Native Chicagoan and Forest Parker Isaac Baker decided to start Youth Bubble, a mentoring group, after hearing from young men on the city’s West Side. 

“I’ve never been in school,” one young man told Baker. “I’m almost 20 years old and I have a criminal record. You tell me what I should do.”

Baker, who also goes by ‘Coach Isaac’, grew up in Englewood on Chicago’s South Side in the 1980s, so he is acutely aware of the challenges kids in the city face. 

“That’s when I started Golden Points Productions,” Baker said, referring to Youth Bubble’s parent organization. “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.”

This summer, he plans to work with 500 boys and girls. 

“It’s a war zone,” he said. “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.”

Baker knows a lack of healthy institutions in a community can encourage 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 said. “All children have to learn to take responsibility for themselves and stop blaming other people for their mistakes.”

His program is all about mentoring but he avoids preaching “sermons” to his children, preferring to let them see him act as an adult instead. He does not use swear words, for instance.  

“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.”

He continued. 

“I try to show the kids in my program a different way of handling situations,” he said. “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.

“The news tends to highlight crimes that black people are doing,” Baker said. “It paints a picture of us to the rest of the world. 

Working with kids on the West Side is a big challenge for Coach Isaac for two reasons. First, is that when they are in Youth Bubble, he is able to be a mentor they can look up to and he is able to redirect their behavior. But when they leave, they’re back in an environment Baker cannot control.

“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.”

Second, when he tries to bring, for example, a basketball or baseball team out to a tournament in the suburbs 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 Baker from trying to show his kids a different way of life. He’s taken youth on trips to Yale and Boston College and to historically black colleges like Spellman, Morehouse and Tuskegee. 

Baker has tried to do things in Forest Park, but 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.”

Baker is also frustrated by his efforts to secure funding from the state or local nonprofits. “We’ve asked for funding,” he said. “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.’

For now, Baker is pressing on.  

“Nobody has given us a chance, so we just have to put our pennies together.”