On Wednesday, the Oscar-winning actor, artist and activist teamed up with some of Chicago’s youth to give back to their community — and his hometown. The rapper, 47, partnered with Burlington stores to help launch the retailer’s 13th annual coat drive.
“As I talk to you right now it’s 24 degrees in Chicago, and it feels even colder and there are people out there who don’t have coats,” the musician exclusively tells PEOPLE. “In Burlington, along with other products they have, they were initially known for coats so that’s why the coat drive is the mission. Because you don’t think about it because we, you and I, have coats but there are people that literally don’t.”
The Burlington Coat Drive, which runs until January 20, 2020, allows individuals to donate their gently used coats in stores, at any location, to help keep their neighbors warm throughout the winter. Those who donate are given a 10 percent discount on their entire purchase that’s valid throughout the duration of the drive. More than 2.2 million coats have been donated through the program, which distributes coats to local individuals in need.
“With the coat drive and the Common Ground Foundation, you know one of the main reasons I’m a part of it is to highlight this coat drive,” Common says. “At any Burlington store, you can do it, and someone in that community of the store that you donated in will get a coat. And today, we were able to see it in fruition with a family.”
The Grammy-winner detailed a touching encounter that he had with a family who came to the drive in need of help.
“There was a woman who had a family of five and none of her kids had coats. It was basically a gesture of doing this for the holiday season and beyond and really wanting to give back,” he says. “So that’s how I became a part of it, and the Common Ground Foundation, you know obviously my heart is in that.”
Another man, whose coat zipper had broken, approached the musician in need of a warm jacket.
“A gentleman came up to me at the store and was like, ‘Man, do y’all have anymore coats because my zipper doesn’t work?’” the “Hercules” rapper recalls. “His coat didn’t zip up, and I don’t know, he didn’t seem like he was able to afford what was needed to just be able to have a coat that works. So, I think these are things that we just don’t think about.”
Through his Common Ground Foundation, the “GO!” artist encourages Chicago teenagers to set goals for their high school and college education by providing enrichment support throughout their matriculation. “Social impact is part of their curriculum so it’s just another way for them to give back and another way for them to be a part of that,” he says of the students’ philanthropic work.
In turn, he’s gained inspiration from watching the generous teenagers.
“I’m inspired by what the kids are bringing to the foundation and what they’re receiving from it,” he says. “We definitely have a curriculum for them that’s educating them and helping them, developing and mentoring them when it comes to academics, but it goes beyond that. It’s like creative things, health, wellness and also like I said, the social impact.”
He hopes to provide the young teens with the opportunity to broaden their horizons internationally.
“Traveling internationally is something I think will definitely benefit them. Just what they’ve been delivering has been wonderful, like the progress you see with them, the commitment they have and the openness to being a part of the foundation and doing things and trying new things is incredible.”
On writing the album and memoir, Common says he felt liberated. He says he didn’t judge himself along his writing process, and he didn’t worry about what others would think.
“The memoir was really a journey for me because initially I knew I wanted to talk about love, but I wanted to go deeper into it and not just come up with this stuff that’s just like ‘Ok,’ you know romantic love,” the “Come Close” rapper says. “I knew I wanted to talk about the dimensions of love from a spiritual level, from like how to live in love and make it a practice.”
“As I was writing and going through it, I had my own journey and I was going deeper within myself and learning things about myself and being more open about things about me, and I think that’s what I really received from writing the book and that was where the journey went to. I felt like liberated in a way to deal with certain things and take things on, like issues that I was dealing with,” he adds.
For Common, the best thing about his latest work has been hearing from readers and listeners who felt motivated to push through some of their own issues after engaging with his art. “To be honest, that’s one of the most fulfilling things,” he says.
Next up the star hopes to break into theater in 2020. That along with “happiness” are his goals for the new year.