gonna do. I knew I wasn’t gonna go back to prison. So when I came out I had to learn my family and they had to learn me. I got the chance to do something positive. So my sister Elaine told me about NLEN, ‘cause my sister, she was incarcerated as well and she told me about the program. I said, why they want to help me? They don’t know me. You know what i’m saying? And as I was incarcerated, I was getting letters from people at NLEN. They were sending them to my parole officer, the parole agent. They were like you got a letter from here, and I’m like, I don’t know them people! But I saw NLEN. But then my sister went through the program and she’s like they gonna help you. 

Alice: Right. What year did she go through the program? 

Charlotte: Um. I think – I forgot exactly what year. 

Alice: But it was while you were incarcerated, so she told you about how it worked for her. 

Charlotte:  Yup. She told me about it. She’s like well it’s a good program and they helped me with social skills, they helped me with anger management, and I was like well I need social skills and I need anger management. And I need to learn how to get back into life on the right foot. And she said they gonna help you. I’m like okay. So I called Fred, he’s like come in Monday. I was like okay, then I talked to Jose. He was like you gonna stick with the program? I’m like yeah. I want to see what y’all do, ‘cause I hear so much about NLEN. So i’m going through the program, I became the vice president. I graduated – 

Alice: The vice president of your U-Turn Permitted cohort? 

Charlotte: Yes, yes, yes. 

Alice: Oh that’s great!

Charlotte: I became the vice president and I’m’ looking like, I’m reacting with real positive people. Wow. No! But being around people that teaching me stuff each and every day, it’s a blessing. So i come through the program, I graduate, my coach told me, you know, you can work at Sweet Beginnings. I’m like really? I said okay. It’s a ninety-day program. I said alright, I’ll do it. I go through the program. I get to working downstairs at Sweet Beginnings doing production. I’m like well okay, I like this  – honey, bees, I’m finna put on a bee suit. And my ninety days was up but every time they have an event, they’ll call me, Charlotte, do you want to do the event? Yes! Yes. 

Alice: Like working a sales event, like running a booth. 

Charlotte: Meeting different people every day. So every time they have an event, they’ll call me, they’ll call me, they’ll call me. I’m like yeah. So Neila, she told Bob I need some help, I can’t do this all by myself. She was operations, she was sales operations, she getting people to buy and she thought of me. And at that time I was finna go be the care provider for my mom but i couldn’t because I have a background. So the same day they told me no, Bob called me and told me, hey we got a position for you. And here I go, look at God. Look at God. We need you to be the lead production at Sweet Beginnings. I’m like alright. And I’m like – me? Me? 

And then, working with people that walk the same steps I walked.  Amazing. I don’t judge them. If they laugh, I laugh with them. If they cry, I cry with them. They got something going on, talk to me because I know how it is. I’m not finna judge you because you went to prison or you had this. I went to prison too!

Alice: Right. Right. And you’re very open about the fact that you have a criminal background. Why is that? 

Charlotte: It make me feel free. If I hold it in, and somebody else – somebody need to hear my story. Somebody out there need to hear my story. So by me telling my story – yeah, I did twenty years straight, I was on drugs, I was a prostitute, I used to do this, I used to do that, I’m still on ten years paper, and it’s sad to say prison saved me. ‘Cause I could’ve been dead. I think I could’ve been dead. 

Alice: So you are really great about sharing your story with everyone at NLEN and all the transitional employees who come through Sweet Beginnings. Do you find that that helps you build a team for them to know that you share a background of some sort? 

Charlotte: Yup. By me putting it out there – I feel, I’m not putting it out there to make myself real high. I’m a thousand. No, no. I started from the bottom, now all us finna go up. So listening to your story make me feel like she understand where I been, or he understand how it feels to be incarcerated. You can’t do this, you can’t do that. Me telling my story make me feel free. I feel at ease, and I’m not holding it. I’m not holding – I’m letting people know it’s gonna be alright. It’s gonna be alright. 

Alice: So let’s back up to your time in U-Turn Permitted. Can you tell me what you learned from the UTP program, like what were the top three things that you took away from the program? 

Charlotte: The social skills. By me being incarcerated, some of the guards used to just be so angry, ‘ cause they treat you some type of way. So now I know to say hey how you doing, my name is Charlotte, with compassion. The other one – I did the anger one, I didn’t want to hold no more anger in. I didn’t want to hold nothing in that would hurt me, so I can take it and lash out at somebody else. 

