Legit Pathways Academy fellows. Left to right: Ashia Hanes, Ty’Nya Larry, Emily Mendoza, Keosha Miller, Armani Colston, Lynnitaane Riley, Gabrielle Marion Credit: Igor Studenkov/Staff Reporter

To understand the origin of Legit Pathways Academy, a professional development program for youth wishing to get into the cannabis industry, one must first understand the origins of its co-founder, attorney and Austin native S.L. Owens.

Raised by a single mother, she came of age in the 1990s, “when the war on drugs was having a devastating impact on my neighborhood,” with high rates of incarceration exacerbating poverty. Getting into Walter R. Payton College Prep, a selective enrollment school that drew students from across the city, created opportunities and expanded her view of what’s possible, she said. These factors, along with her experiences as a Posse Foundation scholar and as Black female attorney, informed her approach as she and her husband, Sam Owens, launched their own business, Law and the Fam.

The goal, Owens said, is to “use legal systems in order to push through equity and economic outcomes in our community.” They are currently focusing on the Legit Pathways program, which sets out to help young people in their 20s – who have been statistically the most likely to get arrested for cannabis-related offenses – benefit from cannabis legalization in Illinois. The eight-week program offers three “pathways,” teaching fellows how to get jobs in the cannabis industry, how to start their own cannabis-related business and how to continue their education.

Legit Pathways Academy co-founder S.L. Owens at Fulton Market District’s Industrious co-working space. | Credit: Igor Studenkov/Staff Reporter

The program operates out of Fulton Market District’s Industrious co-working space – a choice that Owens said she and her husband still struggle with. While they wanted to give back to their community, they decided that youth would benefit from expanded horizons the way Owens did. 

Legit Pathways Academy is largely funded through a grant from Restore, Reinvest and Renew, a state grant program that provides funding for programs and initiatives that address the consequences of the “war on drugs.” The grants are funded from 25% of the cannabis tax revenue and can go toward programs that serve what the state defines as “high need R3 zones.” This includes all of the West Side except Galewood, most of the South Side and a few sections of North and Northwest sides.

Owens said that her husband came from a similar background as she did – a first-generation lawyer who grew up in a Chicago neighborhood impacted by the war on drugs – and they were on the same page about what their priority should be.

“We thought to ourselves – what if we could create a program that encouraged young people in our community to go into lawful careers through cannabis industry and hemp industry?” she said. “Now that cannabis is legal, there are many legal careers our young people can be exposed to.”

The program is open to young adults ages 18 to 25 who live in R3 zones. Legit Pathways pays for their CTA transit cards and provides a stipend. Once selected, the youth can go into one of the three “pathways” – the career pathway, where youth are taught skills that they need “to be competitive in the job market,” the entrepreneur pathway for those looking to start a business that is either directly or indirectly involved in cannabis. The third pathway is for those wishing to get into higher education but don’t know where to start.

“We help get them identify programs that are going to help them get higher education skills to be competitive,” Owens said.

Only some of the alumni who spoke to Austin Weekly News said they used what they learned to get into the cannabis-related field – but even the ones that didn’t said that what they learned helped their careers.  

Ty’Nya Larry, of Englewood, said that she gained appreciation for the importance of market research. Armani Colston said that he learned the importance of building connections and time management.

“We had to treat it like it’s a job and schoolwork,” he said. “It bettered you at the end.”

Emily Mendoza, of West Englewood, said that her biggest takeaway was learning how to read and understand laws. Gabrielle Marion, who is interested in becoming an online content creator, said that for her, it was “learning the elevator pitch, and leaning to figure out a way put forth my accomplishments and my goals, and what I have done, in a very concise summary.”

Owens said that they call the participants “fellows” because she read studies that show wording matters. The label helps their self-esteem and looks good on a resume.

“Young people in this city are often called troublemakers, and those things can be internalized,” she said. “What we said as part of the design of our project is that you’re a fellow, which makes you a part of the distinguished career track. And just [when we say it] — you should see their faces.”

Owens also said that she and her husband are “very intentional about who we do business with, because we want everybody in our community to feel welcome.”

“When we go visit a place [where we want to do business], we do not dress like lawyers, in the sense of what people think lawyers should look like,” she said. 

“And I gotta tell you — it tells you a lot. There are places like this in affluent neighborhoods that we said no to. We chose places where people at this place treat people treat us with dignity and respect, and whether they know they’re lawyers or not.”

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...