Growing up in Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood, Edward Redd, 36, knew the odds were stacked against him. His father, a gang member, was killed when he was 5 years old, leaving his mother to raise five children in a crime-ridden, poverty-stricken community.
Redd, who is the oldest of his parents’ children, said that it took a positive village of adults, peers and impressionable experiences to show him the way out of the West Side, through college and into a successful electrical engineering career.
“There were various individuals who mentored me along the way, and I had some unique experiences,” Redd said in an interview on Nov. 26. “Because of my academics, in middle school I was able to go to UIC for the summer and do a program that involved meeting people of different ethnicities.”
Seeing and living that diversity, Redd said, helped propel him to Marquette University, where he majored in electrical and computer engineering.
“I now have a successful career and have garnered international accolades and honors with respect to engineering,” Redd said. “But for me, it was more important that I be able to give our youth the opportunity to dream.”
So, in 2007, he founded Y.E.M.B.A. Inc. — short for Youth Educational Mentoring Basketball Association. At its inception, Redd said, the organization’s focus was giving kids the opportunity to play basketball as a hook to engaging them in other areas of their lives.
Since then, the organization’s structure and scale have changed, but the mission is the same. Redd and his team at Y.E.M.B.A. work with middle-schoolers at Brooks and Julian middle schools in Oak Park for one day each week for three hours.
“We do a three-hour workshop each day,” Redd said. “The first hour we help them with homework and do tutoring, the second hour is another homework workshop and the third hour is the recreational component.”
Over the last 10 years, Redd explained, Y.E.M.B.A. has served approximately 1,000 kids and has trained and hired more than 25 former participants to serve as mentors. This year, he said, the organization is expecting to work with 120 Oak Park middle schoolers like Davion, who lauded the organization’s ability to help manage his anxiety and make new friends.
“Y.E.M.B.A. is a place where I can go and ask questions,” he said. “I’ve improved my leadership and communication skills, and have undoubtedly learned new perspectives from people I would’ve normally never had the courage to talk to.”
Redd said that the organization focuses on “three core tiers of programming” that include building leadership and character, substance abuse education and financial literacy.
“We’ve worked with Dominican University to help us fill our financial literacy curriculum piece,” said Redd, who is an alumnus of the college’s Community Leadership Program.
Redd explained that the organization is always looking for institutional partners, volunteers and donors to expand its mentoring, tutoring and support offerings — resources that are critical to the students that Y.E.M.B.A. serves.
More than 60 percent of the organization’s participants who took a survey that Y.E.M.B.A. administered reported having moved into Oak Park during middle school. Most of them, Redd said, come from places like Austin.
Charles Isaac, a River Forest resident and Y.E.M.B.A. mentor since 2016, said that the needs of this particular population of students are sometimes masked by the general perception of Oak Park and River Forest.
“There are still some kids with limitations and struggles,” Isaac said. “We give them a chance to share their experiences and empower them to make sure they’re advocating and speaking up for themselves.”
Redd explained that “it takes some time” for young people coming from lower-income areas into affluent communities like Oak Park to successfully transition, but the work is well worth the wait.
“It’s difficult to navigate,” he said. “We’re a free program. We don’t have the answer to all of these issues, but we’re a resource that works to help kids keep their focus and be successful along the journey.”
To learn more about Y.E.M.B.A., visit yemba-inc.org.