And then another thing is being around people that’s willing to help me build something each and every day or learn something new. But my main one was the anger. I know I shouldn’t have done all the stuff I done. I’m like why did I do this. You know? I didn’t have to go out there and rob them banks. You know what I’m saying? I came from two – my mom and dad, all of us there. But learning how to build and share and love and respect other people. If they judge me, that’s on them. Hey, I’m done with it. I washed my hands. So a lot of people like to try to – this girl, you was in prison – and? 

But let me tell you what I did in prison. Let me tell you what I’m doing now. so once i got released, i knew I was gonna hit the ground running. 

Alice: And you did, totally. 

Charlotte: Especially by going through NLEN and where I’m at now, I’m literally sitting behind a desk, I’m talking to people, I’m helping people, I’m doing orders, I’m filling orders, I’m a professional. Seems like. 

Alice: You are! Absolutely. So what does that look like in U-Turn Permitted, to work on anger management? How do they help you work through all of that? 

Charlotte: By telling me, what’s on your mind today? Let it go. Put it on the table, or how they say, put it on the wood. This is what’s going on with me today. Let it go, talk about it. ‘Cause if you hold it in, you gonna blow up and you probably blow up on the wrong person. So me talking to Jose, you know, this what’s going on with me today, me and my daughter into it. She always throw it in my face, you know, Mom you ain’t been there – I know. Mom, you didn’t raise me – I know. You weren’t there to see the kids – I know. But I’m here now. Mommy here now, and I promise you, mommy will never leave you again. So can we grow? Can we grow now, so whatever happened back then, it’s gone. It’s like dirty laundry. I’ma leave it out there. But I always tell my daughter, I know how to wash my clothes. I know how to wash my dirty laundry. So people always want to throw that in my face. And at one point it used to hurt me. It used to hurt me – it don’t hurt me no more. It don’t bother me no more. 

Alice: So you processed it by talking about it, and –

Charlotte: And doing something positive about it. Yup. 

Alice: On that note, since you’ve come all this way in your own journey, what advice do you give to others who are coming through the U-Turn Permitted program and are kind of at an earlier stage? 

Charlotte: With me, I tell them there’s no I in team. If you can do it, you put your mind to it, explore it. Weigh it out. Do I want to go back to prison, do I want to work? Do I want to go back to prison, do I want to work? Do I want to go back to prison, do I want to be productive? Do I want to put my story out there and help somebody? And you gonna use this hand, to keep it like ay, I’ma do the right thing. For once, I’ma do the right thing, I’ma see how long it’s gonna last by me doing the right thing. If I keep on doing the right thing and I stick to it, it’s gonna be alright. It’s gonna be alright. It’s gonna be alright. I know it. I know it. 

Alice: So can you walk me through just an average day at Sweet Beginnings and everything that goes on for you? 

Charlotte: Well we usually start at 9. We read the Maxwell from like 9 o’clock to 9:15 – 

Alice: And what is the Maxwell? 

Charlotte: The Maxwell is an inspirational book that we read every morning to give you inspiration. And usually with that book, whatever going on with somebody that day, it’s in that book. I was like oh my God. It’s in the book. And we sit and talk about it. We sit for like 15, 20 minutes and talk about it. And I say well what’s today? We gotta build honey for Mariano’s. Downstairs, we got four cases of 12 ounce, four cases of six ounces. And we’ll strain honey, we’ll pour the honey, do the labels, the fronts and backs and certifieds and the shrink wrap . 

I tell them we need some amenity lotions. And once again we gotta go through this formula. So each day I have something planned out so they can build, they can learn how to do the body balms, know how to do the ultimate body balms, or the lip balms, or the lotion. I give them something each and every day so they can learn how to make it, produce it, especially read the formula. ‘Cause Miss Brenda know her stuff, she know it. 

Alice: Yeah you gotta get it right. 

Charlotte: We get it right! I don’t want no backlash. We make sure everything – Miss Charlotte, I’m doing it right? And I’m like yeah, you doing a good job. So it feels good for me to tell them, ay, you’re doing a good job. I’m proud of you. And they look back and smile, thank you. You’re welcome! You’re welcome. So they in production. They do inventory. They do count – they do packaging for stores or the people that buy offline. 

Alice: And in the spring and summer, you also work with the bees a little bit, right? 

