As far as Jahmal Cole, founder and head of My Block, My Hood, My City is concerned, there is no better way to celebrate Martin Luther King Day than to encourage everyone to do their part to push back against what the acclaimed civil rights leader came to Chicago to fight — residential segregation.
For the past few years, Cole has been using his nonprofit to take teenagers to neighborhoods they wouldn’t otherwise set foot in, with hopes of shattering their preconceptions and inspiring them to see new opportunities.
Last weekend, he launched what he hopes is the first annual MLK Day Challenge. The challenge encouraged everyone to use the Martin Luther King Day weekend to go to neighborhoods they wouldn’t normally visit, and check out local landmarks and businesses, and share insights about them on social media.
Cole said that he hoped that the event would help break down barriers and encourage Chicagoans to see that they have more in common with each other than they think.
As My Block, My Hood, My City website explains, the organization believes that kids ages 12 to 18 can benefit from stepping outside their communities. They get a chance to see businesses, landmarks and institutions they would otherwise never see and talk to people they would have otherwise never met.
The experience, Cole said, expands their worldview, shatters negative preconceptions and lets them imagine the possibilities that otherwise wouldn’t have occurred to them. The nonprofit places particular focus on teens from communities that don’t have many resources.
“These teens have not ventured outside of their immediate surroundings, both literally and figuratively,” the website stated. “They have not traveled outside of their block; have not dreamed beyond their neighborhood. They haven’t been afforded the opportunity to dream bigger than their immediate environment, and therefore, their future aspirations and goals are similarly limited.”
To address this, My Block, My Hood, My City has been organizing monthly tours that take teens to destinations all over Chicago. The idea wasn’t just to show different places, but to show that all those places are in the same city. The organization teamed up with several other nonprofits, including By the Hand Club for Kids, which has a location in Austin.
The MLK Day Challenge was an outgrowth of the organization’s mission. Cole said that he’s been thinking about doing something like this for the past few years, but the execution didn’t happen until this year.
“Since Martin Luther King Jr., was about things being integrated, being interconnected, it made sense to do things on this day,” he said.
Cole put together a list of destinations in Chatham, where he lives, as well as North Lawndale, Bronzeville, Humboldt Park, Hyde Park, Pilsen, South Shore, Washington Park and West Ridge. He said he wanted to have a mix of neighborhoods from different parts of the city. He chose West Ridge, the only North Side neighborhood on the list, because its Devon Avenue commercial strip is the center of Chicago’s Indian-American community.
“We can’t afford to go to India, but we can afford to go to Devon Avenue,” he said. “When you go there, you think it’s in another county. It’s close, but people think it’s far away.”
In every neighborhood, he recommended cultural destinations and businesses that he knew for sure would be open on Martin Luther King Day. In North Lawndale, he chose Douglas Park, the Firehouse Community Arts Center and El Gran Burrito. To participate in the challenge, residents had to go to any of the locations at any point between Jan. 13 and Jan.15 and post about the experience on social media with the hashtag #MLKDayChallege.