By Ben Joravsky
One day way back when, Don Baker, a 25-year-old divinity student from rural Illinois, opened a funky little drop-in center for high school hippies in Evanston. Almost 30 years have passed, and those hippies have long since moved beyond adolescence. But Baker remains.
His drop-in center evolved into Youth Organizations Umbrella, one of Evanston’s most influential social-service outfits. In many ways, its history is a mirror in which Evanstonians can see their own struggles and transformations. “I could never predict we’d last this long,” says Baker. “Lord, Lord, the changes we’ve seen.”
It’s somewhat surprising that Baker rooted himself in Evanston. He grew up in Wood River, a working-class town just outside East Saint Louis. He went to the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana and planned to use his degree in engineering to find a “sensible” white-collar job at the Shell refinery where his father worked as a pipe fitter. But he got caught up in antiwar protests and open-housing marches, and one thing led to another. By the time he graduated, he says, “I wanted to be a minister. Working with the church was something important I could do with my life.”
In 1967 he moved to Evanston to study at the Garrett Theological Seminary. He supported himself by working as a cafeteria monitor at Chute Middle School, taught Sunday school, and sort of stumbled into his vocation. “I was living in an apartment in southeast Evanston, and my roommate, Jack Morin, and I decided to invite some kids over to find out why they weren’t taking an interest in church. We had a great discussion, and we decided we’d do it again. One of the kids said, ‘Can we bring some friends to the next meeting?’ And within a month or so we were having 30 kids coming to our apartment all the time.
“Without even looking for it, we had found a whole group of alienated young Evanstonians who cared very much for the world but didn’t know where they fit in. These were mostly white, middle-class hippies–the kids with long hair and army jackets–who wanted to challenge the establishment. They practically lived at our place, dropping in all the time, drinking our pop, listening to the stereo. Jack and I decided they needed a different hangout or we’d lose our minds.”
Baker opened the Storefront, a drop-in center in a converted art studio in south Evanston. “We had some backing from a few churches, but we had hardly any money. We furnished it with Salvation Army reject furniture. The kids played cards and listened to music–Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, the Beatles. Jesus Christ Superstar was big when it came out. We stocked our refrigerator with pop, which we sold for change, keeping the money in a glass jar on the fridge. In two years no one stole from us. It was the times–peace and love and Woodstock.”
For Baker it was also a time for revelations. “The Storefront was largely white, and, yes, that bothered me. But I didn’t know how to challenge it. Even those kids who wanted to change the world could not cross that racial line. We occasionally had black kids come in, just as we occasionally got greaser or jock white kids. But those kids were tougher than the hippies, and they didn’t mix well. They rarely came back.
“It’s funny–the hippie kids saw themselves as outcasts who identified with and professed admiration for the black rebellion all around us. I remember concerts where there were whites and blacks in the audience, and the whites would be flashing the black-power salute. But even then we sat in one section, and they sat in another. When you look back you see it was a time of great internal contradictions. We had progressive attitudes but a really myopic view of the world.”
As word spread about his work, Baker was invited to participate in a city-sponsored task force on youth. From that task force Youth Organizations Umbrella emerged. “I wrote a paper for the task force called ‘Can We Serve Them All?’ My theme was that we needed an umbrella of youth organizations to represent all the different groups of kids–the greasers, the jocks, the freaks, the blacks. Bill Swisher, a physician on the task force, said something that stuck with me all these years: ‘If we identify ourselves with one political movement we’ll be passe once that movement passes. The real challenge is to identify the kids on the margin and meet their needs.’ That philosophy helped shape our mission statement, which is very 60s: ‘We are open to all young people in Evanston.'”
