Local Hyattsville author fills critical space in children’s media
BY TORRENCE BANKS
Yaba Baker’s neighborhood, Edgewood Terrace in Washington, D.C., was forever changed by the crack epidemic of the 1980s. Baker, president and CEO of Just Like Me Inc., said he watched his childhood stomping grounds turn into an environment infested with drugs and violence. Before the epidemic, Baker’s dad became hooked on heroin, leaving him without a consistent father figure until age 17.
Nine of Baker’s friends were murdered between when he was 14 and the start of his junior year as an engineering student at Hampton University. The accumulation of these tragedies left Baker in a daze; he suffered from PTSD, which went undiagnosed at the time. He tried to go to Hampton’s counseling center; however, the center was not equipped to help students with major trauma.
“So when I went to the counselor, she was like, ‘Well, you know, it’ll pass,’” Baker said. “She didn’t give me any techniques or tools or anything.”
Once a student with a photographic memory, Baker struggled to retain information. The students he tutored scored A’s on exams while he would fail them.
He ultimately decided to leave Hampton during his senior year in 1993 to start his own business with a $10,000 investment from one of his mom’s friends. He created a series of personalized books for children through his company DBW Enterprises, which is named after his grandmother’s initials. Baker moved away from creating those books in 1996, and later changed the name of the company to Just Like Me Inc. in 2003. Hyattsville became its main location about five years later.
Through books and animations published by Just Like Me Inc., Baker discusses the mental health challenges Black children may face and provides assistance to help them through it.
Baker said that children who read his stories can point to characters who are experiencing struggles similar to what they face. “So now you can talk about their issue, but not about them,” Baker said.
His most recent work, The Adventures of Super CJ, addresses children’s decision-making choices when they get angry. The main character, 12-year-old Cameron Justus (CJ), attains superpowers to fight evil. However, he loses them when he gets angry. Using the character as a focal point, Baker created a nationwide contest in May to help raise mental health awareness for third- through 12th-grade students. The deadline for the contest has been extended until the end of June.
Baker struggled with his own anger growing up, crediting his move from D.C. to Hampton, Va., to attend college as his “saving grace.” During his junior year, his friends noticed he was becoming suicidal. Baker recounted an incident when he got into an argument with another man that resulted in him threatening to shoot Baker.
“‘Go get your gun, ain’t nobody scared of the gun,’” Baker recalled saying. “‘I’ll wait for you.’”
The incident ended with no one getting hurt, but Baker’s girlfriend at the time was shocked and concerned about his behavior.
“‘Are you crazy? What is wrong with you?’” Baker recalled her asking. “‘She was like, ‘Do you think your mom is going to be okay with you dying here in college?’”
Not long after, Baker’s friends encouraged him to channel his pain and anger into something positive. At Hampton’s library, he started conducting more research on violence within the African American community. Baker discovered that the cause of it wasn’t about morality, but rather self-worth.
“Because, in order for me to kill you like that, I can’t think much of myself,” Baker said. “If I valued myself, I would see the value in you. So once I realized self-worth was the real issue, I thought ‘How can I create products that provide us self-worth?’”
Baker published his first book in a new series, Just Like Me: How African-American Inventions Changed America, in 1996, three years after leaving Hampton. Each page of the coloring book has information on different inventions created by African Americans. He followed this up with a similar book discussing African Americans’ contributions to early civilization.
Baker said the historical facts he chose to include in the book were intended to make the reader’s head turn. “So like the fact that the Washington Monument is an African monument: It makes people go, ‘Oh, shoot. I never thought about that,’” Baker said. (Obelisks like the Washington Monument were first built in ancient Egypt.)
After the release of his first book, Baker gave a speech in Southeast D.C. After he mentioned his background to the audience, a girl stood up and told Baker that three of her brothers had been killed in the last four years. Baker’s book showed her that she could make it through this difficult time.
“If I help you understand that you’re worth more when you’re going through something, then it makes me feel like my pain isn’t in vain,” Baker said.
In 1998, Baker started working at a network marketing company while also still creating content for Just Like Me Inc. While working at the company, Baker met his future business associate, Nathan Aferi, who currently serves as vice president of marketing for the company.
“He’s seen a lot, which has affected him mentally — But being able to overcome that and being able to share his journey,” Aferi said about Baker’s advocacy for children’s mental health, adding that Baker could teach children some of the same tools he has used after facing similar issues while growing up.
With seven books already out, Baker wants to continue to provide the same information that’s in his books to all kids through other media platforms, understanding that they don’t always receive their information through reading.
Around 2003, Baker started learning about animation and writing scripts, looking to move his company more into animation. During the early years of Just Like Me Inc., Baker’s wife, Asmeret Habteab-Baker, was instrumental in handling press for the company. She has also played a major role in producing “The Super CJ Animated Series,” scheduled to come out at the end of June on YouTube.