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Chicago Teens To Help Google Make Virtual Expeditions Of City Neighborhoods

By Stephanie Lulay | June 1, 2017 2:45pm | Updated on June 6, 2017 11:44am
 My Block, My Hood, My City founder Jahmal Cole speaks at Google Chicago headquarters this week in the West Loop.
My Block, My Hood, My City founder Jahmal Cole speaks at Google Chicago headquarters this week in the West Loop.
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DNAinfo/Stephanie Lulay

WEST LOOP — Tech giant Google is partnering with Chicago non-profit My Block, My Hood, My City to show Chicago's neighborhoods to the world through virtual reality. 

Under the new partnership announced this week, My Block, My Hood, My City will help Google enhance their Google Expeditions programming in Chicago, working alongside Google staff to build virtual reality expeditions of Chicago's neighborhoods, said MBMHMC founder Jahmal Cole. In addition to providing tech mentorship to the teens, the experience will help give the world a view of Chicago many have probably never seen or experienced. 

Google is also donating 50 Google Expeditions virtual reality kits, a virtual-reality teaching tool, to the My Block students so they can explore locations all over the world —  including a walk on the Great Wall of China, treks to outer space and swimming in the ocean with sharks, a Google spokeswoman said. To date, there are about 500 expeditions available and more are in development. 

The partnership is mutually beneficial, Cole said — My Block, My Hood, My City teens get exposed to the latest technology and mentorship, while Google will bolster their virtual reality stock of Chicago with help from the kids who live on those blocks. 

"Instead of [virtual reality] images of sharks, we want to create VR images of 79th and Cottage Grove or Roosevelt and California," Cole said of the South and West Side neighborhoods. 

Showing city's blocks as they are could give people across the world a new understanding of what Chicago is beyond the violence that makes national news. At the heart of it, Chicago is a city of neighborhoods, filled with people from all different nations, Cole said. 

"Chicago reflects who we are. ... If we can Google our blocks, and show, 'What is the hidden gem in Chatham? It's Capt. Hard Times.' Where are the parks, the community organizations ... that's what makes up Chatham," Cole said. 

The hope, Cole said, is that the partnership will give Chicago's underprivileged teens "a pipeline to Google" and access to internships at the top tech firm. 

Google Expeditions will soon include more realistic depictions of the city's neighborhoods through a partnership with My Block, My Hood, My City. [Google]

Robert Bierderman, Google Chicago spokesman, said My Block, My Hood, My City is "an amazing organization with a powerful mission." 

"We're thrilled to be partnering with them and can't wait to see how Google Expeditions helps inspires these young people to explore new communities, cultures and cuisines," Bierderman said. 

My Block, My Hood, My City takes teens from under-resourced areas on trips to explore different neighborhoods in the city, introducing them to new cultures and sights once a month. Among other trips, Cole’s group has taken teens from Englewood to explore Wicker Park, teens from Humboldt Park to explore Edgewater and teens from North Lawndale to explore Greektown.

In October 2016, Cole took 17 Chicago teens to Washington D.C. and in January, thanks to help from people all across the city who donated coveted tickets, he took a group of teens to President Barack Obama's historic farewell address.

Cole started the group after speaking with teens at Cook County Jail and hearing them talk about their experiences in Chicago. Many had never been outside of their violence-ridden neighborhoods, Cole said.

“I thought it was tragic they didn’t feel a part of something bigger than the outside of the few block radius in which they live. I knew immediately had to do something about it,” Cole said.

My Block, My Hood, My City also organizes cleanups and other volunteer events across the city. 

Home to more than 650 employees, Google Chicago's West Loop offices opened in the former Fulton Market Cold Storage building in December 2015. 

My Block, My Hood, My City founder Jahmal Cole and volunteer Louis Uhler at Google Chicago headquarters. [DNAinfo/Stephanie Lulay]

Pilsen man named 'My Block' Volunteer of the Year

In a surprise announcement, Pilsen resident Louis Uhler was honored as My Block, My Hood, My City's Volunteer of the Year this week at Google Chicago headquarters. 

A native of North Center who formerly lived in Logan Square, 28-year-old Uhler said he first got involved with the non-profit in November 2015. At the time, Uhler had been to every neighborhood in Chicago except Chatham — where Cole was hosting an event. 

Since then, he's participated in My Block volunteer events in Chatham, Pilsen and Uptown, among other neighborhoods, Uhler said. 

Growing up as a "white Jewish kid on the North Side," Uhler said that volunteering for My Block has helped him understand the culture of South and West Side neighborhoods and how the city's segregation affects us all. 

"It's just opened my eyes to so many areas," said Uhler, a vendor at Wrigley Field. "I've gotten a deeper love of my city ... a deeper appreciation for my whole city."