🏙Snowstorms, shovels and hoodies – showing up, and forging community, one block at a time
Lessons from one community entrepreneur creating magical authentic spaces
In this week’s newsletter, we kick off a series where we learn from community entrepreneurs — ordinary people who are stepping up to the challenge of creating spaces for people to get into healthy relationships with one another. Our goal is to get a better understanding of the practices and skills necessary to build healthy communities as we explore building healthier digital public spaces and to share some inspiration along the way!
First up, Deepti interviews Jahmal Cole, founder of My Block, My Hood, My City on how he and his team are supporting residents of Chicago to work with one another. Deepti met Jahmal because of his innovative use of Facebook Groups to create communities that made a real world difference across the south and west side of Chicago – when the city erupted in violence after the murder of George Floyd, they were able to raise over $1 million in 48 hours and distribute these funds as quick grants to help local businesses get back on their feet.
The interview is long so if you prefer, you can watch this brief 2 min clip to get a sense of who he is and why his work and that of other community entrepreneurs matters.
Deepti: Jahmal, you have been a big part of my inspiration and observation of a growing trend of people like yourself taking responsibility to help their communities build real healthy relationships with one another. I would love to start by asking you to share what MBMHBC does and why you started it?
Jahmal: Well, we want to start conversations across our city to cultivate a deeper connection to the people within them so that everyone - and I mean everyone - has what they need to succeed. I definitely didn’t set out to start a non-profit organization. Coming up, I couldn't afford to do anything involving a non-profit. Even the word — non-profit — doesn’t inspire me or make me want to volunteer. But I was really influenced by watching movies like Malcolm X and listening to my Pops talk about Stokely Carmichael, Martin Luther King, Jr, and John F. Kennedy. After I graduated from college, I started volunteering at the jail, because that's what Malcolm X did. It was all very organic. I didn't know anything. But my struggles with life have led me on the path to doing better. That was the impetus – just wanting to do better and to be cool. I really wanted my dad to think I was cool like Malcolm, Martin, and JFK.
Deepti: Making community building work cool is exactly what you're doing with My Block, My Hood, My City - I'm curious to hear more about the initial problems that you were trying to solve before you found yourself becoming a non-profit.
Jahmal: My brain works really simply. I do the simple stuff first. So if it’s snowing, I am going to shovel snow and get others to help me. My neighborhood is 70% seniors, and when it snows in Chicago, the city is overwhelmed, and the seniors are stuck without anyone to shovel their snow. So I just started shoveling snow, and people saw me and started asking me to shovel. It was really organic. Next thing you know, I posted on Twitter, “meet me on 79th street on the Red Line; I’ll bring 10 shovels and 20 hoodies; come help me.” And 300 people showed up, and we’re on the Today show shoveling snow in Chatham. So, what started out as just doing things for the right reasons turns into a whole wave if you're just consistent with it. Consistency is key.
Deepti: So, why do you think in those beginning moments, before people even knew you, why do you think those 300 people showed up?
Jahmal: I think because I made it convenient by saying, “Hey, I'm gonna shovel snow, I'll bring the shovels, I'll bring the hoodies. Just meet me.” It was just a simple call to action that people could get behind. Everybody wants an on-ramp to community engagement. But a lot of people don't know how to get involved. They think you have to know someone on the President's Cabinet or be involved in City Council. One of the things I do is take the middleman out and say, meet me on the block, and let's do the work.
Deepti: That's interesting - in our Signals research, we learned that one of the most important features of a public space is that it's welcoming, and it seems like you do that really well. But being welcoming isn't enough: why do you think people keep showing up and continuing to volunteer?
Jahmal: I ask myself that all the time. I think the “why” is really important. I once asked one of our long-time volunteers, “Why do you come around so much?” Do you know what he said? His exact words, “I just like being around good shit.” People connect around their values. I think we just make it easy for them. If we show up, people show up. That's our motto at My Block, My Hood, My City. Show up. It's really that simple.
Another reason I think people keep coming back because Chicago is a very segregated city. But when people volunteer, it actually gets them to travel the city, come to a neighborhood they've never been to before, meet people they’ve never met before, and do something together. I think that's the simple beauty of it. It's like the military. It doesn't matter if you're Black, White, Asian, or whatever. If you volunteer, if you fight with somebody, if you work with somebody on a basketball team, you'll become brothers and sisters.
Deepti: That's the magic that I've seen you manifest in the spaces you create. You bring people from varied backgrounds together in a really beautiful way and unexpected relationships builds as a result. I know you have tons of these stories - can you share a few?
Jahmal: Actually, you are inspiring me to tell you about one particular moment.
I was doing a volunteer event on the south side of the community after a snowstorm, and some guys ran up on us with guns. All the volunteers were smart and ran, and I’m just standing there. One guy gets in front of me clutching his gun, and another gets behind me with another gun, and he says, “Yo, why are you in our neighborhood?” I told him the community invited us to shovel the snow in front of the food pantry. He says, “Yeah, but you're not supposed to be in my community without permission because I take care of all the people in this community. We’ve been walking kids to school for years, but the news never comes around and talks to us about it. So I hate people like you because you get all the credit, and we've been taking care of people for years.”
So as I just looked at him, I knew I would have to choose my words wisely. I don't know where my composure came from, and I said, “Oh man, well, let’s walk down the street and talk.” he just started talking, and I was able to listen and actually hear what he was saying. He was saying that “nobody sees me doing good in the community.” He was mad at me because I was getting all the attention for the work he’s been doing. He wanted to know how I was able to do it. And you know what? He now comes to volunteer with us and brings his own volunteers. It started by really seeing him and listening. People want to be seen, and they want to be appreciated.
