Jahmal Cole is a black male from North Chicago, Illinois. He had many challenges growing up, which drove him to attend Wayne State college in Nebraska. Cole gained more knowledge about how he could better his community. Here, he became passionate about service in under-served communities much like the one he group up in.
Cole realized he wanted to become an organizer post graduation and he figured, what better way than to become a part of the community he wanted to help. “In 2007, I moved to the Chatham neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago and immediately got involved. That first weekend I started volunteering with the Greater Chatham Alliance.” From this point, he set out to get involved with other predominately black communities such as Englewood.
“You cannot choose where you are from, but you can choose where you want to start out making a difference.”
Cole believes that Chicago is a very parochial city and the only way to change what outsiders believe about the city is by teaching Chicagoan’s how to live outside of their comfort zones. He envisions that by experiencing other cultures, unfamiliar foods and neighborhoods they would have a broader mindset about things they never knew existed. The ability to learn comes from exposure, something that he lives by when it comes to mentoring his explorers.
“We don’t say we are from Chicago, we say we are from the South Side, East Side, West Side and that mindset is limiting. What makes Chicago beautiful is the different ethnicities, almost like a mosquito in amber; they just stayed the same throughout history.”
For the Culture
“You go to Devon Avenue and it looks like you’re in India, Jefferson Park you can learn about Polish history. You go to Pilsen it looks like you’re in Mexico.”
Cole emphasizes the diversity that is in the surrounding areas of the hoods and blocks. At the same time, these are the things he explains are components that makeup the city as a whole. There is so much more to Chicago than the violence that is displayed on television and many of the other unproductive activities that are available just as in many other cities.
For these reasons he chose to call the young men and women he is mentoring, explorers. It is important to him to share the value of going on adventures and exploring the tastes of various foods.He wants the explorers to participate in various activities that are happening right in the backyards of many of their neighborhoods.
“There is a woman called ‘Englewood Barbie’ and she goes out to feed the homeless people every night. She doesn’t call them homeless people, she calls them friends and when she goes out she says she going to feed the friends. I wanted to have that same logic when it came to the relationship I have with the youth, because we were doing so much more than just going on traditional field trips. We go on explorations. We go to Pandora, or Doritos or Kit Kat and the explorers have advertising competitions. I think the power of travel is trans-formative.”
“Heritage plays a huge role in who we are and what we think is important. Like in Humboldt Park, the big flag is like a cultural structure of hope for the people.”
He describes these people as being proud of who they are, where they come from, and the hope for the future. He wants his explorers to be proud of something positive that is derived from their city too, which is why he decided to take them on frequent adventures.
How Cole Chose His Explorers
“I wanted to be in the most under-resourced communities, but how I chose the teenagers was the lowest performing schools. Currently there are seven level 3 schools in Chicago. They are ranked by the school quality ratings report. Level 3 is the lowest and at risk of closing. They don’t have any funding for programs and the kids normally have lower than an 80% attendance rate, low graduation rate, and low college enrollment rate.”
Cole saw these problems as becoming too persistent in the Chicago public school systems and wanted to try a different approach to change by giving the students opportunity. Opportunities that some children never even knew they had. He discussed the fact that he was poor and even homeless, much like some of the students he was mentoring, and he wanted to give them a piece of something he did not have growing up.
“My theory was that, if I exposed kids that go to those schools to different opportunities it will de-fibrillate them back into having hope for their future.”
He showed them a city of possibility that many could see from their neighborhoods. He focused on alternative schools, starting with Excel Academy of South Shore, Excel Academy of Englewood, and Excel Academy of Roseland. He no longer wanted the youth to just be looking at the elements that make up Chicago, but he wanted to expose the youth to them.
“I chose students that had never been downtown, waved for a taxi or been in one of those new elevators without the buttons.”
Cole recognized how insignificant hailing a taxi or going on a new elevator could be, however his goal was to make a point that something so routine for the well-served could ultimately become routine for the under-served.
“There was a book I read in the past. The author decided that he was going to start off by telling stories of the people first, and I found that interesting. I always said that when I write my book, ‘Exposure is Key,’ instead of making everything about me, I was going to give my teens a platform to tell their stories.”
Cole felt that so many people have heard his story and what he was about, however, not enough people are able to really capture what his work is doing for his explorers without being able to hear their perspectives. He found it essential to give them a voice that many of them never had within their communities, their schools or their daily lives.
Ultimately it was a different take on a traditional educational novel, it provided background for why Cole chooses particular locations for many of their adventures.
