Writer, artist, educator, musician, scholar — Oak Park resident George Bailey is many things, but for the village’s young people, he’s been their advocate, their friend and their mentor. For the last 15 years, Bailey has volunteered his time to the Oak Park Township as a member of the Youth Services Committee, trying to make sure Oak Park’s youth are set up for future success in their adult lives.
“I’ve always been fortunate to be in places where older people were helping younger people,” Bailey told Wednesday Journal. “Sometimes it’s just a smile or a just a little compliment to reinforce productive behavior; you never know who you’re going to touch.”
Looking out for kids has been Bailey’s priority. He even met his wife while she was working at a youth center in Chicago’s Old Town neighborhood. When the couple moved to Oak Park to raise their children, Bailey began a mentoring program for young Black men out of his living room with four other men, after noticing the substantial achievement gap between Black and white students.
“We all felt it was important to find and help build resources where these young men could create positive relationships, moving through their lives in the public schools,” he said.
Bailey worked with teachers to understand how to relate to and communicate with the boys they mentored. Some teachers viewed the rambunctious behavior exhibited by their male Black students on the playground as bullying, but Bailey knew they were just looking for an outlet to express themselves.
“A lot of those young people didn’t have anywhere to go to expend that energy,” he said, “which contrasts with white kids who had a lot of places they could go to participate in organized activities.”
A year or so after the mentoring program started, Bailey was encouraged to join the township’s Youth Services Committee by John Williams, then the youth services director. Throughout their years working together, Williams and Bailey not only forged a close friendship but implemented many programs to enhance the lives of all of Oak Park’s youth, particularly African Americans.
“I’ve seen many iterations of services there,” he recalled.
After Williams retired in 2019, Bailey stuck around and has become an indefatigable source of knowledge for Williams’ successor, Megan Traficano.
“I would have been lost this first year without George,” said Traficano. “He’s taught me so much.”
She believes that kids relate to Bailey because he can connect with them on multiple levels, using his skills as a musician, educator and artist to communicate with them and help them communicate in return.
“Sometimes kids are very in tune; they pick up really quickly on people,” said Traficano. “With George, they know he’s going to listen, he’s going to let them finish their thoughts, he’s going to be respectful and he’s also going to be honest with them.”
While Bailey enjoys working with all ages, he has a particular favorite group.
“Fifth-graders are the bomb,” he said.
They’ve given something special back to Bailey, teaching him not be so hard on himself. He believes a lot of people could benefit from spending time with young people, who will grow up and become active members of society.
“I learned a community is a lot more fruitful and productive when issues of youth are addressed.”