Jahmal Cole knows what it means to be hungry.
As a child, Cole experienced firsthand the despair of food insecurity and homelessness while growing up in Waukegan, Ill. and Kenosha, Wisc. He felt the pain and shame of having nothing, Cole recalled. Long bus rides to visit his father in Texas opened his eyes to other locales and possibilities untold.
“Looking out that window on the Greyhound bus is the reason I have a program,” Cole said. “I was the only person on my block, the only person in my family, to go to college. Because I took those trips as a kid, I knew the sun would shine when I woke up.”
Now 36, Cole is executive director of My Block, My Hood, My City, a Chicago nonprofit that takes teenagers on explorations beyond their neighborhoods to expand their horizons and build hope.
Cole credits a college basketball coach for teaching him to take responsibility for his own actions. He imparted that same lesson to more than 150 teens at the Greater Chicago Food Depository for the first Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service, a collaboration between Cole’s nonprofit and the Food Depository.
Earlier in the day, Cole discussed in an interview about how his childhood experiences shaped his life today. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q. What was your childhood like?
A. Waukegan is no different from growing up in Chatham or South Shore. The zip code’s different, but you still have the same under-resourced school, the same divested community, the same high incarceration rate and high unemployment rate – the perfect conditions for violence. It’s not only poverty of finance, but poverty of imagination and deficit of hope.
I grew up, I spent a lot of time homeless. I just remember a lot of blight and a lot of hopelessness.
Q. Did you live with both parents growing up?
A. No, my dad was in and out of the house the whole time I was growing up. Every other month, he’d move in and move out. Every time, my dad would break up with my mom, he would move to Texas, where he’s from. Then my mom would ship me down there for a couple months on a Greyhound bus. Those trips out of Waukegan – seeing greater Illinois, Memphis, St. Louis, Arkansas, the different scenes, the different foods, the different accents – that was my first experience with traveling.
Q. How old were you when you experienced homelessness?
A. I turned 12 when I was homeless, so between 11 and 12. Me and my father lived in a U-Haul truck in Texas. My mom told me to go stay with him. And when I first got down there, he told me that life isn’t going to be sugarcoated. He told me to be optimistic. We slept on porches. He would wipe the spiders off of me at night. We used to break in houses and sleep in bath tubs. We used to sleep in the back of movie theaters. We went to movies and stayed all day.
I spent my high school Thanksgivings at the shelter in Kenosha. I remember being embarrassed because my high school classmates were serving food at the shelter. My dad would say, don’t be embarrassed, hold your head up and go get that food. They used to serve really good food at the shelter. The first time I ever saw porcelain plates was at the shelter. They had actual silver cutlery. … The food was great. I went back for seconds.
Then I went to alternative high school in Kenosha (Reuther Central High School) and it changed my life. The classrooms were smaller. They kind of knew what you were going through. And they allowed me to use my creativity, which helped me learn.
Q. How important were food stamps to you and your family when you were growing up?
A. I never knew food stamps weren’t real money until I put one in a pop machine. … I never saw money, ever. At the book fairs, I never got a book. The taffy apples, I never got none of that. We depended on food stamps. My mom could make them stretch, too. I grew up eating black eyed peas, neck bones, syrup sandwiches. We needed those food stamps, we really did.
Q. The Food Depository and My Block, My Hood, My City both address poverty in their work, but from different angles. Where do you think we intersect?
A. It’s the same thing, man. When there’s Church’s chicken, Brown’s chicken, KFC, Shark’s – and there’s not a grocery store in the community. That’s not regular, man. We don’t know what’s in that food.
You guys are not only serving shelters, but you’re also trying to eliminate the line outside of that shelter. Why does that even exist? You guys are doing powerful work.
Q. We know black and Latino communities on Chicago’s South and West Sides are disproportionately affected by food insecurity. What gives you hope that will change someday?
A. When you want to be an activist growing up, you think it’s about giving speeches and being like King. But he was hated when he was living, you know what I mean? I think it’s a faith walk. That’s the only way I can do it, as a faith walk. … And if you do what you love, you just seem to organically build relationships with people that help you. So that helps me, knowing that I have a great team and knowing that they believe in my vision as well.
Q. What do you personally take from Dr. King’s teachings that you apply to your own approach in life?
A. I like how he was innovative in challenging the status quo. I think if he was alive today, he would use Facebook. Can you imagine him going Facebook Live from the Pettus Bridge? A lot of leaders don’t know how to use technology, but ideas can change the world and technology can help you push those ideas.