The idea behind My Block, My Hood, My City, Jahmal Cole’s fast-growing civic education nonprofit, is almost ridiculously simple: Take teenagers from underresourced Chicago schools on monthly field trips to explore the city. Based on empirical evidence that education-based travel can spark students’ curiosity, ambition, and later success, the treks are centered on activities that get kids out of their comfort zone: cooking, sailing, touring an art museum, and so on.
Five years in, with eight schools enrolled in the program, Cole is now seeing some of its earliest participants off to college — literally: He drove eight of them to campuses as far away as South Carolina this fall to make sure they didn’t miss the first day of class. He’s also setting kids’ sights on more-distant horizons: The group is preparing for a trip to Ghana next summer.
Cole — who worked as a software administrator before starting the organization, and who endured bouts of homelessness growing up on the North Side — hatched the notion of urban field trips while he was volunteering as a mentor at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center. Talking to young inmates serving sentences for serious crimes, he realized that many of them had rarely, if ever, traveled outside their neighborhoods before being arrested.
My Block, My Hood, My City is now branching out to civic missions beyond the school system. In February, a single tweet from Cole brought out 120 people to shovel snow for the elderly in Chatham. More recently, he has rallied volunteers to clean up neighborhoods. He says his overall goal is to erase Chicago’s invisible boundaries: “I want to see a more interconnected city.”
Cole brings a relentless, childlike positivity to his work. At a recent community cleanup event on the South Side, he earnestly recited a pledge from his preschool graduation about helping one’s neighbor. Then he made a crack about the free-for-all mayoral race: “We don’t need a new mayor to clean up an alleyway or mow a lawn!” The crowd’s reaction suggested that they were more than happy with the prospect of a new mayor. And who knows? Some years from now, they may realize they’d been looking at one.