Thanks to Isaac “Coach” Baker, violence isn’t the only thing kids on the West Side of Chicago have to look forward to this summer. He will be serving up to 500 boys and girls in his youth program called “Youth Bubble.”
The Forest Park resident grew up in Englewood in the 1980s, so he’s acutely aware of the challenges kids on the West Side face. “It’s a war zone,” he declared. “In Forest Park you can sit on your porch in the evening and enjoy yourself, but over there when a car comes around the corner, you look because they might be shooting at you from the car. It’s not play time. People are dying for real.”
Coach Isaac understands how an environment with a lack of healthy institutions encourages violence, but he refuses to allow the young people in his program to blame the system for making bad choices.
“I’m trying not to blame anybody for our condition even though we are in a toxic condition,” he explained. “All children have to learn to take responsibility for themselves and stop blaming other people for their mistakes.”
His motivation for starting Golden Points Productions, the umbrella organization for Youth Bubble, came partly from what he was hearing from young men hanging out on street corners.
“I’ve never been in school,” one young man told him. “I’m almost 20 years old and I have a criminal record. You tell me what I should do.”
“That’s when I started Golden Points Productions,” Baker said. “We have a class sitting down learning how to read together, learning how to write, learning how to do whatever idea comes up in the room. We made a video, our own TV show. We bought a generator and a camera and built our own lighting system.”
His program is all about mentoring. He is not big on preaching “sermons” to his children, preferring to let them see him act as an adult instead. One of his daughters asked him a while ago if he knew any cuss words. When he said, “Why do you ask?” she replied, “Because I never hear you using any of them.”
“I try to show the kids in my program a different way of handling situations,” he explained. “They have to learn to think before they make a decision instead of operating off emotion. It’s a challenge because there are a lot of distractions.”
Isaac refers to himself as a “behaviorist” and cites the work of Abraham Maslow, John B. Watson and Albert Bandura to explain where his “educational psychology” comes from. “Kids only do what they are taught to do,” he said. “On TV they are watching shows like the Walking Dead [about an epidemic that has swept the globe causing the dead to rise and feed on the living].”
“The news tends to highlight crimes that black people are doing. It paints a picture of us to the rest of the world. I tell the kids, ‘You are not criminals,’ and they say, ‘But they show it on TV.’
“I don’t act very emotional,” he said, explaining how mentorship works. “When I’m coaching basketball, my children never see me fussing at the referees. They never see me in a confrontation with anybody. You don’t see my team arguing with the referees. I’ve got to be a mentor. If I do see them arguing with the ref or being confrontational, I say, ‘Who taught you to talk like that?’ and they reply, ‘Oh, you right, coach. We don’t act like that.'”
Working with the youth on the West Side is a big challenge for Coach Isaac for two reasons. One is that when they’re inside his “Youth Bubble,” he is the mentor they look up to and he’s able to redirect their behavior. But when they leave the bubble, they’re back in an environment in which they see adults acting violently, eating poorly and responding to stress with emotion rather than thinking.
“The police in Forest Park are helpful,” he said, describing the difference between his suburb and the West Side. “If you get a flat tire, they’ll help you out, but that’s not what’s happening in the city. The police are scared of the people who live there and the people who live there are scared of the people who live there.”
“You can’t imagine it if you’re not living there,” he said. “That’s why I bought the van I call the Tank. I bought the Tank because I’m trying to get children to a safe place. Somebody actually shot at my van even though I have a big sign on the side that says ‘Youth Bubble.’ I pull up in front of a house and say, ‘C’mon you all, hurry up and get in.’ I’m trying to take them to a place that’s safe, so we can do something productive.”
A second reason is that when he tries to bring, for example, a basketball or baseball team out to a tournament in the suburbs in order to expose them to a different environment, his kids sometimes encounter discrimination. For example, he brought two basketball teams to a tournament in Berwyn and both teams went undefeated. The next year they were “disinvited.”
“When I try to combine communities,” he noted, “people start showing their true colors. One time we stopped at a McDonald’s in the suburbs and as soon as our kids started getting off the bus, someone called security. People get afraid when we come around. If you have never experienced it, you might think it never happens. The children say, ‘They don’t want us here.’ It’s heartbreaking.”
Those kinds of disappointments don’t deter Isaac from trying to show his kids a different way of life. For example, he’s taken youth on trips to Yale and Boston College and to historically black colleges like Spellman, Morehouse and Tuskegee. By showing his kids possibilities, he is saying to them, “You make choices. Don’t let anybody limit you.”
Coach Isaac has tried to do things in Forest Park, but up till now has had a hard time. “I’ve being trying to do a station right here,” he said, “but it’s very hard to get into this particular community when people don’t know you.”
How did he manage to avoid the pitfalls of Englewood growing up?
“I was in that environment. We all make mistakes. When I made one, I said, ‘God, you get me out of this and I will serve you the rest of my life.’ God is real. When I got out of that situation, the voice that speaks to us in the back of our heads said, ‘Remember that pact you made with me.'”
He’s also motivated by a sense of urgency. “I operate out of a state of emergency,” he explained. “If this building is on fire, I’m not going to sit on my recliner and let someone else take care of it. We at Youth Bubble aren’t going to wait for anybody to do it for us.”
One of his frustrations is the criminal “justice” system. Say a 12-year-old gets picked up for shoplifting and is sent to the juvenile center on the South Side. There, instead of getting his life straightened out, he learns how to be a thief, is arrested again at 16 and is incarcerated again and now learns how to sell drugs. When he is released at 19, he has no diploma, no marketable skills and a criminal record. What he does know is where to buy drugs and how to sell them.
Isaac is also frustrated that he cannot get funding from the state or nonprofits. “We’ve asked for funding,” he said. “We are a 501c3 based at 501 N. Central. We tell donors what we are doing and they come back and tell us, ‘What you are doing is wonderful, but we can’t help you right now.’
“Nobody has given us a chance, so we just have to put our pennies together.”