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Celebrating Black History Month with My Block My Hood My City: Part One - Jahmal Cole

Every day, leaders across Chicago are doing exemplary things to leave a lasting positive impact on our city and its many neighborhoods.

To celebrate Black History Month, we are honored to uplift an inspirational Black leader in Chicago, Jahmal Cole, and the meaningful work of the nonprofit he founded, My Block My Hood My City. This incredible partner organization creates change in under-resourced communities, initiates opportunities for Chicago youth and builds a better tomorrow for all.

As the start of a three-part story series this month, read on to hear from Jahmal about My Block My Hood My City’s mission, impact and future.

A group of young people wearing matching tshirts.

Photo by: © Leon Peatry

Shedd: What is My Block My Hood My City and how did it get its start?

Jahmal: When I graduated from college, I started volunteering at Cook County Jail. I realized that most of the inmates had never been to downtown Chicago, waved for a taxi or seen Lake Michigan. Their worldview was shaped by the infrastructure of where they lived, often in under-resourced neighborhoods in the city. They would say “my block is this …” or “my hood is that …” but never, “my city.”

I wanted to create a program all about changing perspectives. I started selling hoodies to raise money to take kids on educational field trips to expand their worldview and expose them to opportunities and jobs they never knew existed. I visited barbershops in those neighborhoods to meet families and listen to their needs. I made a Kickstarter in 2013 that raised $10,000 for the cause, and that’s when My Block My Hood My City came to life.

Shedd: What inspired My Block My Hood My City’s mission?: “To inspire youth, empower communities, and build a better world one block at a time.”

Jahmal: We create rapid responses to whatever is going on in the community to take care of people. We offer senior services like food delivery to seniors in need and snow removal for seniors, residents with disabilities, areas with vacant homes/lots, under-resourced schools, and more. We have a Block Club Program to support leaders of new block clubs and create signs, make community benches, garbage bins and little pantries as well as help to clean streets, alleys and abandoned homes. We also host events like Be A Part of the Light to decorate the historic Martin Luther King Jr. Drive with holiday décor. At the core, we take care of people no matter what.

Shedd: How is My Block My Hood My City fulfilling its mission?

Jahmal: Our first program, called the Explorers Program, started out of what I saw at the jail. If a neighborhood has 10 currency exchange businesses but no bank, we take students to a bank to learn about the jobs available there. If kids love to make ramen noodles at home, we take them to restaurants to meet chefs and see the business behind running a restaurant.

Kids want to be rappers and basketball players because that’s all they know. But we can visit the corporate offices of Gatorade and Nike so they can learn about consumer dynamics or building a brand. We work with 150 students a month from 15 different schools in Chicago, which are primarily alternative schools. We also offer the “I Gotchu” Scholarship to support our Explorer alumni after high school, and host youth-led community walks.

A crowd of students walk down a Chicago street wearing matching tshirts.

Photo by: © Leon Peatry

Shedd: What does it mean to you to be a black leader in Chicago?

Jahmal: It means everything. It’s why I wake up in the morning. People don’t see how injustice is being sustained. When I once drove through the cotton fields in the south, it created a visceral reaction in me to apply for better grants and do more for the communities we serve. It drives me to do the work that I do.

Shedd: How do you feel that My Block My Hood My City is fulfilling a need in Chicago that was going unrecognized?

Jahmal: I like to think of us as the Red Cross for neighborhoods. Gun violence, poverty and segregation is not understood well in our city. We need thousands of organizations like My Block My Hood My City to inspire people to do simple acts of good on their blocks to make a difference. Everyone can be an activist.

Shedd: Why is M3’s relationship with Shedd Aquarium important to you as a community leader?

Jahmal: A group of our Explorers visited Shedd last year and had the chance to learn about coral reefs with a Shedd scientist. The fact that we can take kids to Shedd Aquarium is lifechanging. The kids have ownership of the visit, even the trip there. When these kids see Lake Michigan for the first time, some of them say “what ocean is this?” To go to Shedd and see aquatic animals they have never seen before, you never know who you’re inspiring. It’s truly transformative.

A group of young adults stand in a Chicago lot wearing matching tshirts.

Photo by: © Leon Peatry

Shedd: What are you most excited for in the future for yourself and My Block My Hood My City?

Jahmal: I’m excited about expanding for more schools in the city. Right now, we have 20 schools on our waiting list to be included in our youth programs. By 2025 no teen should say they have never been to the top of the Willis Tower, seen the lake, gone downtown or visited Shedd.

Shedd: Anything that you want people to know about you or My Block My Hood My City?

Jahmal: If you want to make a change in your neighborhood, start with simple things; that’s how you develop the muscle to take on bigger projects. Talk to your neighbors, start a block club. You don’t have to have a degree to make a difference.

Shedd: How can people support My Block My Hood My City?

Jahmal: We are hosting our first annual Hoodie Ball on February 24! Wear a hoodie that shows off the city, college, sports team, workplace, nonprofit, identity etc. that represents you, and the cause and communities that you identify with. Tickets are $60 and all the proceeds go back into funding our programs. Go to formyblock.org for more information about how to support us.