CHICAGO — A Chatham man is selling gear that reps Chicago's neighborhoods to help fund tours of the city for South Side teens.
Jahmal Cole, 32, leads 10-15 teens in exploring different parts of the city, introducing them to new cultures and sights, once a month. He started the group, called My Block, My Hood, My City, after speaking with teens at Cook County Jail and hearing them talk about their experiences in Chicago.
"They told me they had never been in downtown Chicago," Cole said, noting that it seemed "odd" that the teens hadn't been able to explore the city. "I knew immediately that I wanted to create a program where I could take teenagers from under-resourced communities" on field trips.
"The future of Chicago cannot be determined by a few, select, wealthy communities," he said. "There has to be access to opportunities in all communities."
The teens particularly appreciated a trip to Greek Town where they met the owner of a restaurant and heard people speak Greek. They also went to the National Hellenic Museum and critiqued the historical "street art" on display there, Cole said.
"A lot of them didn't even know where Greek Town was," Cole said, jokingly adding, "The only Greeks they know is the guy from Aldi's."
Tyler Simpson, 17, of Woodlawn, learned of Cole's work through his barber and has now been on seven trips, including journeys to Greek Town and Bucktown. He's also tried to recruit friends for the trips, he said.
"I've only been out of town maybe once," he said. "[The trips] changed my whole way of thinking."
"It made me more adventurous. I want to go see how other places are and how other places look."
Other teens have gained internships after meeting with businesses on the tours or have decided on attending out-of-state schools because they learned the importance of travel, Cole said.
And the gear that funds the trip has been a hit, with people as far away as Sri Lanka buying it, Cole said. The merchandise bears the name of the organization, My Block, My Hood, My City, along with stars and colors like those found on Chicago's flag.
"Someone was wearing a shirt on top of a mountain in Switzerland," Cole said.
The shirts cost $40 and hoodies cost $65 and are available online. The profits go to covering the cost of trips for teens, who explore for free but need funds for Ventra passes, lunch and other amenities.
People from as far away as Panama are now reaching out to Cole, asking him to help them implement tours in their cities or to give them tours. He said he wants to expand the program to other cities by creating brand ambassadors.
"My Block, My Hood, My City can work in any city," Cole said. "Anywhere there's an under-resourced community."
Chicago medical students asked him to take them on tours of the South Side so they could see the area where "a lot of their patient population comes from," Cole said.
"Now they have a better understanding of the struggles and joys of the community," he said.
Organizations that want to get involved, either by sponsoring explorers, donating, opening their offices to tours or requesting a tour, can contact the organization online.
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