On a sunny day in February, a conference room at Hostelling International Chicago was filled wall to windows. As the Blue Line streaked past Jackson Street, coordinators in matching hoodies passed chairs overhead to fill the last few empty spaces in the room, seating a family from Pilsen, a teacher from Edgewater, and a student from North Lawndale. Out in the hallway, a few standing folks sipped their coffee and leaned into the room, waiting expectantly to learn how to become volunteers for My Block My Hood My City.
I was one of those volunteers. We began by taking turns introducing ourselves with our name and a community bragging right, with a few laughs for every Pilsen resident who reiterated, “no really, the best tacos.” As row after row recited a piece of their history, a thread of commonality became abundantly clear. So many of us mentioned the diversity in our neighborhoods – our streets peppered with worlds of food, the overlapping ethnic histories, and an intimate flux of arrivals and departures so characteristically Chicago.
Jahmal Cole, the founder of My Block My Hood My City, then opened the orientation by explaining that these neighborhoods we identify with – our hoods, our blocks – may be rich cultural representations of our lives in Chicago, but they have their limitations. Defining ourselves within these borders has alienated our 77 communities from one another, numbing us to the struggle of others not so far away. To unite the city, we must exercise empathy, as Jahmal put it, focusing on reaching outside of our comfort zones, both literally and emotionally.
This is what the organization aims to do. My Block My Hood My City uses exploration as a means of spreading this empathetic education, utilizing public events, youth programs, and volunteer days to promote social change. The organization is best known for it’s Youth Explorers Program, which takes teens, many of whom rarely leave their block, on chaperoned adventures into culturally rich nooks of the city. The program aims to help the youth become more comfortable leaving their neighborhoods, exposing them to thriving businesses, inspirational community leaders, and of course, some notorious local grub.
Jahmal works with a team of dedicated coordinators from all walks of life, who come from as far as Indiana to run the programs and organize monthly rallies. The coordinators each shared with us their background and focus - from chaperoning the explorers to creating digital media that humanizes the organization’s growing data. After hearing each coordinator explain their role, each of us reflected on our skills and joined interest groups catered to our potential involvement.
Within these group interviews, we had time to get to know one another. I met mothers, students, business owners, and veterans, people originally from New Orleans and Georgia and a few-miles-south-of-here. The wonderful thing was, with our smattering of upbringings and occupations, each of us was individually inspired to show up on a Saturday and get involved. I feel that the power in My Block My Hood My City is in the unwavering commitment to show up, to believe that even one person can be the catalyst to make change. If the fullness of the room that day was any testament to the truth of this mentality, then there are big changes ahead for our shared city of Chicago.
written by Lena Kazer