At Growing Home, Brad Hirn helps grow produce, as well as the potential of interns who come to the South Side nonprofit’s job skills development program. Photo by Juan Antonio Labreche.

South Wood Street’s landscape changes at 59th Street. The cookie-cutter brick houses that line both sides of the street abruptly give way to a railroad viaduct. Beyond the viaduct sit large empty lots dressed in overgrown grass and aging dandelions. The spot at the corner is easy to miss: hoop houses peeking behind a fence, a couple of vans and a raised wooden structure. The green-painted “Growing Home Farm Stand Wednesday” sign gives it away.

Brad Hirn did not know anything about farming before he joined Chicago’s Growing Home staff as the employment specialist in June 2011.

In fact, most people who work at the nonprofit don’t know how to farm before they are hired. Growing Home’s organic farm business doubles as a 14-week job skills development program. Twice a year, 20 interns from Englewood and neighboring communities come to learn farming and take job-training classes. Hirn is the chain-link that helps interns gain essential skills to get hired and keep a job.

Hirn’s challenge is to get employers to realize the interns’ potential—regardless of their background. Most interns are African American, at an average age of late 30s. Of 20 current interns, 18 have criminal records. At Growing Home, they have the opportunity to enroll in school and learn essential skills that can help them land permanent employment. Some work with a free legal clinic to get their records expunged or sealed. Hirn said most interns end up working in the food industry, whether at large produce distributors like Midwest Foods or high-end hotels or restaurants.

While Hirn is responsible for maintaining a job placement rate that averages 65 to 70 percent, numbers are not his ultimate measure of success. To him, it’s when people gain skills and confidence in a matter of a few months. “When you start to build that confidence … it opens up a lot of doors,” he said.

Hirn, 28, has a very different history than the interns he helps. After graduating from Northwestern University with a degree in gender studies, Hirn became a union organizer for low-wage workers, while working as a cook for restaurants and hotels. But the core aspects of his role at Growing Home and the skills he gained from his organizing years align: They are both about building relationships and helping people make tough choices, while doing something they’ve never done before.

The Chicago Reporter recently sat down with Hirn to discuss his work.

How is Growing Home’s approach on job skills development different from others?

Since we are growing all of this produce and selling it to real customers all over the city, we have a product that needs to get out to market, and it gives us a bit of an advantage when it comes to creating a work environment that really is a business. A lot of job training organizations help people on their resume, they help people with interviews, they do outreach to employers, but they don’t have a business that provides an actual job. We pay minimum wage, but one of our biggest goals is training people and getting people back into the workforce in jobs that they can actually live off of.

We have deadlines to meet; people have to move at a fast enough pace to harvest everything, wash it, weigh it and package it. And it has to get to market at a certain time. Attendance and punctuality is emphasized; the No. 1 thing employers say to me is, ‘We want someone who shows up on time.’ Time is a struggle; we’ve got people who are trying to get their GED diploma, clear their criminal record, get a driver’s license and get a new job after this—all in the span of three months or less.

What is Growing Home’s relationship to the Englewood community like?

Growing Home originally came into Englewood as part of an urban task force to build an urban agriculture corridor in Englewood. I would say that corridor is still in its very early developmental stage, and Growing Home certainly has the most urban agriculture presence in Englewood.

So it started out really rocky. People weren’t sure what we were doing and why we were doing it, and it had to become a community organizing thing where staff had to go door to door and meet people and explain what was going on and what we were doing. The other thing was making sure we hired people from this neighborhood and nearby neighborhoods. Part of our mission is to try and get more food into Englewood and Back of the Yards, so every Wednesday we have a farm stand. All that produce that we sell at the farm stand—it’s there because people have asked for it to be grown. We make a lot of our money as a business by selling at Green City Market in Lincoln Park, but that’s a different clientele.

How is agriculture a particularly good way for job skills development? Why would farming be helpful to someone for a nonfarming job?

I was pretty skeptical at first. But this is very hard, physical work. You have to stand and lift and work in a variety of temperatures and weather conditions and use different parts of your body. It means you have to be able to pace yourself, know how much you can do and also be able to push yourself and build up your endurance. So if you want to work in a kitchen or a warehouse, or any kind of job where you’ll be standing for a long period of time, this is very good training for that. For the people who want to cook professionally, it’s really good practice. They gain a technical understanding of when certain things are grown naturally and gain a wider appreciation for the farm-to-table trend that’s getting pretty big in Chicago. Generally, they’re doing something they’ve never done before. A lot of them say, ‘Well, I’ve never been a farmer,’ and why would they? It’s Chicago. But there’s a good chance that, if you can learn how to do this, you can learn how to do a lot of different things.

Why organic? Is there an environmental aspect you are trying to get at?

The history of soil contamination and pollution in Chicago, and especially in Englewood, is such that we’re trying to make sure that, when we’re the standard for urban agriculture in Chicago, it’s done in a responsible way.

What’s a challenge that interns face in transitioning from prison to this transitional job program?

A lot of the time, it feels like we have to compete with other forces or other people who are in someone’s life—whether it’s former gang members [they] were dealing with or people who they grew up with who are now just holding them back. The criminal records that people have stem from larger issues that are going on where they were growing up. For me, tackling these big issues is about getting the motivation [to move forward] to outweigh whatever pull there is to go back to [their] former life. The process of planting something, growing it, seeing it go from a seed to something that’s going to sustain another person—a lot of people find that therapeutic in some way.

What’s the biggest struggle you face when trying to get interns employed?

One of the big things is a lot of the persistent discrimination against people with backgrounds. The No. 1 way to stay out of prison is to find a decent job and be able to live off of it. If you go into an interview, and all that’s on the interviewer’s mind is, ‘Oh, this person got arrested,’ that’s not really a fair shake, that doesn’t reflect you as worker. We have a lot of people who have gotten their GEDs or have worked in prison. We have several people who have cooked for 500, 750 people in prison, and that’s a real skill, if you can talk about it in a confident and persuasive way. It means you learned how to roast and bake and cook for hundreds of people—which is very similar to what hotels do for a big banquet. It’s for a different clientele, but the skills are very similar. So a big challenge is making sure people get really good at explaining how those skills carry over to other jobs.

What could other organizations or the City of Chicago do to address the issue?

The city did a program with the Chicago Transit Authority to hire only ex-offenders—not full-time permanent positions, but it could lead into that. That’s a cool thing, but I know that they are swamped. They were overwhelmed with applicants. There’s a greater need for more programs like that. I think the city can do more. When you talk about reducing recidivism, you’re talking about getting jobs that are decent. If someone’s put in a menial job that doesn’t go anywhere, someone can say, ‘Screw this. I can make more money doing what I was doing before.’ The county should be smarter about making sure not to throw anyone into jail for whatever you pick them up for. There are better ways; the city or county could promote alternative sentencing more.