Before she started working with My Block, My Hood, My City, Ashanti Marshall says that although she lived in Chicago, she and many teenagers like her hadn’t really seen much of the city. Marshall, who is currently a sophomore at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, started working with the Chicago-based nonprofit four years ago and now knows the 77 neighborhoods much better. from the city.—including his own, North Lawndale.
My Block, My Hood, My City aims to provide educational programs and field trips to disadvantaged youth communities in Chicago (which, by the way, was just named the second best city in the world according to readers of Time Out ). It was founded in 2013 by Jahmal Cole after spending time volunteering at the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center.
According to Ernesto Gonzalez, the association’s marketing director, while working in Cook County, Cole heard young people talk about their blocks and neighborhoods, but never about the city as a whole. From there, Cole started an after-school program and the organization grew from there. “We are one of the fastest growing nonprofits in town,“ González said.
It is a very local work, but with a strong objective
For the past five years, My Block has organized youth-led community marches in neighborhoods like Marshall’s hometown of North Lawndale. She is one of many young people who lead community walks in their own Chicago neighborhoods, giving historical context and sharing what makes their blocks special.
“I really like sharing my neighborhood with other people because that’s not what people might think,” Marshall says. “Every neighborhood has its ups and downs, but it’s up to someone to be the change they want to see in their community.”
One of the main purposes of community walks is to show another side of neighborhoods that may be perceived as unsafe or unwelcoming. But the participants are not the only ones to see their perception modified by the experience. My Block also introduces community residents to outdoor opportunities they may not be aware of.
“Some people may think selling drugs is the only way to make money,” Marshall says. “My Block introduces you to people who are lawyers, doctors, entrepreneurs and people who can connect you with other people. The opportunities I have been given at My Block have made me the person I am now.”
One of Marshall’s favorite aspects of working at My Block is that it opens his eyes and the other participants to different future opportunities that they may not have known were available to them.
“For other students, they haven’t had the opportunity to experience outside of their blocks and outside of their hoods,” Marshall says. “I feel like there’s so much more to Chicago that people don’t know. There’s so much more to Chicago than we realize or other people realize.”
And walking tours aren’t all My Block offers. The organization also offers benefits such as trips to Michigan’s Mackinac Island and visits to the Superbowl.
Some of the nonprofit’s work came to a halt when the Covid-19 pandemic hit in early 2020. Describing the period as “devastating”, Marshall says she felt her time with the organization had been “cut short”. But although My Block cannot meet for in-person activities and events, it has always remained extremely active.
There’s so much more to Chicago than we or other people realize
“The pandemic hit and we were already working with the elderly and the most vulnerable,” Gonzalez says. “We just made the transition. Instead of registering them with services for the elderly, we were delivering PPE and food to them because they couldn’t leave their homes. It was an easy pivot for us.”
Gonzalez says one of the reasons My Block is so effective is because its job is so simple.—and local. When there is a snowstorm, they mobilize community members to shovel the driveways. During heat waves, they deliver water to seniors. They even hang up the lights during the holiday season.
“It’s very local work, but with a strong purpose,” Gonzalez said. “A lot of times Chicago has the worst reputation, and I think people watching think nobody’s doing anything. We’re doing a lot. It’s not just us, it’s other nonprofits, schools, churches – everyone comes together to support our communities and our youth.
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