[Editor’s note: If you were as taken by this story as we were, watch this clip to get a sense of Jahmal’s magic]
Deepti: You cannot overstate the impact of what you just shared. Stories like that inspired me so much when we met when I was working on Facebook Groups many years ago. Today, I am curious how you have been thinking about using digital tools to support your work and neighbors to get connected.
Jahmal: I think of it like a phone tree. If there are 15 houses on one side of the street and 16 on the other side of the street, that’s a Facebook group. We then make the banner for you for the Facebook group with your name on it and your Block Club name, show you how to use it, get you a laptop, and if you're the Block Club captain, show you how to connect with the people on your block. It takes support if we want people to use it - it doesn’t just happen. I wish there was some way to make that easier - how do we make people who have never been online or had a computer feel good - you said welcome earlier - when they enter; maybe you can help me figure that out.
The Block Club program is about “educating the world about the importance of democracy from the block level outward as opposed to the big city level inward.”
Deepti: Well, that’s why I came to New_ Public - I hope I can, too! Anything else you wish I would do?
Jahmal: Well, we also use digital tools and Facebook to organize monthly block club meetings where we create space for people to learn from each other, share their wisdom, and we bring in speakers from the community. We call it Block Wisdom. And it’s really like a block club leadership program. We empower them to help themselves. I wish I had a way to capture the stories that are shared in a way to bring more people to Block Clubs - there are so many deep stories shared, and there is so much offered to the community. We try our best to hack what we have, but there must be other ways to connect the resources in the community to one another.
Deepti: A similar need came out in our work with parents and caregivers around schools, so it is definitely something we are thinking about - any final advice you have for us?
Jahmal: People need to feel seen. My work is to make people feel seen and to feel important. People don't show up if they feel like a number - I try to do what I do in the real world when I am on FB or Twitter. Whatever you do, make sure people feel seen - then they can care. Actually, I am just getting to our team meeting now.
Deepti: What are ya’ll up to?
Jahmal: We’re planning this year’s Be a Part of the Light initiative, where we buy a tree and light up 500 homes for free around Christmas. It’s our third year, and we’ve learned we have to start planning even earlier and get the community more involved. Last year someone burned our tree down. And some people didn’t want the tree because they thought it encouraged loitering.
I get it. Why would I want you to light up my home if I don't feel valued on my block? Would I want you to light up a space if I don't feel valued in that space? So what I want to do is start knocking on doors earlier and getting the community engaged and talking about it so they can feel more of a part of it. You're not going to burn down a tree if you know that the high school is making the ornaments for the tree; you're not going to burn down a tree if you see Jahmal Cole knocking on doors and telling you not only are we going to light up the block, but we’re going to pay the light bill for you for two months.
It’s a lot bigger than hanging lights, it’s about interrupting trauma on King Drive
There's a lot of shootings and helicopter lights. There's police car lights but no holiday lights. And so how can I make sure that when I get these people's homes lit up, and when we send them presents, they know they're from black-owned businesses or small businesses in the area, and the ornaments are from the community? The only way to do that is to get my team out here early enough to help people feel part of the process. We're gonna continue to put the tree back up; we’re going to keep talking to the neighbors. These are all important things to talk about. I'm not gonna give up on the neighborhood. I want King Drive to be as magnificent as Downtown Chicago. And so we’re starting these conversations two months earlier, and then two months from now, they're gonna say, “Wow, that's a great festival. How'd you do it?” I didn't cut any corners. I showed up and manifested it.
Deepti: Well, I couldn’t imagine a better way to end, Jahmal. Thank you for continuing to inspire me and teaching all of us what we can do to better support people like you.
You’re invited to a Show and Tell!
Thursday, 10/27, 12:00 - 1:30 PM ET
We’re inviting collaborators and close members of the New_Public community to a Virtual “Show & Tell” to share back and explore together. This will be a relatively small group consisting of a balanced mix of practitioners, funders, researchers, and other New_ Public peers.
Space is limited. If you’ve noticed something exciting in online school communities that you’d like to share or have specific expertise in this space, please RSVP to join us. We will confirm spots and event details via calendar invite and email.
Apply: OpenIdeo launched a new Designing for Digital Thriving challenge asking, “How might we design healthy, inclusive digital spaces that enable individuals and communities to thrive?” The question resonates strongly with all of us at New_ Public. We can’t wait to see what ideas are sourced from this challenge. Applications are open through November 1st! So, you’ve got a week to get your ideas out of your head and upload them onto the OpenIdeo site! For more inspiration, IDEO is also, hosting a series of webinars on related topics. Good luck!
Attend: On November 10th, Responsible Innovation Labs and Startups & Society are hosting the 2nd Annual Responsible Innovation Founders Summit to convene ambitious founders building the next generation of technology companies. The lineup of speakers is a rock-solid collection of thoughtful people working to make a more responsible tech community. The event will be held in NYC, SF, and Virtually. Register here and make sure to 👋🏼 to the New_ Public folks who plan to attend on each coast.
Get inspired: GirlTrek kicked off a new season of their Black History Bootcamp - a first-of-its-kind walking podcast centered on Black stories. If you need an extra push to get out the door. This is it. Grab your earbuds, put on your sneakers, and join co-founders Morgan and Vanessa for an inspiring series of walking meditations, reflecting on stories of Black resilience and resistance to help Black women navigate through these uncertain times.
The Community Corkboard is our place to help build awareness about all the exciting goings-on in the healthy digital spaces community. Do you have an upcoming event or happening you would like us to list on the Corkboard?
Finding myself oddly fascinated by the history of trick-or-treating,
New_ Public is a partnership between the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas, Austin, and the National Conference on Citizenship, and was incubated by New America.