“Why I do the work is more important than me. I think I get more out of it than the teenagers do.”
“I am learning how to be a better mentor and they inspire me everyday.” Just as his explorers’ stories inspire him, he wants their stories to inspire their readers too.
To Be or Not to Be the Token Kid
“I feel like I am never out because I am still in. I choose to be in the community.” Although Cole chooses to remain in the community, he will not allow himself to be the spokesperson for the black community. Everyone experiences the world differently regardless if their skin color is the same.
He spoke about, “not taking that class” where he is viewed as the token kid. By this he means choosing not to be a part of a group of individuals who would view him in that manner. He does not want that type of attention for himself and the explorers because he does not want pity, he wants support. The opinions of those that do not see his vision matters, however, the work he does is for his explorers and his family.
What Makes a Destination Destined?
Taking teenagers from the hood to the top of the Sears Tower was something that had become routine for Cole. He worked in the building as a Microsoft engineer, so he said why not take advantage of something so historical. Taking the kids to the top of a city staple gave the youth the opportunity to literally gain a new perspective of the place they called home.
Having Giordano’s right across the street made the journey even more convenient as it is seen as another city staple. For many of the explorers, eating at Giordano’s was actually a part of an exploration for them, as they explored new tastes.
Considering the frequent visits to the Sears Tower and Giordano’s, Cole figured that if he told the businesses about the work he was doing for the community, they would be open to discounting the pricing for such large groups. He used this technique to reach out to even more businesses and let them know that he would like to come and learn more about their places of business.
“If you want to get in touch with big businesses, one of the ways how is to go on Linkedin and find the brand ambassador. If their email is not listed you have to play around with their name until you find it because it can only be so many things. If their name is Jahmal Cole and they work for Nike it could only be firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, you just have to crack the code.”
Cole used his Microsoft engineering skills to figure this code out and also suggests creating a presumé debuting the work of the organization within the community to share with the businesses.
“If you do more than people expect, you will gain their attention.”
If you do what you love to do, you just organically start to build relationships that are going to help. If you’re passionate about it, it does not matter what people say, people are going to feel that passion. That’s what they will remember about you.”
He is always asking businesses, if the next time he visits could he bring his explorers with him to experience something they have never experienced before.
The explorers have been to Facebook, had a virtual reality tour through Google, the Chicago Bulls and their locker-room, Target and their pharmacies, and Chiropractors sports medicine, to name a few adventures. “I want them to have options.”
What About College?
Cole helps the explorers get into college. They go on 10 explorations each year in high school. “My goal was to design these explorations in a way so that by the time they graduate high school, they would have visited 40 colleges and universities.”
“We are going to see our first cohort of students go to college this year.”
“The first college graduate we have right now is Noah, and he works for us as a program coordinator.”
The students are shown the many options they have for careers, in addition to the more community oriented work.
How to Change the Media’s Perspective
“Through video and through our explorers journals we are able to give people insight on these teenagers’ perspectives. They can see that they deserve the same opportunities as kids that aren’t suffering from the same institutional violence.”
What About Ghandi, Malcom X and Dr. King?
“I think I am the poorest most visible person in the city, but when I think about my hero’s Ghandi, Malcom X, and Dr. King, they all died for what they believe in.”
“When I think about it, anything that I have to sacrifice to give teenagers access to these opportunities and if that sacrifice is my life, so be it. I am willing to go through the fire and it’s helpful to know that my heroes paved the way. I am just carrying on the torch.”
“We want to expand to more schools and eventually more cities.”
Cole is trying to develop a new program at the Cook County Jail with warden Nneka Jones Tapia. The goal is to help teach inmates how to write letters home to their parents and loved ones because a lot of the inmates do not know how to construct letters.
“Additionally, I want to be a positive role model for the youth, gain their trust and change their perspectives on life.”
“Your life is guided by your viewpoints, if you say man, the city’s messed up, the weather’s messed up, the police are messed up and their not going to go to college and some people are going to say man, the city’s messed up, the weather is messed up and the police are messed up and they are not going to go to college.”
Cole uses the method of storytelling to help the youth make meaningful and wise decisions in their lives, especially for youth like those in the North Lawndale neighborhood that have it a lot tougher than other youth in other neighborhoods across the Chicago-land area.
“It’s not what happens, it’s what you do about it.”
“My goal is to make meaningful deposits in these children’s lives.”
Written by Alexandria Martin
Edited by Jeanette Smith
Interviewed: Jahmal Cole; November 10,2017
Featured and top Image Courtesy of Staff Photographer Devin Jackson