Jahmal Cole the Innovator of Chicago’s Youth


The Journey

Jahmal Cole is a black male from North Chicago, Ill. He had many challenges growing up which ultimately drove him to attend Wayne State College in Nebraska. There, Cole gained more knowledge to better his community. He also became more passionate about serving in under-served communities, much like the one he grew 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 sought 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 on, 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 is by teaching Chicagoan’s how to live outside of their comfort zones. By experiencing other cultures, different types of food, and outside neighborhoods they would gain a broader mindset and learn about things they never experienced. The ability to learn comes from exposure; something 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 found in surrounding areas of the hoods and blocks. At the same time, these are the things he explains are components that make up the city as a whole. There is so much more to Chicago than the violence that is displayed in the media and many of the other unproductive activities that are available, just as in many other cities.

For these reasons, he chooses to call the young men and women he mentors, explorers. It is important 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 their own backyards.

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 their hopes 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 exploring 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 percent attendance rate, low graduation rate, and low college enrollment rate.

Cole saw these problems becoming persistent in the Chicago public school system and wanted to try a different approach to change by giving the students more opportunities. These are resources that some young people never even knew they had. He discussed the fact that he was poor and even homeless, much like some of the students he mentors.  Cole’s hope is to give them 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 defibrillate them back into having hope for their future.

He shows them a city of possibility within their own neighborhoods. The focus is on alternative schools, starting with Excel Academy of South Shore, Excel Academy of Englewood, and Excel Academy of Roseland. He no longer wants the youth to just look at the elements that make up Chicago, but he wanted to them to explore them.

I chose students that had never been downtown, waved for a taxi or been in one of those new elevators without the buttons.

These things may be routine for the well-served, but emphasizes it could become a new normal for these young explorers.

The Design

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 would give my teens a platform to tell their stories.

Cole knows that many people have heard his story, however, not enough people are able to really capture what he is doing with and for his explorers, without being able to hear their perspectives. He found it essential to give them the voice many never had within their communities, schools, and daily lives.

Ultimately, it was a different take on a traditional educational model. It explains the reason Cole chooses particular locations for the adventures.

Why I do the work is more important than who I am. 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, Cole wants their stories to inspire readers.

To Be or Not to Be the Token Kid

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 of their skin color is the same.

I feel like I am never out because I am still in. I choose to be in the community.

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 as their spokesman. He does not want that type of attention for himself or the explorers because he is not seeking pity from anyone. Instead, Cole wants their support.

What Makes a Destination Destined?

Taking teenagers from the hood to the top of the Sears Tower has become routine for Cole. He worked in the building as a Microsoft engineer, so he decided to take advantage of something so historical. Taking the explorers to the top of a city staple gave them the opportunity to literally gain a new perspective on the place they call home.

Giordano’s is right across the street, which made the journey even more convenient as it is another city staple. For many of the explorers eating at Giordano’s was actually an adventure for them  It allowed them to explore new tastes.

Considering the frequent visits to the Sears Tower and Giordano’s, Cole thought the businesses would be open to giving him a discount for large groups if they understood the reason he introduced the explorers to the different venues.  The visits serve to enrich the community and the lives of today’s youth.  Cole enhanced his plan by connecting with more businesses.

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,,, you just have to crack the code.

Cole uses his Microsoft engineering skills to configure these codes and 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 he can bring along his explores on the next visit. These trips allow them to experience something new that may otherwise appear to be out of their reach.

The explorers have been to Facebook, experienced a virtual reality tour through Google, been to a Chicago Bulls game and visited their locker-room, Target, the company’s 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. During their high school years, they go on 10 explorations each year.

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 career options they have as well as varying 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 Gandhi, Malcolm X, and Dr. King?

I think I am the poorest most visible person in the city, but when I think about my hero’s Gandhi, Malcolm 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.

What’s Next?

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 teach inmates how to write letters home to their parents and loved ones.

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 explorers 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 others across the Chicago-land area.

It’s not what happens, it’s what you do about it.

Cole’s Vision

My goal is to make meaningful deposits in these children’s lives.

As a young man, Cole experienced a host of challenges with limited perspective.  In hopes of reducing those obstacles and broadening the outlook of his explores, he is working hard to leave an indelible imprint on the lives of today’s generation.

Written by Alexandria Martin


Interview: Jahmal Cole; November 10, 2017

Featured and Top Image Courtesy of Staff Photographer Devin Jackson

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