Posted by McKenzie Marshall, Briahnna Brown
It was a bright and sunny afternoon during the opening day game of the North Lawndale Police Youth Baseball League at Franklin Park. Funded by Get IN Chicago, the league aims to create trust between police and the community while helping the children build leadership, sportsmanship, teamwork and conflict resolution skills.
“We started this last year in Englewood and it was such an unexpected success,” said Toni Irving, executive director of Get IN Chicago. “Generally speaking, [with] young African American boys and girls people think basketball [and] football. It was a lot of work to really rally the people.”
Irving said that after two weeks, the community response and support for the kids playing baseball was huge and cited surveys the organization had done before and after the program that showed an improvement in feelings of self and collective efficacy in the children.
“Every week there’s some other piece that’s added to it that are giving them the building blocks to be more successful throughout their lives,” Irving said. “And so, at the core of it there’s a kind of resiliency that becomes transferred through the Little League process.”
Every Monday and Thursday evening throughout the summer, weather permitting, kids between 9 and 12 years old will be coached by off-duty Chicago police officers and community leaders. The baseball league consists of six teams of both boys and girls recruited from the community.
“We’re trying to do a lot of different things,” CPD 10th District Cmdr. Frank Valadez said. “We’re building the community relations between the police, the kids, the adults, bringing kids back out to the park…and trying to get them some exercise, get them off the electronics and away from the TVs. When you have kids out in a park, it just shows that it’s a better neighborhood to be in.”
The league comes at a time where the nation has seen many public instances of police brutality against African Americans, most recently the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile that sparked Black Lives Matter protests in major cities across the country.
Rufus Williams, president and CEO of BBF Family Services (formerly the Better Boys Foundation), who established the baseball league, noted how important it was to bridge the gap between the police and the community in Chicago, particularly on the West Side where Laquan McDonald lived and Antonio LeGrier, Betty Jones and Rekia Boyd were killed by Chicago police officers.
“It’s hard to say in many ways that we’re rebuilding trust, because in many situations in the Black community and with the police the trust never existed,” Williams said. “So what we’re trying to do is to build it.”
Alderman Michael Scott Jr. of Chicago’s 24th ward, who threw the first pitch at the game, emphasized the necessity of programs like this.
“What better way to get kids involved out here in North Lawndale,” Scott said. “To see these young people doing something that is constructive, engaging with the police especially at this time when we have so much violence and turbulence and so much dissension between community and the police, I think this is a very necessary, constructive program.”
Kenneth Tolliver, 10, plays third base in the North Lawndale Police Youth Baseball League and was nervous before the game but was ready to play because “all that matters is if you try and you have fun.” He said that he likes staying active with baseball and playing in the league has sparked a new interest in the sport.
“What really inspired me was the coaches on the team and how they played, and they would talk a lot about baseball games so I started watching it,” Tolliver said. “I actually want to be on the league team, but it’s a hard decision between the Sox and the Cubs.”