Review: Chicago Activist Jahmal Cole’s Origin Story and Impact Chronicled in A Tiny Ripple of Hope

“Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

A piece of that Robert Kennedy quote is the title of Jason Polevoi’s bittersweet documentary about Chicago activist Jahmal Cole. A Tiny Ripple of Hope is Cole’s 90-minute origin story, a raw and intimate look at his life and work on the city’s south and west sides throughout 2018.

Jahmal Cole, CEO and founder of My Block, My Hood, My City. Photo Credit: Colin Boyle/My Block, My Hood, My City

A primary purpose of Cole’s My Block, My Hood, My City organization, a “mom and pop nonprofit,” is the Explorers program, which exposes at-risk teens to new experiences, other neighborhoods and fresh perspectives. “We are trying to challenge pre-conceived notions, widen perspectives, interrupt trauma and create new opportunities, and we believe exposure is the first step,” says Cole. The film explains this awakening process both for his constituents and himself, alongside interviews with fans of his work, including other community leaders, local journalists, Che “Rhymefest” Smith, and The Chi showrunner Lena Waithe, who says “Jahmal represents Chicago in a real way.” 

The doc is stylish and funky despite the often dark material, like how Chicago remains a deeply segregated city. To open many citywide speaking engagements, Cole talks about being unable to sleep most nights because helicopters, sometimes three at time, hover over his neighborhood every night like dragonflies, “rattling the windows and lighting up the ground to reflect every bullet casing.” He rails against the desensitization to violence and decay, as residents are now numb to walking by empty lots piled high with trash, and buying lunch through thick inches of bulletproof glass. Why, he asks, in Black areas, are there 15 currency exchanges but no banks, so nobody can save anything, literally and figuratively? Cole questions why we have to live this way in this Midwestern version of A Tale of Two Cities

“Something’s wrong with our community’s nervous system,” Cole says. 

He pushes against the “hooligan, heartless, soulless teen stereotype,” and proves instead the hard work ethic of his neighbors. Cole consistently recruits hundreds of volunteers from around the city every season to help seniors to mow their lawns in the summer and shovel their snow in the winter, as well as other service initiatives. Interviewees remark on how Cole addresses the segregation that breeds lack of familiarity, which perpetuates a vicious cycle. One observes that it’s not only jail incarceration that steals lives and potentials, but also by asking “how do you make your way out of the prison that is your neighborhood?” Another summarizes the wretched choices for many living in the Black neighborhoods of Chicago’s 77 communities: the cycle of poverty, jail, or the grave. 

While documenting a bus trip taking teens to visit the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, Cole recalls being “reborn” on a Greyhound. He took a trip to visit his dad in Texas, but ended up being homeless for six months, saying “that trip was the last time I was a kid.” As a Chicago adult, he was able to purchase a place in Chatham, the historic epicenter of African-American entrepreneurship and home ownership. But, due to redlining and other racist lending practices, his house faced foreclosure since he puts so much of his time, energy and personal resources into his activism, rather than his personal life. 

That schism is explored in the film. He pays some of his Explorers phone bills because they can’t, but misses his own mortgage note. Cole has close relationships with local schools, like Collins Academy High School, and helps those students get into colleges, often with full-ride scholarships. But the CPS schools in that area struggle since funding is partially based on property tax revenues. As his profile increases (he’s filmed receiving the Chicago Defender Men of Excellence Award), he muses on how to keep that casual, personal touch while also trying to attract professional funding sources. 

“This work is not quick,” says an interviewee. Another observes that when you put your whole life into helping others, health issues arise, including mental, physical and financial. Cole also experienced gunfire during a drive-by shooting. Yet he keeps going, as this vital film notes. This documentary is a love letter to Chicago and to the folks who work tirelessly to make this more inclusive, kind and informed (shout out to historian Shermann “Dilla” Thomas and his Black Belt tours too).

A Tiny Ripple of Hope is available to buy or rent on Amazon PrimeApple and iTunes,  Google PlayYouTube, Vudu and XBOX. To learn about Jahmal Cole’s run for the IL-01 Congressional district, visit his campaign website. To support his community work, buy some MBMHMC merch

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Karin McKie

Karin McKie is a Chicago freelance writer, cultural factotum and activism concierge. She jams econo.

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