CHICAGO (NewsNation Now) — One of the fastest-growing social impact organizations in Chicago started in 2014 as the vision of one man who created field trips for disenfranchised youth to neighborhoods and businesses that seemed out of reach.
Jahmal Cole, the founder and CEO of My Block, My Hood, My City, grew up in a Chicago suburb, overcoming intermittent homelessness to graduate college and eventually snag a corporate gig in a trading firm.
While Cole was experiencing success in the finance world, he couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that many teenagers would never know these sectors of Chicago life were a possibility let alone accessible. Working with youth as a volunteer at the county jail only confirmed Cole’s theory.
“Working with a lot of teenagers at Cook County Jail, the teenagers had never been downtown, they had never seen Lake Michigan, they had never waved for a taxi, you know their whole world view was shaped by the infrastructure of their neighborhood,” said Cole. “So if there are 15 currency exchanges in your neighborhood and no banks and you ask a kid, ‘What’s a job at a bank?’ They’ll answer, ‘I’ve never been to one.’ So originally I just wanted to take teenagers on education field trips and expose them to different cultures, professions and cuisines and volunteer in different places.”
So Cole began giving tours of his office and creating field trips to other businesses, which led to providing technical training and laptops to support neighborhood block clubs. Eventually, it became an all-consuming full-time mission to help struggling youth through exposure and education.
The organization Cole started in 2014 with his own money, now has a staff of 17 and a $2 million budget, including a scholarship fund. He’s been an invited speaker at schools as well as a requested presence at press conferences by city lawmakers.
My Block, My Hood, My City boasts a network of year-round volunteer initiatives providing services that run the gamut depending on the crisis.
“We’re like the Red Cross for the neighborhood. Our mission is to take care of people no matter what. If it’s a snow storm you’ll see us out there shoveling snow for seniors. If it’s a heatwave we’ll deliver water and fans to seniors,” said Cole.
“Throughout the pandemic, we’ve served over 12,000 seniors in eight different states with PPE, food, connecting them to primary health care physicians, contact tracing and stuff like that,” said Cole describing the group’s agility and ability to pivot. “And when businesses were looted throughout the summer, we raised over a million dollars for small businesses that needed help painting or glass repair. If a meteor hit Chicago tomorrow we’d be out there picking up meteor dust.”
There are also acts of service that address not just palpable, physical needs but those uplifting the spirit. A popular event with hundreds of volunteers involves decorating a mileslong stretch of Martin Luther King Drive on the South Side of Chicago with holiday lights and cheer.
Cole has plenty of accolades, including the 2020 American Red Cross Community Impact Hero Award, but he’s after a more lasting legacy. Inspired by heroes like Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Fred Hampton, and Stokely Carmichael— Cole has always known he’s wanted to be a leader.
“They sacrificed themselves for the greater good, that’s what I want to do,” said Cole.
Cole has come a long way from being a self-publisher of his motivational books he used to sell in front of a downtown Chicago Foot Locker. His mission for a more interconnected Chicago on the pillars of service and education has a message for everyone that has created a ripple effect of inspiration.
“We’re connected by values, I don’t care what color, gender, religion, opinion, ethnicity, occupation, whatever, we’ll come together to shovel this snow. …Instead of making excuses, what’s something simple you can do to make a difference on your block,” Cole asks.
For more information on Cole and the organization My Block, My Hood, My City check out their website. Cole is also subject of an upcoming documentary, “A Tiny Ripple of Hope.”