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Block by block, a community activist builds a better Chicago

Why We Wrote This

In African-American neighborhoods of the city’s South Side, Jahmal Cole works with young people and volunteers to improve lives and communities by changing the little things.

Richard Mertens
Jahmal Cole founded My Block My Hood My City to make life better on Chicago’s South Side in small but meaningful ways.

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People say Chicago is a city of neighborhoods. Jahmal Cole’s work begins at their humblest unit, the block.

“What could you make yourself do today that has a positive impact on your block?” Mr. Cole, founder of My Block My Hood My City (M3), asks his volunteers.

Lately Cole has turned his attention to block clubs. Block clubs have a long and distinguished history in Chicago’s African-American neighborhoods. Many formed during the Great Migration from the South and still have a strong presence, especially on the South Side. They foster community, bringing neighbors together for block parties, back-to-school fairs, and summer cookouts.

M3 grew out of Cole’s effort to connect young people with the world beyond their block. He discovered that few of them had ventured much outside their neighborhoods. He started what’s become a regular program of “explorations,” twice-a-week trips that take teenagers to different parts of the city, sometimes to learn about a business or profession, sometimes to visit an ethnic neighborhood and sample the food. 

And Cole and his small staff organize days when volunteers come from different parts of the city to clean up a block. They pick up trash, mow vacant lots, and trim overgrown trees and bushes. “If you show somebody better, they’ll do better,” Cole says.

In the weeks before Christmas, volunteers descended on Chicago’s South Side to decorate Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. Block by block, they strung lights, hung wreaths, and unspooled yards of ribbon. They festooned houses, trimmed fences, and wrapped light poles in garland. At Washington Park, boys clambered up a crab-apple tree to hang ornaments from its branches. A man on a stepladder looped solar-powered lights over plastic cups stuck into a chain-link fence to read “Respect Life.”

Decorating MLK Drive was Jahmal Cole’s idea. Mr. Cole is an author, motivational speaker, community activist, and founder of My Block My Hood My City, an organization devoted to finding small but meaningful ways to make life better in the poor and middle-class African-American neighborhoods of the South Side. When local block clubs asked for help putting up Christmas decorations, Cole figured he could decorate the whole drive.

“I thought, I’m going to do as much as I can,” he says. 

People say Chicago is a city of neighborhoods. Cole’s work begins at their humblest unit, the block. “What could you make yourself do today that has a positive impact on your block?” he asks volunteers assembled on a frosty December afternoon. “I believe you should start with the small things first.”

My Block My Hood My City – M3 for short – grew out of Cole’s effort to connect young people with the world beyond their block. He got the idea while volunteering with juvenile offenders at the Cook County jail. He discovered that few of them had ventured much outside their neighborhoods. They had never gone downtown. They had never swum in Lake Michigan. He started what’s become a regular program of “explorations,” twice-a-week trips that take teenagers to different parts of the city, sometimes to learn about a business or profession, sometimes to visit an ethnic neighborhood and sample the food. Recently, Cole took them ice-skating.

“If you show somebody better, they’ll do better,” he says. “If they don’t know no better, they’re not going to do better.”

Timothy Johnson, a high school junior, has gone on more explorations than he can count, riding into the city after school in Cole’s big white passenger van. “He’s like a father figure,” says Timothy, who has come to help decorate the drive. “We always talk to him if we have problems at home or school. He’s always asking how our day was. He’s always protecting us and showing so much love for us.”

Chicago’s block clubs

Lately Cole has turned his attention to block clubs. Block clubs have a long and distinguished history in Chicago’s African-American neighborhoods. Many formed during the Great Migration from the South as a way of introducing rural blacks to the norms and customs of city life. They still have a strong presence, especially on the South Side, where they work to keep their small corner of the city clean and safe. They also foster community, bringing neighbors together for block parties, back-to-school fairs, and summer cookouts. “They are the building blocks for community organization,” says Dick Simpson, a former alderman who is now a political scientist at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Cole wants to breathe new life into them. One way is by helping them replace their signs. Block club signs, mounted prominently on wooden posts at the end of streets, have traditionally laid down the law: “No Washing Cars,” “No Loitering,” “No Drugs,” “No Loud Music.” They have struck Cole as a little too negative.

“I thought, I’m going to quit saying no,” he says. “I’m going to say yes.”

The new signs accentuate the positive. Created by teenagers in a University of Chicago arts incubator, they’re less stern and more welcoming: “Love Our Neighbors,” “Where Residents Love Cleanliness,” “We Believe Everybody Is Somebody.”

