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Event Recap | Emerging Leaders Series: A conversation with Jahmal Cole on Social Justice | 08.19.20

On August 19, HC3 welcomed Jamhal Cole, Founder and CEO of My Block My Hood My City as the featured speaker in its Emerging Leaders Series. A champion of social justice, Jahmal addressed the disparities that Chicago’s youth in the south and west side communities face, the importance of exposure to different opportunities for youth in under resourced communities, and how volunteering can serve as a bridge for historically segregated parts of the city.

Sponsor Remarks

Mo’Sha Myles, Social Work Program Manager and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer, Oak Street Health

Keynote Speaker

Jahmal Cole, Founder and CEO, My Block My Hood My City


Meghan Phillipp, Executive Director, HC3

Watch the Recap | Link to YouTube


Mo’Sha Myles, Social Work Program Manager and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer, Oak Street Health

“Our [Oak Street Health’s] mission is to rebuild health care as it should be.”

Since Oak Street Health’s founding five years ago, the organization has focused on building a primary care delivery platform that directly addresses two of the most pressing challenges facing the U.S. health care industry: rising costs and poor outcomes. Oak Street Health primarily focus on older adults, but recognizes the important need to address disparities at a younger age.

“Our organization [Oak Street Health] is really proud to employ a group of people where diversity and inclusion are accepted, and equitable services are provided to all patients that we serve.”

Jahmal Cole, Founder and CEO of My Block My Hood My City

Jahmal shared his personal story about attending an alternative high school, not getting into the first college of his choice, and his dream of becoming an NBA star. As a student at Wayne State University in Nebraska, he struggled to adjust to college and life in a less-than accepting part of the country. He pointed out that for disadvantaged youth who make it to college, there are so many barriers to their success or experiences that can make it harder for them to perform like other students.

During college, he learned an important lesson from his basketball coach: “the highest level of maturity is taking full responsibility for your actions.” This motto and his coach’s guidance paved the way for him to do better in school and take control of his future. Recognizing that not everyone has the same opportunity, he sought to make a difference.

“You don’t have to have a master’s degree to make a difference. You don’t have to have a law degree to learn how to listen. You just have to have a heart full of passion and a soul generated by love, and you can make a difference in Chicago and on your block.”

Jahmal founded My Block My Hood My City (MBMHMC) about five years ago. The organization is built upon the community’s involvement and volunteerism to improve our city one block at a time. His philosophy is:

“What is something simple that I can do that will have a positive impact on my block?”

One of MBMHMC’s primary activities is to take kids from neglected parts of Chicagoland and expose them to different neighborhoods, cultures, cuisines and more. His goal is to ensure that in in the next five years there are no kids or teens in Chicago that can say they have never been to the loop/downtown.

Q&A with Executive Director of HC3, Meghan Phillipp

(Note: answers have been edited and summarized for print)

Meghan (M): What was your ‘aha’ moment to create MBMHMC?

Jahmal (J): I joined and volunteered with a lot of community groups, sacrificed personal time, and figured out that I didn’t know a lot. So, I had to listen and learn how things worked. I realized that people know what they need in their communities. I built a constant contact list to distribute a weekly email and started building organic relationships with people who were passionate about what they were doing.

M: What can we do through community outreach to close health equity gaps?

J: Growing up, people in my community used to go to the ER when they were sick rather than visit a primary physician. I believe leaders in health care need to go to the ERs to meet people where they’re at and educate them. Target health equity gaps in youth through programs like sex education, and even COVID-19 education. If you show kids better, they’ll do better.

M: How do you recommend private businesses or organization determine what organizations need our help? And what are pathways to connecting with those who work in the community?

J: So many people need help; do the research and make strong connections. We need to start valuing nonprofit organizations with real investments and really believe that we’re doing the work. If people from the top get paid to stop all the violence in Chicago, they would do it. They can’t do it because it has to be from the ground. You have to be able to meet kids where they’re at. You have to be able to talk to kids on the basketball court.

More organizations need to prioritize tactics like violence prevention. If people could pay to stop violence, then they would. You can’t. You have to start from the bottom.

M: What feels different about your response to the community this year, with the pandemic and racial tensions, etc.?

J: I almost lost everything I had trying to start this nonprofit, because I felt like it was what I had to do. Now, there is so much interest in it, but there is a clear lack of preparation. I have to learn how to better communicate with people because there is an opportunity here for some systemic change. I want people to realize what they want to improve and stick around long enough to see the impact of their investment.

M: How do we keep people engaged in the mission after this ‘moment’?

J: Success is what you attract, not what you pursue. It’s about communicating your impact better and having the tools to communicate them with stakeholders. It’s a journey. I think about how I can hire the next manager; how can I show the impacts of traveling by measuring variables that are different than are typically measured, or how can I study success differently. I want to measure success by how this program is building trust, generosity, confidence, and belonging.

M: Do you have recommendations for young leaders and who have a passion to make change? How do you inspire that next “you” to start something new?

J: I know what’s like to be scared, and I know what it’s like to jump, so I want to encourage people to jump. Young adults have great ideas, it’s really about jumping in and trusting that you don’t have to have all the answers right away. Find people who are passionate about what they do. Recognize that your passion is your power.

M: Do you think there are current leaders paving the way?

J: I appreciate Kamala Harris took a stand for what she believes in. I believe democracy starts from the block level. I am also inspired by Barack Obama who had a strong influence on me doing the work I am doing today.

M: Do you work with any local or state officials on policymaking or influencing those types of changes?

J: All of them. I personally believe, Ideas are a powerful weapons and tools that can change the world. Policies are cool, but ideas are better. Policies work but they quarantine resources in certain parts of Chicago and leave others divested. The problem is that bureaucracy is so slow, but communities need immediate help.

M: How do we create meaningful opportunities that we can potentially measure overtime?

J: I want to measure certain things that they associate with boosted confidence or greater generosity.

M: How do you take what you’ve learned from your failures?

J: Failures happen often, but they are lessons. I got too caught up with in my work life that I neglected family time. I also fail at leadership, but leadership is like riding a bike; you have to keep falling publicly and get back up. And one of my biggest failures is not reading every day and staying informed. Set goals, write them down, and be specific with your goals, so you’re inclined to make them happen. The more specific you are, the better it will turn out. I don’t know how it works but it works.

M: Do you have any insights or opportunities that you and your team are thinking about in encouraging young adults to vote this November?

J: People need to volunteer more. Volunteering and voting should come hand in hand. I do think it is irresponsible for our government to have people voting in person, instead of finding a safer solution during the pandemic.

M: Are there mentorship programs for high school students?

A: MBMHMC does not have their own mentorship programs, but they do connect students with organizations that focus on mentorship.

M: What is your dream goal for your organization and yourself in the next five-to-ten years?

J: I see myself traveling more and speaking in different parts of the world to share my story. I want to get these programs across the globe, because exposure is key. Kids deserve exposure to different cultures and cities.

I hope to help people build up their own communities and connect youth in under-resourced communities with resources for success. He hopes to inspire people across the globe, as well as learn from others and teach youth about other cultures and cities because kids deserve exposure.

To volunteer, donate, and learn more about My Block My Hood My City visit www.ForMyBlock.Org.


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