Charlotte: Yes. Yes I do. So usually we have a lot of walkthroughs, a lot of people come. I put on a bee suit or me and Lisa put on a bee suit and I’ll pull a frame. And they very interested in seeing the frames, seeing the bees or how I feed the bees. ‘Cause once we strain the honeycomb, and I take the stuff and put it right back into the earth. I scrape it and put it right back into the earth. Going right back to the bees. So me putting on a bee suit – I was like a bee suit, I was like okay.  Am I afraid of the bees? No. They’re my babies. So it’s amazing. This whole journey is amazing. 

Alice: You also are kind of a coach to the transitional employees right, ‘cause you’re the person that they have the most contact with on a day to day basis. So what are the most common issues that you see people dealing with when they’re coming into Sweet Beginnings? 

Charlotte: Most of them ain’t never had a job. So I tell them, be on time. Be on time, it’s important, you be on time. It’s’ important you sit, look, learn, and listen. It’s important that you talk to the other TJs. So at the end of the day, all y’all can build – if you don’t know how to do labels, he know how to do labels, he can help you. If he know how to shrink wrap, he can help –  ‘cause I always switch them up, i just don’t leave one person on one thing. I switch them up. And they be like well Miss Charlotte, I don’t know – you gon’ learn today. Just like I did. You gon’ learn today. Working with them, it’s amazing. It’s different attitudes. The men, the women. The women coming in, they got an attitude with their man, or dudes coming in, I tell them, don’t start! Don’t start, come talk to me, what’s going on? You know Miss Charlotte, this what’s going on today. I say come on look. You want to do a half a day so you can go take care of that? But tomorrow we gon’ start all over again. Alright Miss Charlotte, I’ll be back. There you go. There you go. 

So I train them, honey production, the lip balm, the body balm, the sugar scrub. It’s s a formula that we have to read and go by to the exact science. And I let them read and usually I give like one TJ, here, you gonna run it today, you the lead today. Well what you mean Miss Charlotte? You gonna run it today. You gotta do everything that I do, each and every day, for the whole week, you got this. Oh Miss Charlotte, I don’t know how to do it – yes you do, read this. Oh Miss Charlotte, I got it. I got it, Miss Charlotte. And I look att em, what you looking at me for? And at the end of the day they know what they doing. 

Alice: So you’re training people to become self-sufficient in the workplace. They start from knowing nothing about how to make these products to teaching other people by the end of their time. 

Charlotte: And then once they get to making it, they love it. They love it. This how you make this? Miss Charlotte, how you make this? I’m gonna show you how to make it. Oh Miss Charlotte, I like that! You know? So especially making the sugar scrubs, the creams – once they get the hang of it, they love it. ‘Cause they know they can go in the store and be like, I had a part of that. I made that. 

Alice: So I want to talk a little bit more about how our transitional employees overcome the barriers to employment that they’re facing. So you mentioned that a lot of them don’t have a work history. So how does that show up? 

Charlotte: So a lot of them don’t have a lot of work history from being in the streets, hustling. They try to fill out a resume, they wouldn’t know what to put. I ain’t never had no job. Come through the program, today you gonna have a job, and this what we gonna put on your resume. So when they see NLEN or Sweet Beginnings on their resume, a lot of people know about NLEN or Sweet Beginnings. You came from a wonderful foundation. So now they don’t have to go back to selling drugs – only if they want to. Only if they want to, but you have this resume, it’s got Sweet Beginnings and North Lawndale in it. Before you sold drugs, now you got a solid job and you can always come back. And go see your coaches and talk to your coaches. A lot of them come back still, hey, Miss Charlotte, how you doing? I had a bank account, I got a credit card – good! Something they never had. 

Alice: So it gives them a work history that they can talk about when they’re going out to get jobs. What kind of things do you find yourself teaching them as you go along? So there’s the fact that they don’t have a work history – but not having held a permanent full time job before also means you don’t know, as we say, the unspoken rules of the workplace, right, like how to interact with your supervisor, or how you’re kind of expected to behave when you show up to work. So can you tell me what that’s like and how you coach people through that? 

Charlotte: So usually I always tell them, keep it real with me. Do not lie to me, don’t try to sugar coat it. Don’t try to run over my head. ‘Cause what you’re doing, I’ve been there done that, and I know the signs. So you come in, once again, be on time. Good morning hey how you doing, how was your day? Aw Miss Charlotte, I had a wonderful day today. I said the rest of your day gonna be wonderful – I want them to come in, to leave from outside, come in here where you work at and be graceful, be pleasant, laugh, smile, we listen to music but not all that rah rah rah stuff. I want them to feel comfortable. I want them to feel at ease. I want them to feel protected. But most of all I want them to feel love. That’s the most of all. Especially coming from where we been. I want them to feel love. And protected. They’re around here with me, I would never let nothing happen to them in a bad way, never. I wouldn’t do that. I wouldn’t let nobody sit here and argue. I separate them, you go here, you go there. 

