All it takes is a hoodie and a dream. Jahmal Cole wants to build a more-connected Chicago — and world — by taking kids beyond their block and bringing strangers together through service.
CHICAGO — Jahmal Cole wanted to be the next Travel Channel star when he started My Block, My Hood, My City. His plan was to tour neighborhoods across Chicago and do the usual TV thing, touring hidden gems and his favorite neighborhood spots.
"I was in a different place than I'm in now," Cole remembers. "I couldn't afford to go to China, but I could afford to Chinatown and be like 'yo, My Block, My Hood, My City, let's check it out!'"
He also volunteered with kids at Cook County Jail at the time, so when it came time to film he would often take formerly-incarcerated teens and kids from the neighborhood along as his video crew. As they visited neighborhoods across the city, he noticed many of the teens had never been beyond their own block, let alone downtown. As he saw the impact travel had on his crew, he says he discovered his work's real purpose: showing kids a wider world of possibilities.
"My role models growing up were dope boys because I never saw a college graduate until I was 18," Cole said. "My whole thing now is: how do I expand the worldview of kids and get them to be something different than a rapper or basketball player?”
So with My Block, My Hood, My City, Cole began to take kids from under-resourced communities to visit other neighborhoods in Chicago, often meeting with CEOs, marketers, engineers and other professionals along the way to give kids a sense of other possible life paths.
But they aren't the only ones who need to move beyond their neighborhoods, Cole said, pointing out Chicago's reputation as one of the most segregated cities in the country. Those divides have real consequences, especially for communities of color.
"When I say people have never been downtown that’s just not a cliché, but people have never been farther south than the White Sox stadium, some people from Hegewisch have never been to Lakeview," he said. "That's Chicago, it's a city of nations."
One way Cole is bringing these nations together is through service. This past Earth Day, Cole assembled dozens of volunteers at the Chicago Farmworks in East Garfield Park to plant and mulch crops in the community garden that will someday feed hundreds of people. And over the past three winters Cole has garnered headlines (and gone viral) by convincing strangers to turn out and shovel the sidewalks of the elderly and people in need. Like many movements today, it often starts on social media.
"Chicago, I need (10) volunteers to help me shovel for seniors tomorrow. I’m getting too many emails from elderly folks that need help," he posted to the My Block, My Hood, My City Facebook page this past February, after parts of the city were buried in over six inches of snow.
He did the same thing in 2016, and about a dozen people answered the call. This year, over one hundred (100) people showed up on the corner of Cornell and 79th on the South Side, making the trip from Rogers Park, Hegewisch and neighborhoods in-between, with shovels in hand. It's a simple thing, Cole said, but it left many neighbors speechless, and connected volunteers to places they'd never visited before.
"When you go there, the trick is you develop empathy for the people, and it’s transformative," he said.
As his work continues to grow in Chicago, Cole said he hopes to one day expand it beyond the city as well.
"I want to go to Detroit, and then I want to go to Milwaukee, and then I want to go to St. Louis, and Panama, and Harlem,” he said. "It's going to be
my block, my hood, my city, my world — my galaxy."