"It is easier to build a strong child than to repair a broken man." - Frederick Douglass

Jahmal Cole the Innovator of Chicago’s Youth


The Journey

Jahmal Cole, a black male from North Chicago, Illinois, faced many challenges growing up. He discussed the fact that he was poor and even homeless at times. But through it all, he ultimately attended Wayne State College in Nebraska. In college, he gained the needed knowledge and many ways to better underserved communities and became very passionate about serving in a community much like the one he grew up in.

Jahmal soon realized he wanted to become an organizer post-graduation and live in the community he sought to help. In 2017, Cole moved into the Chatham neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago where he immediately began volunteering with the Greater Chatham Alliance.

You cannot choose where you are from, but you can choose where you want to start out making a difference.

For him, that choice was to get involved with predominately black communities such as Englewood.

Cole believes that Chicago is a very parochial city and by teaching Chicagoan’s how to live outside their comfort zone is the key. By experiencing other cultures, different types of food, and outside neighborhoods, youth would gain a broader mindset by learning firsthand many things they had never before experienced.

“The ability to learn comes from exposure” he said, and it is the reason he refers to the young men and woman he mentors as explorers. Cole wants the explorers to experience various new activities and different foods in their own backyards. According to Cole, if you go to Devon Avenue it looks like you’re in India and by going to Jefferson Park you can learn about Polish history or to Pilsen which looks like you are in Mexico. Cole emphasizes the diversity found in the surrounding areas of the hoods and blocks and explains that all these components make up the city as a whole and that there is so much more to Chicago than the violence that is displayed in the media.

Cole tells a story of a woman named “Englewood Barbie,” who is known for feeding the homeless every night. Englewood Barbie doesn’t call them homeless, she calls them her friends. “I want to have that same logic when building relationships with the youth because we are doing so much more than going on traditional field trips, we go on explorations,” he said.

Cole believes the power of travel is transformative and has taken his teens on a variety of places such as, Pandora, Doritos, and Kit Kat where they have advertising competitions.

Cole describes his young explorers as being proud of who they are, where they come from, and their hopes for the future. He wants them to be proud of their Heritage that plays a huge role in who they are and what they deem important and is why he takes them on frequent adventures. He wants his explorers to be proud of something positive that is derived from their city too. Things like the big flag in Humboldt Park, that symbolizes a cultural structure of hope for the community.

How Cole Chooses His Explorers

Cole’s goal is to to be in the most under-resourced communities and choosing teenagers attending the lowest performing schools. Chicago schools are ranked by the school quality ratings report. Level 3 is the lowest rank and at risk of closing. Currently there are seven level 3 schools in Chicago that have little funding for good programs. These seven schools routinely have a lower than 80 percent attendance rate, low graduation rates, and a low rate of students that go on to college.

Cole has witnessed persistent problems in the Chicago public school system and wanted to try a different approach by providing more opportunities and resources that the students never experienced before. The focus is on alternative schools, starting with Excel Academy of South Shore, Excel Academy of Englewood, and Excel Academy of Roseland.

Cole hopes to give these kids something he did not have growing up. He shows them a city of possibility within their own neighborhoods. He no longer wants the youth to just look at the elements that make up Chicago, he wants them to explore them. Ultimately, it was a different take on a traditional educational model and explains the reasons Cole chooses particular locations for the adventures.

Cole chooses students that have never been downtown, waved for a taxi or been in one of those new elevators without the buttons. While these things are available and routine for the well-served, Cole is quick to emphasize they could become a new normal for these young explorers.

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 the historical land mark. 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. The infamous Giordano’s restaurant 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 another new adventure because It allowed them to explore new tastes.

Considering the frequent visits to the Sears Tower and Giordano’s, Cole thought the businesses would be receptive to offering a discount for large groups if they understood the reason he introduced the explorers to the different venues. He regularly asks 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 including their locker-room, Targets company pharmacy, and Chiropractors Sports Medicine, to name a few adventures.

Cole advises that “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, Cole plays around with their name until he figures it out. If their name is Jahmal Cole and they work for Nike it could only be jcole@nike.com, colej@nike.com, or j.cole@nike.com, or some variation of, you just have to crack the code, he said. Cole uses his Microsoft engineering skills to configure these codes and suggests creating a resumé, 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,” said Cole.

What About College?

Cole helps the explorers get into college and wants them to have options. During their high school years, they go on 10 explorations each year. The goal is to design these explorations so that by the time they graduate high school, they will have visited 40 different colleges and universities. “We are going to see our first cohort of students go to college this year.” he said, adding, “the first college graduate now works for us as a program coordinator.”

The students are shown many career options that are available as well as variety of community oriented work. Through video and through the explorers journals the program is 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. And 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.” Cole said.

What’s Next?

Cole wants to expand to more schools and eventually more cities. He is currently 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 to their parents and loved ones at home.

Additionally, Cole wants to continue to be a positive role model for the youth, gaining their trust and changing their perspectives on life.

Cole states that “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 they’re not going to go to college then 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 this 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,” he said, adding, “My goal is to make meaningful deposits in these children’s lives.”

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. “I feel like I am never out because I am still in. I choose to be in the community.” He went on to speak 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.

Cole describes a book he read where the author told the history of each person in the story first. Cole found that style of writing interesting. When writing his own book titled “Exposure is Key.” rather than focus on himself, he wants to give his teens a platform to tell their story.

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 the explorers without being able to hear their perspectives. He thinks it is essential to give them the voice many have never had within their communities, schools, and daily lives. Just as his explorers’ stories inspire him, Cole wants their stories to inspire readers.

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
Edited by Laurel Fee


Interview: Jahmal Cole; November 10, 2017

Featured and Top Image Courtesy of Staff Photographer Devin Jackson

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