Alice: How do you resolve any issues or conflict that comes up like that? 

Charlotte: It’s been many a conflict. I separate them and I talk to one of them. Then I talk to the other one. Then all of us come talk. Y’all don’t get along. Y’all have to get along. You don’t even have to talk to each other, but we’re at work. You’re at work. It’s about respect. It’s about respect – you and him been arguing all day, we gonna separate y’all. Or you know, y’all can go home, we’re gonna start this over again tomorrow but don’t come in with the same attitudes, you finna fight him, no you’re not. Not here. So let’s sit and resolve. You ain’t gotta talk to him, you ain’t gotta talk to him, just show each other respect. That’s it. 

Alice: And that usually works to dissolve the tension? 

Charlotte: Yes. Or they gonna see the other side of charlotte- nah. But it hasn’t been like no drama drama. ‘Cause they know they’re at work. And they don’t want to lose they job and this might be they first time having a job. 

Alice: Since you’ve started at Sweet beginnings, so comparing yourself before you came in before your transitional job to where you are now, what would you say is the biggest transformation in yourself? 

Charlotte: The biggest transformation is – that’s kind of hard, Alice. Mine is working on me to be a better person to someone else. Working on me so I can be a better person or a guide or a lead to someone else. If she can do it, I can do it, then we can do it. We can do it. Me smiling, hey how you doing, it’s gonna be alright. Giving them inspiration. Inspiration, that’s what it is. Inspiration. Giving other people inspiration ‘cause they could have a bad day, bad year, bad week. Hey how you doing. To me it’s good to say hello. Hey how you doing, even if they don’t speak. Or give them a smile. And then I’ll be like it’s alright. I’m laughing with them. They try to tell corny jokes but I laugh with them. I’m a part of them and they’re a part of me. 

Alice: Yeah. What kind of transformation have you observed in the transitional employees? 

Charlotte: By them being their first time working, they love the production. They love being around others. They love being around others, they love being around the environment. Sometimes i just sit back in my office and look at them. And they don’t even know I’m looking at them. Charlotte, what you looking at? You! You know. Seeing all of them working together. You need some help? Yup. All of them teaming up and working together, nobody just sitting here, I’m finna do all this by myself. All of the men and women working together. Everybody as one. 

Alice: It’s individual transformation but mostly transformation as a team and a cohort. And I think that you do a really good job building those relationships through all the ways we’ve talked about. 

Charlotte: Thank you. It’s something I never thought I’d be doing in life. I never thought I would be literally working for an organization, working with bees, working with the TJs, ex-felons, I never thought that. I never in my life thought that I’d be sitting right here today, you know, doing what I’m doing, helping the team, working with the team. Working with the people that walked in my shoes. I never thought that. In a million years I never thought that. So it’s amazing. It’s a wonderful feeling, Alice, a wonderful feeling. 

Alice: How are things going with your overall goals? I know you got your new apartment recently. 

Charlotte: Yes. And that’s my first time ever having something in my name. That’s my apartment. The light bill and gas bill in my name. The rent in my name. So my next goal is I’ma get a car. That’s my next goal, to get me a car, so I’m saving money, it’s something I ain’t never done. I’m saving money, have a credit card, bank accounts, and I’m doing the right thing. So it feels good to me to do the right thing. 

Alice: Thank you so much, Charlotte.

Charlotte: You’re welcome Alice, thank you, you have a good day, stay cool!

Alice: You just heard from Charlotte Austin, our lead operations assistant and a former client of both NLEN and Sweet Beginnings. Charlotte shared how she created a sweet beginning for herself when she returned home after twenty years in prison and decided she wanted to do something positive with her life. Charlotte now works with and inspires other clients coming through our program on a daily basis. 

If you have questions for Charlotte or about Sweet Beginnings in general, we’d love to hear them. 

You can send us a note by visiting the podcast landing page at blog.beelovebuzz.com/insidesb and filling out the interest form.

Thanks for listening, and see you next time.

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Brenda Palms-Barber