With funding from the city, Baker founded Y.O.U., opening a storefront in downtown Evanston where kids could drop in to play Ping-Pong or cards, or get leads on jobs, or just hang out. “For years we were very successful, but then our attendance fell. I couldn’t understand why until one day–oh, this must have been sometime in the 70s–I happened to see four kids at the Burger King sitting at a booth listening to their Walkmans. It dawned on me–they were together but they weren’t together. I realized then and there that we had it all wrong. We were functioning from the assumption that kids knew each other and just needed a place, when, in fact, the kids didn’t know each other and still needed a place. If our first big symbol for Y.O.U. was Woodstock, now it was the Walkman. From here on out we had to play a more active role in introducing kids and getting them to take off their Walkmans and join in group activities.”
Baker hired more counselors and guidance workers and set up a more structured routine at the drop-in center. By the 1980s Y.O.U. began attracting more black kids. “We were almost 50-50 black and white, which is a great thing. But it also means new conflicts over space, virtual wars over which radio station to listen to, for instance. We had to set up a rule requiring stations to be changed every half hour. We’d go back and forth not just between black and white music, but between different forms of black and white music, from hard rock to top-40 pop to bubblegum black to harder-core black stuff.
“I was seeing a side of Evanston I’d never seen before–kids from poverty and broken homes. The hippie kids were middle-class or affluent; I used to counsel them about things like smoking pot or being angry at their parents. One day I found myself counseling a kid who felt guilty for having mugged an old lady. I thought, ‘My God, the world has changed.’ As Bill Swisher might have said, Who’s on the margins now?”
In 1991 Y.O.U.–its budget grown to $550,000, its staff to 13–underwent another change. The challenge now was to reach sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders who were doing poorly in school and help them catch up before they got to Evanston Township High School. “I don’t know of any community that has such economic and ethnic diversity as Evanston,” says Baker. “Contrary to what the map says, the border between Evanston and Chicago is not Howard Street. The border goes through Evanston. Generally, everything east of Chicago Avenue to downtown and then out to the north and west I teasingly characterize as ‘South Wilmette.’ Everything else I teasingly characterize as ‘North Rogers Park.’ This section’s not much different than Chicago. There are families there with relatives in Rogers Park, and the kids move back and forth several times. Yet all of these kids go to the same schools, and Evanston’s challenge is to meet all their needs.”
On Wednesday and Friday Y.O.U.’s main drop-in center, which is across the street from Nichols Middle School, swirls with kids playing Foosball, pool, or Ping-Pong. On Tuesday and Thursday it’s quiet time, as the students work with tutors brought in from Evanston High School or Northwestern University. (Y.O.U. also runs a youth center at Chute.)
“I come here every day ’cause I wanna get straight As,” says Justin, a 14-year-old Nichols eighth-grader.
“I like the Foosball and the pool, but I do my studying,” says his 12-year-old friend Dona. “I wanna get good grades. I wanna go to college.”
There are fewer racial conflicts to mediate, since most of the kids are black. “The big thing is making sure everyone gets to play pool,” says Meg Coyne, the program director. “The boys are crazy about pool–it’s sort of a rite of passage.”
There are still battles over the radio, but now they’re generational skirmishes, as the racket of rap can get a bit much for the old-timers. “At times I just turn it off,” says Terry Dickerson, an outreach coordinator who prefers 60s R & B. “Kids! What do they know about music?”
It bothers Baker that more white kids don’t visit the centers, but he tries to keep things in perspective. “My wife and I raised two children who went to Nichols and graduated from the high school, and I’ve learned powerfully through their experiences. I saw how disappointed they were when they drifted away from many of their black friends as they got older. In some ways it’s similar to what I saw in the 70s, when the hippie kids and the black kids sat on separate sides of the same concert.
“But the interesting thing is that when my kids went to college they came back with a new perspective. They said, ‘Most of the other white students don’t even try to build friendships across the racial line.’ So I remain hopeful. The strategy for change is not to be triumphant and say ‘We’ve done all we have to do,’ but to be a little more humble and admit that we’re grappling and that it hurts when we fail. Maybe that hurt is a blessing, because it means that at least we’re trying. Most places don’t even try.” o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Don Baker photo by Dan Machnik.