Thank you to all the Chicagoans who purchased 3M gear this month. Some say it takes a village to raise a teenager, but I know it takes a city. In the Chicago I envision, we all will make a personal commitment to this effort. This week, we took 11 teenagers from Roseland and North Lawndale on an exploration of Wicker Park. While the media says I’m a role model and doing great things in Chicago, they don’t see me seeking donations. I bug people who have their own problems and obligations. My brand is a vessel that provides opportunities for disadvantaged youth; so when I’m embarrassed to ask people for money, I remember the impact the brand is having, and then I’m not nervous. Honestly, I don’t want people wearing My Block, My Hood, My City gear if they’re not vested in the mission.
Anyhow, I was able to take 15 teenagers to Wicker Park, four of whom canceled. We couldn’t afford a van, so six crammed into the back of my Jeep. A few of my friends offered to drive, as well. We’re all broke, but we still give back.
I named my program My Block, My Hood, My City because I volunteered at a jail and realized teenagers had never been downtown. I knew immediately that I wanted to start something to give teenagers opportunities outside of their blocks and hoods. In my exploration, I learned nobody had ever been to Wicker Park. It’s nowhere near North Lawndale or Roseland and might as well be in another country. As we drove down Damen, the city changed before their eyes. Because we were jam packed, it really forced us to get comfortable with each other, making jokes and talking about school. Some of the teenagers talked about how they don’t even go outside in the summer because of the murders, and how the first Friday of the school year is Freshman Friday, and teenagers will be beat up if they go to school. They also taught me so much about social media that I felt old. These guys had more shares and likes on their posts than mine. My Master’s Degree is in Internet Marketing, and these guys were teaching me how to improve my online presence. It was pretty amazing.
We jumped out in Wicker Park and walked toward Bucketfeet, while I took photos of the explorers. Marketing my program while also being a mentor is a weird balance. The teens really like the shirts, though. In fact, they want to create a marketing plan for the brand. That’s exciting, and I’m happy that they enjoy hanging with me. God’s given me the energy to put this together, so I’m walking in the path. I don’t feel I’m the best role model and don’t do this because I have all the answers. I do it because it makes me happy and gets other people thinking socially.
Let me tell you about my friend, Raaja Nemeni. This guy started a shoe company, Bucketfeet, with his friend, Aaron, and now he’s super successful. Raaja believed in the 3M program from the jump. When I reached out to him about speaking to the teens, he offered to give away shoes. Going from North Lawndale and Roseland to a plush shoe boutique in Wicker Park, the teens were like fish out of water and shy at first. Raaja’s demeanor was good, though. I didn’t anticipate his openness. I guess he realized, like I did early on, if you do this work, you really have to let go, be real and share. He was very open about the intricate details of his business. He probably told us too much of his business, but he wasn’t going to put on a front for the teenagers. He knows where they come from and told them that ultimately they have to believe in themselves and their purpose.
God blessed me to be introduced to Raaja, who graciously donated shoes to the explorers. They all picked out a pair of shoes and also took design paper home so they can potentially create their own shoes, too.
After we left Bucketfeet, we walked down the street to Santullo’s Eatery. We ordered four huge New York style pizzas. While waiting for the food, the teenagers talked about themselves, sharing their community, school, and something unique about them. One said he was a rapper; he was actually pretty good and had some good bars. Another was a comedian who told a few jokes. Santullo’s actually turned the music down and let us communicate with each other. That was pretty nice of them. They also gave us a discount. Shout out to Mike, the manager. It was good pizza, and we ate way more food than we should have.
We had one more stop planned, but didn’t get to it. I’ll keep it on the hush until next time.
You don’t realize the impact you’re making in the moment, but later hope you did something good. Robert Kennedy said that each time a man stands up for an ideal, acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he creates a small ripple. Combined, these ripples create waves that can knock down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance. I see my program as a small ripple, joined by the contributions of Chicagoans who buy t-shirts or donate. Thanks to Bucketfeet for giving the teenagers the shoes and Santullo’s Pizza for the discount.
Maybe you can’t run an explorers’ program or give away 11 pairs of shoes, but you can buy a t-shirt and feel proud that you gave a teenager an opportunity to explore a community they never visited before.