“There’s a deficit of hope,” Cole says. “Our block club signs are a beacon of hope.”

Cole and his small staff at M3 also organize days when volunteers come from different parts of the city to clean up a block. They pick up trash, mow vacant lots, and trim overgrown trees and bushes. James Drake Sr., president of a block club on South Hermitage Avenue, was making repairs in front of his house last summer when Cole showed up with a crew. “He must have had 40 people,” Mr. Drake says. “What he’s doing is great.”

In a city with deep problems – violence, poverty, and racial inequalities – residents say sprucing up a block is important work. “It sends a message that you care about the block,” Drake says. “It also sends a message to the criminal element that ... maybe we need to go somewhere else to do our drug dealing or other criminal activity.” 

Cole himself grew up poor, most of the time living with his mother and two siblings in communities north of the city. For two years he was homeless with his father in Fort Worth, Texas, he says, sleeping in the back of trucks, on porches, and in “crack hotels.” 

“Poverty was a blessing for me,” he says. “I didn’t have a poverty of imagination. Once you sleep in a crack hotel and hear the drug addicts come up the steps at night, you don’t fear anything.” 

Cole attended an alternative high school, where he was not a model student. And yet he did what few of his friends did: go to college. On a whim, he enrolled in an unlikely school, Wayne State College in Nebraska.

He had two enthusiasms then: basketball and hip-hop. He recorded CDs and sold them in dorms and on the street. He tried out for the basketball team and made it, a walk-on at a college where most players had athletic scholarships. He was “a high-energy kind of guy,” says his coach, Rico Burkett. “He was a first-in-the-gym-last-out kind of guy.” 

Still, Cole’s potential was not primarily on the court, and Mr. Burkett urged him to focus his energies on school. “A lot of conversations with him were around raising his expectations,” Burkett says. These conversations, plus scholarship money to buy books, helped make Cole an A student. 

Back in Chicago, he stocked shelves at Target before getting a job as a network administrator for a computerized trading company. His old boss, William Hobert, is today head of M3’s board of directors.

“It’s an organization and it’s a person,” Mr. Hobert says. “We follow Jahmal. He’s got incredible insight and foresight and is somebody that people feel really good following.”

‘Jahmal is opening that door’

M3’s operations are financed by donations as well as sales of M3-branded clothing such as sweatshirts and caps. The organization is a reflection of Cole’s personality – intense, charismatic, undaunted. When he sees a need and calls for volunteers, they usually come. After a snowstorm last year, he asked for help clearing the sidewalks where older people live. More than 100 shovelers showed up. 

“I think it’s in people to want to help,” Hobert says. “But so many of us don’t know how or where to go and what to do. Jahmal is opening that door.”

Cole also writes books, which begin in personal history and end in uplift. He wrote his first, “Athletes and Emcees: A Motivational Story,” “to inspire kids who use athletics and rap as a way out of the ghetto,” he says.

Decorating MLK Drive went on over two weekends. The volunteers were a diverse collection of Chicagoans: black and white, young and old, North Siders and South Siders, well-off and poor.

“The goal is to get people from all different neighborhoods to come and interact with each other on a human level,” Cole says.

Dressed in bluejeans, a knit cap, and a jacket not quite thick enough for winter, he moved around restlessly, thanking volunteers and posing for pictures – acting part organizer and part celebrity. “Gold ribbon?” he said, rummaging in a plastic bin of ornaments and old Christmas lights. “We’ve got some ribbon here.”

It was the last day. The decorating was almost over. The volunteers were finishing up, leaving behind a sprinkling of color and light for many blocks up and down the drive. Meanwhile, Cole’s thoughts were already turning to new projects, new blocks that needed a hand.

“Some people in Chatham want us to do a cleanup,” he says. “That’s what we’re going to do next.”

• For more, visit formyblock.org.

Other groups with community initiatives

UniversalGiving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. All the projects below are vetted by UniversalGiving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause. 

i-Care Fund America, which has a focus on Pakistan, is a donor-advised fund, meaning participants can manage tax-deductible giving over time. Take action: Help buy clothes for children in low-income communities. 

Rural Communities Empowerment Center provides resources and services to improve levels of literacy in Ghana. Take action: Donate funds to build information and communication technology systems

Achungo Children’s Centre gives food, clothing, education, and medical aid to more than 200 orphans and other children in rural Kenya. Take action: Serve the needs of youths as a community health intern. 

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